On Half-Built Assemblages: Waiting for a Data Center in Prineville, Oregon

  • Jenna Burrell University of California - Berkeley
Keywords: data centers, assemblages, Facebook, temporality, materiality


In 2010 the mega-corporation Facebook finalized an agreement to build a massive data center in Prineville, a small town in central Oregon previously known for logging, cattle ranching, and as the headquarters of the Les Schwab tire company. This was a largely unanticipated event that local leaders nonetheless prepared for several decades before when they designated a rural economic zone on the outskirts of town. However, the enterprise zone sat mostly unused, an empty and dusty piece of high desert land dotted with sagebrush and juniper trees. I describe the preparatory efforts that laid the groundwork for the data center as effecting a “half-built assemblage.” Through such anticipatory reconfigurations, local leaders recognized the limits of regional government to overcome the challenges of their peripherality. In the controversy surrounding such data center deals, critics have often cast rural leaders as naive or as pandering to voters. However, I argue that the alliance with Facebook was one of the few courses of action available to local leaders that had any chance of realizing regional economic development goals. In seeking to understand the data center deal from a local perspective, I contribute an alternative notion of temporality to materialist theorizing by looking across much longer durations of time in relation to the political economy, the natural world, and other elements as a way to temper exaggerations of anthropocentric agency and the narrow attribution of blame.

Author Biography

Jenna Burrell, University of California - Berkeley

Jenna Burrell is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. She is the co-director of the Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group. Her first book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana (The MIT Press) came out in May 2012. She is currently working on a second book about rural communities that host critical Internet infrastructure such as fiber optic cables and data centers. She completed her PhD in Sociology at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on how marginalized communities adapt digital technologies to meet their needs and to pursue their goals and ideals.


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20 Jun 2020
Research Articles