The Deafening Sound of the Internet

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 5 2014 11:23 AM

The Deafening Sound of the Internet

servers
The whirring never stops.

Photo from Arjuna Kodisinghe/Shutterstock.

You may associate the sound of the Internet with the sound of a computer fan or the extinct song of dial-up. But the real sound of the information super highway is the whir of hard discs and fans spinning inside servers and creating a powerful white noise.

Lily Hay Newman Lily Hay Newman

Lily Hay Newman is a staff writer and the lead blogger for Future Tense.

It seems like it might be a soothing din, but workers report that it's a problem. On Spiceworks' IT messaging boards, one commenter writes, "I've worked in a few data centers and they are LOUD and COLD!" A commenter on a similar Quora thread writes, "Think of the sound from the fan on your computer. Multiply that by 20 times or more. Think what thousands of those all going at once would sound like." And another one adds that if you’re considering working at one, "You'll need a pair of good active noise canceling headphones."

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But the noise in a data center is fascinating to British sound artist Matt Parker. He recently went to a data center at Birmingham City University to gather audio samples of the server noise there. He talked about the digital art he makes out of the recordings with Cities and Memory and explained:

The idea is to highlight the physical nature of ‘cloud computing’ and to remind people that whilst their phones might be sat silently in their pockets, somewhere out there, a huge hive of hard drives and fans is spinning around frantically; managing our digital identities.

It may have some artistic merit, but the noise also contributes to problems for workers, according to a 2007 article in Computerworld. The piece points out that decibel levels are rarely measured in data centers and presents interviews with multiple data center workers who say that the noise makes it hard to concentrate on the job. And a February report from TechRepublic outlines similar concerns, including fear of data center workers developing tinnitus because of prolonged exposure to server noise.

Data centers may make noise that's beautiful for art and information transmission, but there's a dark side to that unassuming whir.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.