Welcome To Dataland: An Anthropologist Visits The Bunker

Posted by Alex Taylor

A.R.E Taylor, a PhD student of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, shares some of his field notes from the research he conducted at The Bunker. 

It begins with a long line of 5am commuters standing on the edge of the train station platform, each one staring existentially down at the tracks. Nothing can hide you from your thoughts this early in the morning. The commuters stand yawning in their polyester suits and pencil skirts. Most of them are wearing backpacks and resemble baby turtles just born from their sleep upon the shore of this station. Tired and bewildered they stand, until the train arrives like the sea and they clumsily and competitively shuffle aboard beneath their North Face and Karrimor carapaces.

An unseasoned commuter and nonviolent by nature, I fail to win a seat. Instead, I stand as the commuters proceed to unpack hundreds of electronic devices from various cases, sleeves and covers. In a matter of seconds, silence falls upon Coach B like a kind of snow and faces are bathed in the divine radiance of tablet light. Everyone is on their smartphone, laptop or iPad. Only occasionally do they look up and even then, it’s only in a passing, irritated glance. I feel like the only one on the train, except for the almost sentient rectangles of light flitting about like something from The Martian Chronicles.

As powerful as our digital devices are, today their main task is primarily to act as portals to data centres. The TV shows, music and social media with which we busy ourselves on our morning commute are all delivered directly from data centres. Yet we know very little about these buildings that support the systems and services that we use daily. That’s why I’m on this train: I’m on my way to visit a data centre called The Bunker.

Data Centres as Anthropological Field-sites

Built in an ex-Ministry of Defence nuclear bunker, The Bunker is a 130,000-square foot, ultra-secure data centre located 100 feet beneath the Kent countryside. I’m going to The Bunker because I’m conducting anthropological fieldwork on security practices in the data centre industry. Traditionally, anthropologists would travel to a faraway land and live among a group of people to learn as much about their culture and ways of life as possible. Today, however, we conduct fieldwork with people and places in our own culture just as much as those from others. By treating data centres as objects of anthropological inquiry we can learn a lot about how we make sense of the world today – a process in which data and IT are increasingly central.

I’m especially interested in the extreme lengths being taken to secure, protect and preserve data. ‘Bunkering’ data underground – in the same way seed banks store vital biological material – is becoming an increasingly common practice and The Bunker was one of the first data centres to do this, acquiring the freeholds to the MoD facility in the mid 1990s. As this facility was originally built to withstand a near hit by a hydrogen bomb, this may just be one of the best protected data centres in the world. It’s therefore an ideal field-site for my ethnographic research.


The first thing you notice about The Bunker is the 3.5-metre-high chain-link fence that surrounds the extensive perimeter of the place, topped off with evil coils of barbed wire. ‘CAUTION: Police Training Area Guard Dogs’ signs are attached to the fence. The main entrance complex is complete with guardhouse, heavy steel gates, vehicle traps and drop arm barriers, while guards patrol the fortified compound in the distance. I speak into the intercom and show my ID through a security window. They check my details and the gate buzzes open. I’m invited to sit in the waiting room until I’ve been cleared by security. The waiting room walls are a teal green colour. On the windowsill, there is a glass display cabinet showcasing a 3ft cylinder of concrete. The caption reads: ‘Diamond-drilled core showing the construction and depth of concrete between the upper and lower floors of The Bunker.’ An A4-sized sign in a Perspex holder on a small table to my left says: ‘No food or drink to be consumed in the datacentre.’ I make a note in my notebook: Data centres are becoming datacentres.

Before long Al, The Bunker’s Head of Physical Security comes along to escort me down into the data centre. I leave my bag in the reception storage area and we begin our descent. While from the outside the bunker looks like monolithic military architecture, seen from within, it could be taken for a future planetary world. The internal mise-en-scène looks like a cross between the Millennium Falcon and the post-industrial interiors of Eraserhead. It’s an enormous, underground world of windowless space. The subterranean server rooms are beautiful, glittering cathedrals of data. Inside them, server lights flash and flicker like tiny, caged flowers. The sonic environment of the server rooms is dominated by the whirring of fans and HVAC systems. Looking at the list of server-leasing solutions The Bunker offers is like reading a steakhouse ribs menu: clients can rent server racks as a full rack, a half rack or a quarter rack.

Mounted above the server cabinets is what looks like a large digital alarm clock, but with the numbers moving violently fast. It’s a Network Time Server and is accurate to one thousandth of a second (one millisecond). ‘100 times more accurate than a stopwatch’, Al tells me. There is something existentially terrifying about this clock. Standing there you almost feel the seconds being stripped away from your life. For a moment I wonder what seeing time disappear like this every day must do to a person.

A Lasagne of Security

‘We operate a three-layered approach to physical security’, Al tells me as we make our way through the server hall. ‘Everything within a 2km radius outside the perimeter fence is classed as Tier 3. Everything inside the perimeter is classed as Tier 2 and then these core areas inside the facility are Tier 1.’ I found the idea of layers conceptually compelling. I had in fact begun experiencing the first layer of The Bunker’s security the minute I boarded the train this morning: geography. The compound is located just east of Canterbury, safely outside of the high-risk London zones. The inside of the data bunker itself is comprised of multiple lasagne-like layers of security:

Picture a vast underground cavern 100 metres beneath the surface of the earth. Imagine covering the interior in 100,000 litres of concrete until its bedrock walls are uniform and featureless. Then, while the concrete’s still wet, stick some huge 17inch-thick steel side panels to the walls and ceilings. Follow this with another layer of concrete and a final layer of hermetically-sealed metal panelling and you will have the layered foundations for something like an ultra-secure data bunker lasagne.

Both cutting edge and traditional security technologies operate side-by-side down here in layers of strategic adjacency. You have the 3-metre reinforced walls and unscalable fences that have been a security staple since at least the Middle Ages juxtaposed with Faraday caging (which was first invented in 1836) to protect against Electromagnetic Pulses (EMPs) and Tempest RFI intrusion. On top of this sits a layer of digital security technologies such as 24-hour CCTV cameras, pass-code access doors and full-height electronic turnstile ‘roto-gates’. Back-up diesel generators mean the compound has long-term off-the-grid functionality. The internal space of The Bunker is a labyrinthine network of walkways and staircases, so unless you regularly work here, you will never remember your way out. This maze-like, Daedalusian organisation of space could be considered a security feature that comes straight out of ancient Greek mythology. The Bunker is basically 2000 years of security practices distributed over 3 floors. The only thing missing is a moat.

Securing Data-based Society

The renowned anthropologist, Sir Edmund Leach, once said that the task of social anthropology ‘is to understand and explain what goes on in society’. As data stored in data centres becomes increasingly critical to the functioning of everyday life, we might also say that it is important that we try to understand and explain not only ‘what goes on in society’ but what keeps societies on. Cloud computing resources and cloud storage are integral to the ‘Always-On’ economy, which is defined by constant access to real-time data, uninterruptible services and continuous connectivity. Yet, while the metaphorical conceit of ‘the cloud’ evokes images of ethereality and immateriality, for those working in the data centres that power and enable cloud computing, the cloud is tangible, physical and fragile.

Analysing the spatial, material and embodied practices of data security from within the cloud, my research explores how the defensive bunkering of data – and the extensive security measures in place at data centres like The Bunker – can be seen to provide a valuable window not only onto the perceived importance of data to our society, but also onto the hopes, fears and futures that fuel the data worlds behind our screens. Many of these security practices anticipate failure and reflect a growing predisposition towards defensive living. How do the security concerns of the data centre industry intersect with our conceptualisation of the cloud? What kind of digital future do these architectural forms envisage? How might an ethnographic study of data protection practices and processes expand our conception of what security (and insecurity) entail? These are some of the questions my research will address. Of course, anthropological fieldwork is collaborative in nature and dependent upon the cooperation, generosity and openness of those with whom the research is conducted and with this in mind, I would like to sincerely thank The Bunker team for the time and effort they dedicated to assisting my research.