With this post, I want to bring a color to the blog, show how I experience my daily life as a researcher in Vietnam, and how I follow material infrastructures. It’s going on in bits and pieces, and some is a patchwork. Last not least, this is also a means of sharing links and snapshots.

Bits & Trees of Data Centres

What does it actually mean to trace and traverse the infrastructure and production networks of a very specific building? That in itself is a difficult question, and in our research project in Bochum we are playing out this problem on a data center on top of that.

Estrid and I recently published a first article on this in the sustainability-oriented Bits & Bäume issue, see for the full book here and in this post.

When it comes to on-the-ground arrangements, it’s often very concrete. We see flashing servers, smoking heads, convivial interlocutors, but also cables hidden on the minus sixth floor in a tunnel. My role in this research is less direct though, as leads are quickly lost. Where does the path lead if we take the computers and materials seriously, if semiconductors and atoms guide the way?

From Anatomy to patches?

With the Anatomy of AI project, researchers have impressively shown how an incredible number of connections are attached to such a small device as an Amazon Speaker. There are also lives hanging on it, due to the precarious working conditions, from the dark mine to the orange laser to the gray-dusty assembly area.

Check out the Anatomy of AI project of Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, it’s a magnificient beauty: anatomyof.ai/img/ai-an…

Moving on.

Computer chips are, at their core, plates of sand with carvings that are only a few atoms in size. They make data centres what they are, high-performances clusters in particular, which is what our “building” is also aiming for. Innovations on an ultra-small scale have led to large-scale shifts in the last century. And this is currently happening again, according to my research. The chip industry has its centers, much is concentrated in China and non-China aka Taiwan. But thanks to Corona, the US-China trade war and other political-economic reasons, things are currently changing. It’s a hot topic.

Thinking SEA

Countries like Vietnam are leaving their mark on the world map of IT production networks.

I am in contact with the first stakeholders, but I have to take it slowly. Growth via IT is welcome in Vietnam. Questions rather less. There is a lot at stake. A lot is in the news. I say little.

And so for the first weeks and months in the so-called Far East, in the Asia-Pacific, I am concerned with understanding moods and pleasant tones. Of many impressions. In the process, the first patches and speculations come together.

As the above links show, something like a new high-tech industry is growing in Vietnam. There are massive tech parks, even here in my immediate vicinity in Hanoi. I have not arrived there yet. FPT Software manufactures Make in Vietnam chips | Science and technology (diendandoanhnghiep.vn)

Energy driving

Energy drives me, not only as a topic of my habilitation. What happens if I’m in an elevator and the power goes out? As of June 2023, this is a real danger; we are plagued by “planned blackouts,” the planning for which unfortunately escapes us and our neighbors. Renewable energies are to be advanced in a new program, after a long period of standstill, but only more coal can provide for more stability in the short and medium term.

To cite the Vietnam Weekly newsletter:

Hydro and coal account for nearly 95% of northern Vietnam’s energy supply (split almost evenly), but the former is running at 24% of capacity and the latter is at 76.6%. Vietnam Weekly: Power Outages Hammer the North

I also have coal in mind mind on a daily basis, travelling across the city. With masks, as most people do.

Mind how the so-called street ninja tackle this (and sexism) in Vietnam: e.vnexpress.net/projects/…

How do such energy considerations permeate the data center industry? It thinks in terms of efficiency, in terms of the logic of increases, and this is how it interprets the sustainability debate, just like many politicians. For me, it will be a matter of looking more at the inconspicuous costs, that which is needed materially for production.