Published on January 13th, 2019
A blog post by GMTaC Director Lisa Parks.
In late December 2018, I visited the site of a bitcoin data center in the small town of Bonner, Montana, twelve miles east of Missoula, where I grew up. Installed by a group called Project Spokane in April 2017 this facility, now operated by Canadian company HyperBlock, Inc., has provoked concern and controversy among community members for over a year because of the loud noises the data center emits.
Project Spokane’s owners selected the Bonner site as home to the new data center because of the site’s energy efficiency and low construction costs. Montana has cool temperatures for about six months of the year, and the company was able to negotiate a contract for low cost electricity with Energy Keepers, Inc., a hydropower entity owned by the Salish and Kootenai Confederated Tribes. Rather than build a new facility, Project Spokane rapidly repurposed a massive 240,000 square foot space in Bonner, which was once a lumber planing room, and turned it into a bitcoin processing center that now hosts 13,000 servers and 400 powerful fans to keep them cool.
Such servers mine bitcoins by solving complex mathematical problems, and, in doing so, are also integrating old Montana lumber or mining towns such as Bonner, Butte, or Anaconda – where other data center construction is being planned – into the digital economy. According to a promotional video released by Hyperblock, Inc., which has a musical soundtrack that might be described as “bitcoin country,” there is room to expand this facility, which means the Bonner site may become even noisier.1 Reports indicate that by 2019 the facility will host 55,000 servers. Some are describing this cryptocurrency data center growth as the West’s “second gold rush.”2 3
When I arrived at the Bonner site, I parked across the street from the data center, stood along a lane of about twenty small houses, and listened to the whir of computing vibrate the stillness of fresh snow. Surveillance cameras and a guard station at the entrance gate marked the site as off limits to curious visitors (see photo). I stood across the street and recorded this video several months after the fan blades inside the data center were changed as part of a noise abatement effort (see video). As trucks and cars slowly passed by, their swooshes mixed with the dull reverberations of the data center, and reminded me that residents of this working class town have long experienced a complex layering of industrial and transportation noises. The interstate highway, railroad, and Blackfoot river run right through it. And Stimpson Lumber still owns and operates part of this yard, emitting its own share of noise. Almost daily, shrieking saws and pulp mill machines work though a steady flow of long-haul trucks packed with ponderosa pine. And the noise doesn’t stop there.
During the past decade, Bonner and neighboring Milltown – which sit at the junction of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers – became the site of a major Superfund cleanup.4 The screeching sounds of heavy machinery and railroad cars maneuvering to carry away toxic debris bounced off surrounding mountains, turning the area into a massive echo chamber. Finally, at a nearby firing range gun owners unload rounds and rounds of semi-automatic handgun and rifle fire daily, punctuating the everyday acoustics east of Missoula. Given these conditions, those who live on the lane across from the data center have been accustomed to noise for some time.
This is why when community members in Bonner began to complain about the disruptive sounds and impacts of the bitcoin data center after its activation, Missoula county commissioners and Montana state officials took notice. One resident of the area described the sound as “a brain drilling jet engine coming through the roof.”5 Another indicated, “The noise is bad. Some people are going to have to move. Our property values are going down.”6 And yet another pointed out, “Hummingbirds are gone. Our dogs can’t stand to stay outside very long. I haven’t seen any bees.”7 When I saw an elderly couple enter their home that snowy morning, I approached them and asked if the data center noise has gotten any better lately. The man shrugged and kept walking, and the woman turned to me and quipped, “Well, either it has gotten a little better or we’ve just gotten used to it!”
My brief visit to the site generated a series of research questions that I hope to investigate further. What does the transition from a lumber-based industrial economy to a bitcoin-based post-industrial economy look like, sound like, and feel like up close, especially for those who live there? How many local people are employed by Hyperblock, Inc. or have a vested interest in this data center and its operation? What are the company’s overall ambitions and how does this facility contribute to them? Do locals understand what this facility is, who owns it, and how it functions? And with regard to future generations, are children in the Bonner School directly across the street from the data center being educated in a way that will support their entrance into a digital economy or a lumber economy?
Having grown up in Montana, I am interested in the ways that rural communities, whether in the US or other parts of the world, are positioned in relation to emerging digital infrastructures, and I continue to investigate the complex political, economic, cultural, and environmental transformations that take shape around them.
1 Kim Briggeman, “Bonner Bitcoin Mining Riding out Cratering Market,” The Missoulian, December 16, 2018, https://missoulian.com/news/local/bonner-bitcoin-mining-riding-out-cratering-market/article_bd285a25-a979-52da-bf67-95188e1072b4.html.
2 Erika Berglund et al., “The New Gold Rush: A Digital Currency with Alarming Impacts,” The Missoulian, December 16, 2018, https://missoulian.com/opinion/columnists/the-new-gold-rush-a-digital-currency-with-alarming-impacts/article_4968705c-e560-5385-b40e-eae86e1358f9.html.
3 Charlie Warzel, “The Mountain West Is Experiencing A Second Gold Rush. This Time They’re Mining Bitcoin.,” BuzzFeed News, March 11, 2018, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/charliewarzel/the-mountain-west-is-experiencing-a-second-gold-rush-this.
4 David Brooks, Restoring the Shining Waters: Superfund Success at Milltown, Montana (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015).
5 Kim Briggeman, “A Palatable Hum: Fan Changeout Gets Thumbs-up from Bonner Residents,” The Missoulian, August 22, 2018, https://missoulian.com/news/local/a-palatable-hum-fan-changeout-gets-thumbs-up-from-bonner/article_888e57a6-92c3-5bf6-b384-216c1d1067cf.html.
6 Samantha Chang, “‘We Don’t Understand It’: Montana County Delays Bitcoin Mining Ban,” CCN, June 15, 2018, https://www.ccn.com/montana-county-delays-bitcoin-mining-ban-admits-we-dont-understand-it/.
7 Kim Briggeman, “Birds, Bees and Bitcoin Source of Discussion in Bonner,” The Missoulian, February 5, 2018, https://missoulian.com/news/local/birds-bees-and-bitcoin-source-of-discussion-in-bonner/article_681967c1-b2f4-58a2-983c-263d47acab64.html.