The data center gang


Writing, as fate would have it, in the first wholly disembodied edition of Newsweek, Tom Wolfe ponders the disembodiment of property, from factory to trading floor to data center:

In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that stocks and bonds are “evaporated property.” Everybody thought of that as such a witty aphorism, but Schumpeter meant it as a lament. “Substituting a mere parcel of shares for the walls and the machines in a factory,” he said, “takes the life out of the idea of property.” The new owners, i.e., the stockholders, lose the entrepreneur’s, the founder’s, will “to fight, economically, physically, politically, for, ‘his’ factory and his control over it and to die if necessary on its steps.” Instead, at the first whiff of a problem the shareholders bail out and sell their share of the ownership to whoever will buy it on the stock market… and couldn’t care less who it is.

That was how stocks and bonds evaporated property. What the quants had in mind was a quantum leap (so to speak) forward to the next stage: evaporating the stocks and bonds… not the property—that was long gone—but the very stocks and bonds themselves and making some real real money.

By 2000, the game was over.

Onward! Onward! Faster! Faster! At a thousand, two thousand, three thousand banking operations, investment funds, and exchanges, quants kept adding computers and servers and servers and computers row above row above row on floor-to-ceiling racks that stretched on infinitely like the stacks of the biggest library in the world… wrapped in miles of white fiber-optic cables that interconnected the machines… But these stacks were by no means quiet as a library’s. There were aisles between the stacks so that someone, presumably someone from IT, could get to any machine, every cable connection, if he had to. But any human being who entered, even an IT guy or a quant, was engulfed, oppressed, unnerved, spooked out by an overwhelming droning sound and an X-ray-blue fluorescent light that made your skin look posthumous. The droning seemed to create a pressure upon your skull. Sometimes the drone would rise slightly, then lower… and rise… and lower. It made you think this enormous robo-monster was breathing… If you were knowledgeable enough even to be allowed to enter one of these huge server rooms, you knew that most of the droning came from air-conditioning units high as a wall… that ran constantly to keep this concentration of machines from auto-melting because of their own ungodly heat. In some gigantic facilities they let the heat rise into plenums and piped it from there to heat the entire building. You could know all that, but the robo-monster would ride your head so hard, you would turn anthropomorphic in spite of your superior brain… The robo-monster—it’s breathing… it’s starting to move… it’s got me by the head… it’s thinking with its CPU (Central Processing Unit) mind, thinking in algorithms, sequences of programmed decisions along the lines of “If A261, then G1432, and therefore B5556 or QQ42—” spotting discrepancies, making buy-sell decisions, even deceptive looks-like-a-buy feints to trick competing robo-brains into making foolish calculations. The monster’s human… No, he’s not human… No human brain could possibly think or act as fast, as accurately, as cunningly as a robo-brain.

Photo from Wycombe Museum.

10 thoughts on “The data center gang

  1. Deborah

    ” and an X-ray-blue fluorescent light that made your skin look posthumous.

    My God, what a phrase.

    I don’t really know this writer. I think I have homework.

  2. Deborah

    When I went to Amazon to look him up, I felt like a idgit.

    I recognized a couple of those titles… but still, haven’t read his work.

    But I DO recognize the craft of words when I see it. Lucky for me, I just moved back to my home town, and have procured my very own, bar coded, plastic, new age, library card. Though I remember borrowing books there when the librarian eyed my size and age and decided she would write my name on the card herself. Her name was Millie Sethman, and I can still see her large loopy handwriting to this day.

    You seem to know Mr. Wolfe’s work, where would you suggest I begin?

  3. Jim DuPre

    If you want to be really ancient you could start with “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, and “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers” is a also a picture of a distant age. But “The Bonfire of the Vanities” is one of the best.

  4. Graham Strong

    @Deborah – I would also recommend “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”, which is a collection of his articles written when he was just developing this “New Journalism” style of writing. In it, he interviews people like Muhammad Ali and Phil Spector, and looks at the roots of NASCAR. Even if none of those subjects interests you, Wolfe writes it in such a way that you do.

    BTW, the title of this article harkens back to another one of his articles in the 60’s, “The Pump House Gang”, which is also the name of another collection of articles published after “Streamline Baby”.


  5. Deborah


    He sure seems to have a penchant for quirky titles eh?

    I’m making a library list.


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