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Alexander Taylor (2014)

Alexander Taylor (2014)

Research Title: Future-proofing the Digital World: Data Centre Security and the Threats of Electromagnetic Pulse and Space Weather

Supervisor: Dr Christos Lynteris


Biography:

My research is located at the intersection of social and digital anthropology, science and technology studies, media archaeology and security studies. My PhD investigated the work that goes into ensuring the uninterrupted continuity of the digital services that now underpin industrialised societies. Focusing on the material, spatial and temporal dimensions of data storage and security, this study drew from fieldwork that was predominantly conducted in nuclear bunkers that have been repurposed as ‘future-proof’ data centres for cloud computing companies. You can see some photos here. It was my argument that the emic concept of future-proofing - and the anticipatory security practices that this framework brings together - are poorly captured by existing discussions of security temporalities and theories of futures within anthropology. Exploring future-proofing in practice, this study traced increasing efforts among data centre professionals to protect critical computing infrastructure from low probability but high-impact electromagnetic threats (primarily space weather events and nuclear and non-nuclear electromagnetic pulses). My PhD thus followed data centre practitioners, security engineers and disaster recovery technicians, among many other groups of actors, as they work to shield digital data from threatening electromagnetic fields. To explore this ‘field-work’, I developed a mixed methods approach, combining for the first time ethnography with a media-archaeological exploration of data storage technologies. Introducing this new methodology and opening previously uncharted arenas of ethnographic enquiry in the form of the data centre industry and, more abstractly, the electromagnetic spectrum, my doctoral research advanced anthropological work on preparedness, futures, cosmology and human-technology relations. In doing so, this study widened understandings of data security while shedding much-needed light on current practices of critical infrastructure protection in a little known but now vitally important industry.

Building on this work, during my doctorate I led a six-month research project as a Future Cities Fellow with the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge. This project explored how urban environments might be redesigned to better secure digital data that is sent wirelessly through the waves of the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g. mobile, WiFi, Bluetooth, contactless, RFID, NFC, ZigBee). More information about this project, including my poster, can be found here. Whilst completing my PhD I also provided policy advice on the environmental and social impact of cloud computing and conducted research for the United Nations’ 2015 report on ICTs to the Human Rights Council.

More recently, I have undertaken fieldwork with technology scientists who are developing a new digital storage medium that is able to survive for long durations and in extreme (primarily post-apocalyptic and extra-terrestrial) environments. This research investigates how – and to what ends – data storage and digital cultural heritage are being imaginatively connected to dystopian and science fictional futures. As part of this, I am collaborating with the Uncertain Archives project at the University of Copenhagen.

I am a co-founder of the Black Sky Resilience Group. This is a cross-disciplinary research network that brings academics together with industry leaders and policymakers to explore critical infrastructure protection in relation to emerging global catastrophic risks and the prospective collapse of digital-industrial society. I also co-run the Social Studies of Outer Space Network and I’m an editorial assistant for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology, where you can read more about my research in the data centre industry. Before joining the Department of Anthropology at Cambridge, I studied at the University of St Andrews, where I graduated in 2013 with the Richard Dyer Prize.

Subject groups/Research projects

Black Sky Resilience Group:

Research Interests

My research interests include: critical infrastructure protection, the anthropology of the future, technology and modernity, media cultures, the ethical and political implications of cloud storage for ethnographic practice, techno-apocalyptic narratives, the future of warfare, the anthropology of outer space, digital heritage preservation, pre-digital nostalgia and existential risk.

Key Publications

Taylor, A.R.E. 2019. The Data Centre as Technological Wilderness. Culture Machine. Vol. 18: The Nature of Data Centres, May.

Taylor, A.R.E. 2018. Future Cities: Incorporating ‘Spectrum Security’ into the Fabric of Modern Urban Design. Optima Magazine, August, pp. 8-9.

 Taylor, A.R.E. 2018. Cloud Security for Anthropologists. Anthro{dendum}. 19 June.

 Taylor, A.R.E 2018. Failover Architectures: The Infrastructural Excess of the Data Centre Industry. Failed Architecture. 19 May.

 Taylor, A.R.E. 2018. Google and Facebook won’t rule the world if we don’t buy their fantasies about Big Data. The Conversation. 3 May.

 Taylor, A.R.E. 2017. A Beginner’s Guide to Cloudbusting. Data Centre Dynamics. 10 November.

Taylor, A.R.E. 2017. The Technoaesthetics of Data Centre ‘White Space’. Imaginations: Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies. Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 42-54.