The Silicon Prairie

Matthew Darmour Paul / Studio Otero, Dalkir & Pestellini (London, 2019)

With over 3 billion people online today, the total energy footprint of the information and communication technology ecosystem is on par with that of air travel. According to research done by Greenpeace, a single Google search, perhaps the one that led you to this project,  can use anywhere from 0.4 – 7.0 grams of carbon, or the equivalent of driving a car 52 feet. Just having a Gmail account open for one year consumes 1200 kilograms of carbon. A single email without attachments can use four grams of carbon, knowledge which might make us think twice about all of the meaningless subscriptions filling our inboxes.

In early 20th century Britain, getting ‘on-the-line’ became a popular term to describe settlements connected to the material goods guaranteed by a railroad. Connection was quite literally referred to as the manifestation of lines materialised first on paper, in the telegraph wires, the railroad tracks of an expanded territory and later the light speed travel of fiber optic cables. Settler industrialists, corporations, individuals and groups who had access to these powerful networks came to be associated with the economic benefits of a progressive, technological society. Today, the term ‘online’ is reserved for individuals who are ‘active’ or ready-at-hand to participate in digital communication, omitting what was historically considered a social continuum of material flows.

The ascension of online infrastructure could not be clearer than in the American Midwest. In order to feed the growing capitalist centers of Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis, on-line settlements were established by railroad speculators in the 19th century to expand the railnet and penetrate new markets, at irreparable cost to non-commercial forms of life and indigenous world making projects. The patterning of these developments have come to be known as ‘tracks and elevators urbanism’ as railroad companies frequently commissioned grain elevators as the first buildings from which the towns organised themselves. In states like North Dakota, town plats were experimentally drawn in symmetrical, orthogonal, center and square layouts before finally stabilising into t-town organisations, separated every 10 miles or as far as a farmer could reasonably carry grain in a day’s journey. An architecture of supply populated these stolen hinterlands, as plantation logics and the associated ruins of disease, oppression, and built obsolescence moved northward.

The capillary networks that moved early twentieth century commodities established the routes of data circulation, transfer and power supply seen today. Municipal and corporate actors splay reams of fiber cables, centralised and edge data centers, colocation hubs, transfer stations, ‘fiberhoods’, 5G small cells, cell towers, power stations, wind farms and solar panel fields, big box stores, underground and open pit mines, wifi routers and charging points across the extractive networks of yesterday. An observer would be forgiven for not knowing the difference between a data center and a Walmart, an industrial feedlot and a Bass Pro Shop. The large, anonymous buildings that inhabit the Midwestern plains, keeping a large part of the country online, expand and expand even as they recede from popular consciousness.

In response, The Silicon Prairie presents a strategy of ‘data permaculture’ that visualises a post-agricultural landscape through the transformation of key farming typologies to low-tech data infrastructure. The project includes a package of practices that work toward: the decommissioning of productivist agriculture, the increased interconnection of humans and other than humans on the plains, the elevation of indigenous knowledge and sovereignty, and (low-tech) digital/tallgrass prairie futures.

Project Credits: Matthew Darmour Paul, Studio ADS8: Data Matter: “Digital Networks, Data Centres & Posthuman Institutions”, Tutors: Kamil Hilmi Dalkir, Marina Otero Verzier & Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Royal College of Art.

Circular irrigation pumps are repurposed as location sensors and bison scratching posts, or Bi-fi Posts, providing bison with a place to shed their coats without damaging the trees of shelterbelts.

Circular irrigation pumps are repurposed as location sensors and bison scratching posts, or Bi-fi Posts, providing bison with a place to shed their coats without damaging the trees of shelterbelts. (May 2019)
On Earth, something is always burning. Combining patch burning and grazing to grow a remnant prairie ecology introduces healthy soils and an immense carbon sink. (May 2019)
The Silicon Prairie is a site specific strategy of ‘data permaculture’ that visualises a post-agricultural midwest through the transformation of key typologies and technologies in the landscape of farming to data infrastructure. (May 2019)
A new data strategy combines low tech, asynchronous communication strategies to serve the Midwest: a delay tolerant network that takes advantage of existing infrastructural networks – trains and grain silos, trucks and depots – to move data via sneakernets and data-mules. (May 2019)
The Silicon Prairie is bounded by ecological conflicts that make themselves known at multiple scales. The Mississippi river watershed collects toxic runoff, resulting in an enormous deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico. The Ogallala Aquifer, which sustains agricultural production in the Wheat Belt, is nearly depleted. Less than %1 of pre-European prairie ecology remains. (May 2019)
This equation accounts for various factors of digital transfer to determine whether or not a sneakernet – named after the movement of data via someone in sneakers – is faster than up and downloading speeds, especially in rural areas where digital connectivity is low. (May 2019)