Sweaty Zuckerberg and Cool Computing
By Mél Hogan
In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg was on stage at D8: All Things Digital conference being asked about Facebook’s privacy policies. The topic proved difficult for him as the company CEO – he quickly broke out into a terrible sweat. That image is the focus of this essay: a drenched Zuckerberg under the media spotlight, espousing the benefits of an open world connected by cool computing.
In the video recording of the event, Zuckerberg is sweating nervously and rambling at length in attempt to answer questions about Facebook’s privacy policies. Noticing Zuckerberg’s dripping face, the event hosts (Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher) invite him to remove his hoodie so that he can cool off and be more comfortable. He resists, awkwardly insisting that his hoodie is a kind of sacred company uniform that can’t be removed.
“I never take off my hoodie.”
But a few seconds later, Zuckerberg wipes his brow with his sleeve, as though to confirm only to himself that he is indeed sweating profusely. At this point, Zuckerberg is in a kind of trance; he is no longer capable of listening to the Mossberg and Swisher questions. He seems entirely and self-consciously focused on the state of his own body, betraying him. He then reconsiders the offer to take off his hoodie, but does so tentatively (one can only imagine) to simultaneously check the state of his custom t-shirt underneath. It seems dry, no visible sweat stains – perhaps it’s made of sporty wicking fibres. In his face we witness the mental calculations being made, and just like a robot spit out the obvious:
“Maybe I should take off the hoodie.”
As he removes the hoodie, Swisher notices something branded on the inside. Zuckerberg opens up the hoodie to reveal an insignia, what Zuckerberg called ‘the unofficial Facebook company mission statement’: “making the world open and connected”. It’s lost on nobody that this mission statement about openness is intentionally hidden from view, or that Zuckerberg is trying to hide his discomfort inside that hoodie. In fact, hoodies are wearable hiding places by design. Starting out in the 1930s as a clothing item for utility workers and athletes who needed the warmth it provided, the hood was soon adopted and adapted as an ideal item of clothing to conceal one’s identity, to avoid the unwanted gaze of a judgmental society and of surveillance. Stylistically, the hoodie belongs to hip-hop artists, skaters, thieves, activists, and hackers. So it’s cringingly ironic that Facebook’s CEO, on stage discussing privacy and his vision of an “open world”, admits to feeling vulnerable without his company hoodie. Zuckerberg is not big on self-reflexivity.
As he finally removes his ‘illuminati’ hoodie (to everyone’s relief), Zuckerberg explains the screen printed mission statement and a strange arrangement of arrows marked as GRAPH, STREAM, and PLATFORM, in all caps. These are Facebook’s three pillars for innovation. Circled by a dark blue ring (the entire insignia is in shades of hyperlink blue ), the labels seems to suggest that some user content is allowed out, but most remains contained within Facebook, somehow. Or, that Facebook retains control of the flows, somehow. The various arrows associated with each label speak to level of access and direction of data, but not in any definitive way. Just somehow. Nothing is made explicit other than the demand of a blind trust, as users, of Facebook’s judgement. No doubt the insignia is usually kept private, for insider discussions, but also left open to some interpretation in case it be exposed. “What are you in, some kind of cult?” Swisher asks, holding the wet hoodie.
June 2010: bids on eBay for Zuckerberg’s sweat-drenched hoodie start at 4,500 USD.
The video of that event continues to circulate online and to serve as fodder for debates about Facebook’s ability to manage its content, from the moderation of fake news to ‘faceprint’ to its colonial imaginaries of global connectivity. However, the sweaty moment in question offers more to cultural critics when analysed for its affect and viscerality, by drawing our attention to the meanings that speak from the heat generated by a body in distress. A feeling body is an activated body, often betraying itself or serving up the wrong affective signals for how we want to be perceived. Zuckerberg’s ‘meltdown’ indicates a change of state, but also a huge failure to come across as a cool, calm, and collected leader. His sweat is a leak: it releases and publicizes his inner motives against his will.
Heat has long been associated with big emotions and especially with passion (hot and heavy, hot and bothered) and anger (hot headed, hot tempered, hot under the collar) and is usually further gendered and racialized (she’s hot/cold, spicy, he’s flaming). Rationality and reason, on the other hand, are coded as cool, neutral and unmarked. This is a false binary that Facebook attempts to straddle instead of debunking, as a platform. In the last few years alone it has facilitated the distribution of fake news, swayed an election, and allowed researchers to toy with its users’ emotions. But Facebook wants little to do with the problems it generates. And so Zuckerberg prefers to sweat it out, to dodge questions, and come up with a platform politics that is disembodied and imbued with a rationale that shifts with the stock market.
In this particular scene at the D8 Conference, Zuckerberg is trying not to be, not to feel, not to be confronted with what is happening. It’s almost as though he’s searching for the rewind or delete button in real-time. Or, to wake up in a holographic platform where life can be re-performed–with text, images, videos, and emojis–but without his body getting in the way, without his body being so out of control. As a person, he’s not open. He’s not connecting. Who is the person behind those eyes? Where has he gone? On stage, he really seems to be programmed to answer only certain questions, and like Otonaroid and Kodomoroid, or Erica, he flails when the questions go into a realm for which the nuances aren’t well understood. He drags us into the uncanny valley.
To Zuckerberg, to Facebook, the mission of openness and connectivity is singularly about networked data. Binary bits meeting in cyberspace. No body has to do this work.
In contrast to Zuckerberg as a person, the Facebook empire is built on cold storage and cool computing. This contrast can serve as an entry point into the discussion of media heat – from bodies to servers. The conditions for our virtual digital counterparts are contained, deprived of light, rely on recycled air and water for cooling, and operate on logics of aggregation, recursiveness, and redundancy. Data centers, which contain all of Facebook’s data, are always already a controlled and ordered environment. The servers are setup with great symmetry and organised in neat stacks and rows. The temperature should not vary. There can be no leaks because water can damage hardware. Electricity must be constant. Bits must flow consistently. Is this ‘mission critical’ mindset the contained and predictable manifestation of Zuckerberg’s ideal self? A psychoanalyst might think so. As would a few Media Studies scholars focused on internet materialities, elemental media, and critical infrastructure.
Marshall McLuhan (1977) might, for instance, have asked “what temperature is Zuckerberg, as a medium?” While McLuhan’s idea of hot and cool media wouldn’t be registering actual temperatures, it would allow us to place the event in different media imaginaries. Nicole Starosielski (2014) might further urge us to view the matter (of the matter) of global communication as relational, moving “across and through infrastructure, ecologies, and bodies”. In that sense, Zuckerberg would just be an extension of the infrastructure, another conductor of light. Jussi Parikka (2015) would likely invite us to consider the geology of media – minerals and energy – and the conditions and temporalities that make Zuckerberg’s empire possible today. Rena Bivens (2015) would take us under the hood to scrutinize tensions within the software, the frictions and sparks that maintain and reinforce the heteronormativity of the Facebook empire. Racist and sexist biases, misinformation, and profiling are also imbricated in the Facebook apparatus, as pointed out by Safiya U. Noble (2017), which anchor the threat of Facebook’s global expansion and colonial prowess even deeper. Together they warn of the ways in which potential and risk are always in tension within our new media infrastructures: massive processing power is at its core, but managing the heat it generates is also its biggest threat.
“Making the world open.”
Facebook is the third-busiest site on the internet after Google and YouTube, according to Alexa. To store all its content (because it’s Facebook’s data, not yours), Facebook has grown from one dorm room server to many massive scale data centers scattered across the globe. Facebook opened its first data center in 2012 in Prineville (US). It was about the size of a football field. It has since built many more expansive data centers in Forest City (US), Luleå (Sweden), Altoona (US), Fort Worth, (US), Clonee (Ireland) and Los Lunas (US). It also leases server space in other places, like Singapore. It relies on hundreds of thousands of servers to operate the network. It alone is a billion dollar industry.
Not unlike Zuckerberg’s own meltdown, catastrophic failures in data centers are generally caused by electrical problems and water leaks. Leaks can stem from refrigeration equipment, steam, sprinklers, water pipes, heating and cooling plants, drains or floods. In data centers, the servers, storage arrays and networking gear require a lot of electricity, all of which generate tremendous amounts of heat. The data center is constantly generating heat and cooling itself, built to control air flows so as to have the perfect temperature for its equipment and hardware. As much as Facebook is known as an online social medium, it is also and foremost a societal apparatus that connects people by way of materiality, locationality and electricity. This is why the industry had looked north (Ireland, Sweden, etc.) for naturally cool climates and stable power grids. There, as in some places in small town America, it can harness the built in environment, save on taxes, and claim to rejuvenate local economies.
“Making the world connected.”
Facebook data centers are not accessible to the public. A user cannot visit the server on which their data is stored. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting a few hundred meters from the Facebook data center in Luleå, Sweden. Out of curiosity, I’ve biked by it slowly, and taken photos. But I found myself incredibly nervous doing so. I’m not comforted by the fact that I’ve never joined Facebook either; my face is surely on record in their database anyway. There is something about the presence of the data center, its massive size but also the tall fencing and security that surrounds it that confirms for me that this isn’t what it appears to be. Facebook became popular as a social media site in and around 2004, but is now living up to its name by scanning and storing its users’ facial features in a application it calls “Moments”. That name makes it all seem banal, temporary, fleeting – but in actuality, the app mines your account for faces. It doesn’t care about your memories, your past, or your community – these are all just means to generate a giant surveillance apparatus in the cloud and to normalize its effects. So is your face yours? Not really. Not anymore. Like a fingerprint, your face is the aggregation of data points, markers that detail a particular identity. These markers are the real you, and your body is the mere carrier of that data. The body, after all, is most often a messy, sleepy, heartbroken, sweaty, sick, aging, and unreliable, node – but also an endless source of data towards a highly controllable algorithmic persona. And while you’re alive, Facebook can sell you things, or sell you down the river.
But more so than robots-like CEOs that run tech empires or biometric data telling us who we *really* are, it’s the fact that, what started off in 2002 as Facemash, a dorm room game of comparing and rating women based on their "hotness", has been complicity and collectively built into Facebook, in 2017 a global surveillance empire. That makes me sweat.