Hacking the NAP: Spectography as Counter-fiction Machine


DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.202021 | Issue 5 |October 2020

Jeffrey Kruth. Assistant Professor of Architecture, Miami University

Dr. Allison Schifani. Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Miami


ABSTRACT

Downtown Miami is home to the Network Access Point (NAP) of the Americas. Operated by the multinational Equinix, informational traffic and computational power hums away through fiber optic cables and within server cages, linking the city to the rest of the world from this windowless facility. The NAP is highly secured with X-ray machines, intrusion detectors, and digital firewalls. Satellites on the roof are obscured by domes to prevent those outside the facility from gauging their directionality. We argue that the NAP facility is, both in its architecture as well as the discourse Equinix produces about it, a fiction machine. It performs a narrative of security, of placelessness, and of isolation. In order to work against neoliberal logics of disavowal and displacement embodied by the NAP, we propose a design methodology we call spectography. Spectography is affirmative speculation on the informational and material environment, and counter to the paranoid aesthetics exemplified by the NAP. Operating with similar logics (speculation, digitality, network technology), spectography does so against the grain of securitization. Working spectographically means employing design methods that reach toward the city as informational space and ongoing material project, speculating not on potential threat, but on situatedness and latent connection.


Research Statement

Downtown Miami is home to the Network Access Point (NAP) of the Americas, operated by the multinational Equinix. In a windowless facility in the heart of the city, informational traffic and computational power hums away through fiber optic cables and within server cages, literally linking the city to the rest of the hemisphere, and the world. The facility is highly secured with X-ray machines, intrusion detectors, sniffer dogs, as well as internet firewalls. Access to its third floor is restricted to US citizens with government clearance. Even the satellites on the roof are obscured by large domes to prevent those outside the facility from gauging their directionality. The NAP facility is, both in its architecture and design as well as the discourse Equinix produces about it, a fiction machine. It performs a narrative of security, of placelessness, and of isolation. We propose the construction of another fiction machine to work against Equinix’s neoliberal logics of disavowal and displacement, its smooth aesthetics.


Fig. 1 The existing NAP facility north of downtown Miami

Architect Keller Easterling’s work is useful here because the NAP is at once infrastructure space and non-place. Easterling writes of the so-called “3DPD–meaning ‘three-dimensional pig disgusting’ [...] used to indicate that the 2D world is superior to the 3D world.” Digital space is said to be smooth, opposed to the ‘lumpy’ and messy material world. The NAP embodies the logic of smoothness that Easterling articulates. And too, provides a material example of her discussion of infrastructure space as urban software: repeatable and informational.

The NAP, according to Equinix, can “accelerate and amplify internal value creation for your business.” It offers “dynamic connections to 6,775+ companies and 1,420+ networks on site.” But of course when someone wants to ‘view’ a center on their promotional site, they are only offered a link to a Google map, never to an image of the structure itself. That the architecture of the site so visibly refuses its surrounding is only a redoubling of the logic of smoothless articulated in promotional materials: it is turned away from the 3DPD, very messy city. It is architecture meant to erase its situatedness. Its performance of security is also a performance of a kind of spatial disgust for the world that surrounds it.

The network technologies and infrastructures that the NAP both sells and employs bolster its refusals of the lumpy, embodied city. Its work, both in discourse and design, also erases the material histories of its own urban context. Alan Liu has also observed:

Basically, a network is something that subtracts the need to be conscious of the geography, physicality, temporality, and underlying history of the links between nodes. After all, that’s why we have packet switching, statelessness, TTL (time-to-live on packets), domain-name servers, and, in fact, the Internet in toto: so that we are route-independent. Increasingly, the world appears to us to be adequately represented in a social network graph in which nothing meaningful–not distance, direction, or impedance (and certainly not how many historical dead bodies lie alongside a cable) – can be read in the thin lines between nodes.

Tung Hui-Hu, who notes that all network infrastructure is necessarily speculative in that it is built to forestall all future failure, to reroute around disaster, would certainly classify the NAP as among those manifestations of the “paranoid’s architecture of internal security and external threat.”


Part of the performance of the NAP’s turn against the city is, too, the abstraction of human context. Its generic facade with rhythmic spacing of alternating ventilation ports and false windows suggests that the human-scale, and thus the social-scale, can be reduced to a gestural aesthetics. In the age of informational capital, the NAP is a materialization of exactly such an abstraction.

There is, however, an opportunity, unwillingly offered by Equnix’s NAP. It is that its position as both router for international informational traffic and secure computational powerhouse is entirely dependent upon material linkages to the very city that surrounds it, the same city against which it turns its back. Its direct attachment to the undersea fiber optic cables (which Nicole Starowsielski notes are very much “territorially entrenched”) and other informational infrastructure are what make it so valuable an access point to begin with.


In response to the fiction machine of the NAP we propose another fiction machine. Our fiction machine, in the form of a speculative redesign of the structure, reimagines the site as vulnerable, transparent, and as reaching toward rather than away from the city. In the series of speculative drawings presented here, the site and its context between local geography and global network overlap, connect, and disconnect. The goal is to leverage our common risks for the construction of an urban informational commons, one in which we might both claim and exercise our right to the city.


Fig. 2 The design process for a reimagined NAP facility.

In order to counter the fiction machine produced by the NAP’s paranoid aesthetics, our project instead offers an alternative method for creating and re-mixing the building’s image. Eschewing orthographic projection in favor of a thickened context, we propose a speculation not on perpetual deferral of a breach, but on the possibilities afforded by breach, by openness to the surrounding urban context. The much more common measured drawings typical of architectural specs, and the descriptive geometry they deploy, have a predictive quality which imbues them with an authority about the real. Our intent is here to slough off that authority, remaking the NAP as an invitation to its surroundings, and highlighting its mutability in the city.


Master planning of cities primarily takes place through a top-down approach, amplified today through various data-driven processes and orthographic mapping techniques. Henri Lefebvre argues that such representations of urban space abstract the human body and everyday life to actualize that space for exchange or consumption. At the same time, the representation of the city is often abstracted through marketing brochures (such as those presented by Equinix of the NAP facility), Google Streetview and various social media. The city today is less experienced than it is collected, sorted, and re-configured through a massive media apparatus. NAP is a primary agent of that urban transformation and a producer of the city-as-image. The gap between the representation of the city and the technical interventions that have made it is effectively veiled. Typical counter-mapping strategies such as cognitive mapping, as popularized by Kevin Lynch, or psychogeography, as advocated by the Situationists, rely primarily on first-hand experience of the city to foster a new legibility. The hidden technical logics and overlapping jurisdictional boundaries of the processes of urbanization remain hidden and are under-explored as a terrain of intervention.

The goal of our counter-fiction is to foster both legibility of abstract forces, but also offer the city’s image as a pluralism. Marshall McLuhan refers to this as low definition media, where action on the part of the receiver is needed to give meaning to the content. The production of our images include first an abstraction of the site context produced as an image using creative coding and 3D modeling software. The boundaries and pixels of the site are made lumpy and low resolution, suggesting an inbetween-ness, rather than a remoteness or securitized capsularity. The works that are produced are intended to highlight, rather than hide lumpyness, fragmentation, and porosity. We ultimately ask, how can local culture exist within the context of a globally imaged city?


The images show the constituent parts of the city and NAP facility, recontextualizing the building’s inherent otherness. The fragmented pieces of the city are not broken, however, but instead suggest rearrangement and occupation. The media itself consists of traffic cones, domestic security fences, submarine cables, pediments from local churches, murals from community gardens and a local jazz club. They all intermix and adapt based on changing local conditions. Other elements appear transparent and ghostly, in the act of disappearance. Other parts are intentionally pixelated—stories and context impacted by digital loss.


Fig. 3 Spectograph 1. Layers.

The re-imaged NAP Facility is viewed from multiple perspectives at multiple scales. Remixed components of the interior merge and distort with images of the existing local context.


Fig. 4 Spectograph 2. Open Work.

Infrastructural and architectural components of the NAP facility and surrounding community are coded using Grasshopper software to randomly intersect and intermix. The spectrograph attempts to contrast the narrative of black box infrastructure and the smooth flow of data production, suggesting the city as an open work of digital and material elements.


The design process we employ, which we preliminarily call spectography, is a kind of mapping, but unlike the speculative nature of infrastructure as Liu describes it, our speculation is plural, rooted not in enclosure and protection, but in openness: 3D Pig Desirable, perhaps. In this we follow the work of the anonymous collective, an uncertain commons, who have described capitalist speculation as “firmative,” a speculation which “renders latent possibilities as calculable outcomes,” as opposed to alternative “affirmative” forms of speculation, which, instead, aim “to produce futures while refusing the foreclosure of potentialities, to hold on to the spectrum of possibilities while remaining open to multiple futures whose context of actualization can never be fully anticipated.” The spectographs themselves are moments in time, rearrangeable, and open to interpretation. They willfully play with scale, layering, and hybridization of media. As encounter and process, spectography is intended for manipulation and re-mapping by local communities whose own expertise and daily experiences adds to the pluralistic intentions of the project. Information scientists, hobbyist coders, designers, and the everyday residents may all contribute to the remapping of the NAP image. This suggests the process of spectography as a digitally native platform that allows reimagination informed by local conditions.

Spectography as we preliminarily propose it here, is affirmative speculation. It is an essential counter to the fiction machines of securitized informational architecture in part because it operates using similar logics: that is, we employ speculation, digitality, and network technology. But we do so against the grain of paranoid aesthetics. In working with but counter to so-called ‘smooth’ digital worlds, we highlight the false narrative of security and enclosure. To work spectographically is, we propose, to employ design methods and digitality against paranoia and securitization, to employ affirmative speculation against firmative foreclosures of the future.


Footnotes


[1] Thomas Sparrow, “Behind the Scenes of Latin America’s Internet ‘Brain,’” BBC News, January 31, 2013, sec. Technology, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-21178983.

[2] Keller Easterling, “IIRS,” E-Flux, no. 64 (April 2016), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/64/60837/iirs/.

[3] “The Amoderns: Reengaging the Humanities,” Amodern (blog), October 2013, https://amodern.net/article/the-amoderns-reengaging-the-humanities/.

[4] Tung Hui-Hu, “Black Boxes and Green Lights: Media, Infrastructure, and the Future at Any Cost,” English Language Notes 55, no. 1–2 (Fall 2016): 81–88. 85.

[5] Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015) 10.

[6] Henri Lefebvre, “Space and the State,” in State/Space: A Reader, ed. Neil Brenner et al. (Malden: Blackwell, 2003) 84-88.

[7] Marshall McCluhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) 22.

[8] an uncertain commons, Speculate This! (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). e-book.

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