Step Inside The Invisible World That Runs The Internet

A new film takes us behind the scenes in one of the biggest data centers on the planet.

The “cloud” is a cloudy concept: Most of us don’t really know how our smartphones and laptops actually get data. But it’s also less ethereal than the name suggests. There are nearly half a million data centers around the world, filled with servers that suck up more energy than the airline industry. A new film, Internet machine, gives a glimpse into one of the world’s largest data centers in an attempt to make it less mysterious.


“It’s incredible how much of the technical systems that we rely on every day are completely invisible and often seemingly unknowable,” says Timo Arnall, who directed the film. “I think this is a real problem, in that we need to understand technologies at more than just a surface level in order to be able to act on them or critique them.”

Arnall spent two days in a massive data center in Alcalá, Spain, documenting exactly what the infrastructure of the Internet looks and sounds like, from the noisy rooms where servers live to cavernous spaces filled with batteries and generators. Outside the building, tens of thousands of liters of water sit in enormous storage tanks, ready in case of fire. Fiber-optic cables connect the servers to the wider world, so someone somewhere can check email or watch a cat video.

“In experiencing these machines at work, we start to understand that the Internet is not a weightless, immaterial, invisible cloud, and instead to appreciate it as a very distinct physical, architectural, and material system,” Arnall writes in a blog post.

The film, now showing as part of an exhibit called Big Bang Data in Barcelona, is projected on three screens so visitors can walk into the display. “You’re surrounded by the sights and sounds of the machines, and you slowly move through it,” Arnall says. “The slow camera movement was designed so that you could study the spaces almost like a landscape photograph, but the movement means that the spaces feel alive.”

There isn’t any narration, just shot after shot of spaces that most of us might never otherwise see. “The film is designed to provide a space to just study and reflect on the incredible spaces and physical materiality of data centers,” Arnall says. “I didn’t want to literally explain the systems and spaces–it is a more contemplative piece.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.