Hyperdrives, Superscript: Computers is Real


A few months ago, in homage to the last puffs of summertime breeze to caress the Pacific Northwest, I visited the largest computer in the world. Not exactly beach blanket bingo, and I probably could have found a more youthful way to celebrate the dog days of summer, but this monument to computational power, too, is unorthodox. Built on a 30-acre plot of land bordering the Columbia River gorge -- a place, up until now, known solely for its excellent windsurfing -- it kicks back 10 million watts of power yearly and hooks into the largest direct DC current in the world, a backbone of fiber optic cable stretching almost the entire length of the Western seaboard. To say nothing of it, this kind of machinery is quite a novelty in the sleepy ex-mining town of The Dalles, Oregon, the type of place you wouldn't have trouble imagining the Internet not even getting to yet.

However, as I discovered on my nerd holiday, the Internet has gotten to The Dalles -- in a major way, actually, because this computer is no hard drive with delusions of grandeur. Rather, we're talking about a highly secretive collection of servers and who-knows-what that might change the way people all over the country use the Web. Why? Because it was built by Google.

From the outside, the structure that locals lovingly refer to as the 'Googleplex' looks fairly nondescript: boxy and silver-paneled, it appears imposing only because of the generally shrubby beigeness of the surrounding landscape. Surrounded by empty parking lots and slipshod construction trailers, it certainly has a long way to go until it hits its information-processing peak. Still, there is something striking about the mystery of the project; it's so mysterious, in fact, that Google insisted city officials sign a non-disclosure agreement and will not allow the facility to be indicated by any kind of sign. For now, the signs dotting the area all say particularly oblique, Michael Crichton-style things, such as PROJECT 02 SITE.

For all its mystery, however, it has had a hell of an effect. The head reporter at the charming Dalles Chronicle confided in me that the housing market has exploded, the community college is boosting its engineering programs, and -- gasp -- people from California are starting to move to the arid hamlet. On one level: business as usual in terms of real estate. Big money attracts more money. It is interesting, on the other hand, to imagine that the growing worldwide demand for instantaneous information, web-based computing and banal activities like G-chatting have snowballed, causing a physical stir in a place as remote as The Dalles. That the citizens of an isolated region in Central Oregon should have their lives changed by the popularity of a website such as Google is remarkable. We really are becoming more interconnected, in ways most of us might never have anticipated.

Of course, it isn't just some fortuitous social networking that brought this community and the Internet so closely together. Central Oregon's proximity to cheap hydropower and existing fiber-optic cable, not to mention huge parcels of undeveloped land, also has a lot to do with it. The explosion of Web-based computer use that we are now experiencing has a heavy, panting, physical counterpart: an explosion of demand by companies like Google for cheap power to serve their growing computer networks. The Googleplex, dependent as it is on the Columbia River's bountiful energy reserves, serves as a good reminder of how real this is. We so often forget that the Internet, which can be abstract and seemingly formless in its daily use, has a serious physical presence in the world. It takes up real space, not to mention a whole lot of energy, which powers the servers that run our frivolous Google image searches. In suit, rising energy costs will inevitably have an effect on our future Internet use. No one's saying that global climate change is going to melt our email, but then again, that isn't as crazy an idea as you might think.

If nothing else, I brought home from my summer daytrip the understanding that nothing in this breathlessly techno-sleek world of ours is as isolated as it seems. Our computers are not islands. As our web use becomes defined by interconnectivity in a new era of tagging, networking, and navigating, we must try to remember that our physical world is also profoundly affected in much the same way.


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Your should take an excursion to the myspace.com server, which, according to Vanity Fair, is located in some secret building in downtown Los Angeles. It sounds sweaty and gross, just like myspace.com.

claire, i love the tone of this entry. as you might have imagined. your fan, flint