There's scarcely a nook or cranny of our planet that isn't home to some flavour of computerised gizmo. Far from the fragile, built-in-obsolescence of consumer tech, intrepid gadgets are helping humans to do their job, have a good time or just plain survive. Here's our guide to the IT at the edges of the world.
In 1951, Herman Knaust revelled in the nickname 'Mushroom King of Pennsylvania' for his fungus farm, located 67m underground in a former limestone mine called Iron Mountain. But with the Cold War hotting up, Knaust saw the need for a secure place -- with an epic Bond-villian name -- to hide important government and financial data should the worst happen, and so Iron Mountain Atomic Storage was born.
For decades, it housed such treasures as Bill Gates' Corbis photo collection and Elvis Presley's master recordings. Now the world has gone digital, Iron Mountain is home to backup data centres for big business -- storing over 9 petabytes (9 million gigabytes) of data for over 3 million users. Its security rating is just below that of the Pentagon, thanks to 24/7 armed guards, 5-tonne steel gates, an on-site fire brigade and full back-up power for a week.
One hundred years ago, no one had ever visited the South Pole. Now at least 45 people live there all year round, rising to over 200 during the Antarctic summer from November to February. Scientists there rely almost entirely on the 25-year old TDRS-1 satellite for communications. This was launched on the maiden voyage of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1983, survived the failure of its boost motor and was recently upgraded to support an uplink rate of 50Mbps (most of which is used for scientific data).
Despite warnings that the satellite could fail at any time, progress on laying a fibre-optic cable across the entire continent to reach the Station has been slow. Luckily, scientists at the pole say they have "a few paid-up Iridium SIM cards and some HF radios" just in case.
Until the feed goes down, you can see a webcam feed from the South Pole here.
It's in a tropical Higueron tree, there's a cold beer in your hand and you're Twittering about it to your office-bound friends. Does life get any better than this? Costa Rica has made a feature of its eco-friendly resorts, including rainforest lodges running exclusively on solar power, beach cabins made entirely from fallen trees (no logging required) and bars located within living trees. Data junkies shouldn't feel too cut off, either: Costa Rica has the second highest Internet penetration rate in Latin America (damn those well-connected Chileans!).
In the Alps, evidence of global warming is clear: glaciers are retreating, winter snow is disappearing from pistes, and flooding is getting worse. The Swiss Experiment involves monitoring wind, rain, snowfall, earthquakes and temperature at thousands of locations using a network of wireless sensors. The weather stations are either backpacked to the top of mountains, deployed by skiers or even helicoptered in, and return critical climate data in real time. A Web-based 3D visualisation tool allows scientists to analyse data the day it arrives, cross-referencing readings with a dozen other inter-connected experiments.
One of the pinnacles of human achievement runs on a computer with less processing grunt than your mobile phone -- and that was originally designed to operate the McDonnell Douglas F-15 fighter jet. The Shuttle uses IBM 32-bit AP-101S computers with around 1MB of RAM, a chip speed of just over 1MHz and running custom software. With no fragile hard drives on board, all software is loaded from magnetic tape cartridges. There are four identical computers on board, running the same software, at the same time. If any one (or two) of them fails, the remaining systems simply ignore them. There's also a last-ditch fifth computer, running a slightly different backup flight system. The Shuttle ferries people to the International Space Station, which isn't much more advanced, to be honest.
Never heard of Entasopia? Don't feel guilty -- it's one of the most isolated communities in the world, over 100 miles from Nairobi along dirt roads, with no power and certainly no Internet access. Until a few months ago, that is, when engineers from the University of Michigan installed a solar-powered VAST satellite link to give 4,000 people their first taste of online living. According to the local Knowledge Centre's blog, inhabitants of the newest town on the Internet are using their bandwidth to learn browsing basics, send and receive email, read news sites and apply for US visas. Strangely, 'Interrupting Kanye' didn't get a mention at all.
IT is probably the last thing to worry about when building a '10-star' Plexiglass hotel 20m beneath the waves of the Persian Gulf. But if Hydropolis designer Professor Roland Dieterle is serious about attracting Disney to stage a "fully underwater animatronic production" of The Little Mermaid in the hotel's sub-aquatic lobby, he'd better get cracking. At 2.6 square kilometres, the hotel will be 30 per cent larger than Monaco, and will probably attract a similar breed of international money-dripping airheads arguing about where to park their diamond-encrusted jet-skis. When -- or more likely, if -- the £500m hotel ever opens, its multi-megabit connected rooms will cost a bone-dry £3,000 a night.
If humanity does ever make it our nearest neighbour, it'll be partly thanks to the scientists, enthusiasts and wannabe astronauts of the Mars Society. Each winter, crews of six travel to the middle of the desert to live and work in conditions that are close as possible to those on the Red Planet. That means generating their own electricity, living off dehydrated and freeze-dried food -- and not spending all day on Facebook. Communications with Mission Control 'on Earth' (actually, a geophysicist in Hawaii called Brian) are limited to a one-hour email window each evening from the team's dusty laptops -- although at least there isn't the 12-minute time delay there would be in reality.
This small town, 250 miles from Hong Kong, is home to tens of thousands of computers and hundreds of thousands of mobile phones -- but hardly a single data connection to the outside world. That's because Guiyu is a centre for e-waste, a dumping ground where dead or obsolete electronics are dismantled and recycled, often in extremely dangerous conditions. Women and children cook circuit boards to recover trace amounts of gold, burn wires for copper and strip components with acid, exposing themselves to toxic levels of lead, printer toner, carcinogenic hydrocarbons and other chemical pollutants.
The largest ferry service in America is also the fastest -- at least when it comes to data. The diesel-powered ferries plying the waters of the Puget Sound around Seattle have had high-speed Wi-Fi since 2008, allowing commuters and tourists to upload snaps of killer whales and nuclear submarines. The connected system also uses contactless RFID payment cards, high-tech self-service kiosks in its cafés and uses (some) eco-friendly biodiesel to drive its 28 ferries.