The Virgin and the Data Center

A reader passed along a link to a story in Motherboard about one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers (ranked 25th to be exact), which just happens to be housed in a deconsecrated church in Barcelona. Torre Girona Chapel is now part of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and it is home to the supercomputer known as MareNostrum 4. The site has been named the most beautiful data center in the world, which is an actual award handed out by Data Center Dynamics.

Here is one view of the exterior:


And here is one view of the inside:


As my correspondent put it, “the commentary writes itself.”

It’s tempting to see in the repurposed church an allegory of sorts, science and technology vanquishing faith and religion. It may be closer to the truth, however, to see instead something more akin to a displacement: science and technology assume the place of faith and religion. And, in this case, we might put the matter more pointedly, data and computing power assuming the functions and roles once ascribed to the deity—source of all knowledge and arbiter of truth, for example. Ian Bogost’s 2015 essay, “The Cathedral of Computation,” comes to mind as do the dreams of immortality embodied in certain strands of transhumanism, strands which amount to what I like to think of as (post-)Christian fan fiction.

Relatedly, we might also see an apt illustration for the often forgotten entanglement of religion and technology in the western world, a story told well by the late David Noble in his classic work, The Religion of Technology.

“Modern technology and modern faith,” Noble argued, “are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.”

“This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense,” he continued, “to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”

I have some reservations about certain details in Noble’s work, but the general thesis is sound so far as I can judge.

Finally, of course, I was reminded of the well-known passage from Henry Adams, who, in the third person, recounts his impressions of the dynamos assembled in the Palace of Electricity at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring — scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breath further for respect of power — while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy, the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

One should note, though, that data centers tend to be a bit louder than the dynamos Adams describes, although apparently some think it makes for good white noise.

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3 thoughts on “The Virgin and the Data Center

  1. My 18 year old daughter has just returned from a 3 week trip to Italy visiting churches and convents. Her photos are beautiful and she came back spiritually much enriched. She traveled with only her mother as companion. No chirpy cheerful chatty tour guide to ruin her times of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

    I showed her the pictures of the Torre Girona Chapel and she was visibly moved, horrified, actually. She said it was enough to make her want to swear off computers for the rest of her life.

    In a way, a consecrated space can never be deconsecrated. As Wendell Berry suggests, it can ony be desecrated. “There are no unsacred spaces; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

    1. Thanks for the comment and the line from Berry, which I’d forgotten. Henry Adams, as you may already know, wrote a book on his travels through France titled Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, which might be of interest to your daughter.

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