A/D/O by MINI | Mapping the Internet

Journal

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Mapping the Internet

Most of us know very little about how the internet works, so attempts to map its physical infrastructure and visualize its global presence have created varying results.

Where does the internet exist? Picturing a location can feel abstract. Where the internet is physically and how it functions is disconnected from the user experience. Cables running deep below streets, satellite discs at the tops of buildings, giant warehouses of data storage being cooled by fans – the physical infrastructure which supports the internet and the energy that goes into powering the sites we frequent is often invisible or physically obscured. Uncharted, being online can seem boundless. The Cloud operates like an infinite and magical resource, while in reality there are very physical constraints that determine our experience and that have material consequences. Complex, messy and sometimes even unapproachable, internet maps try to make sense of it all and untangle the critical connections. 

Striving to demystify the global telecommunications infrastructure, maps such as the Global Internet Map created by TeleGeography (main image) have charted where the physical infrastructure that supports the internet lives. One of the map’s cartographers, Markus Krisetya, explained how rather than depict the internet as schematics or cartograms, their maps are grounded in recognizable physical geography, mapping submarine cables and terrestrial networks as an intercontinental structure. TeleGeography’s maps reveal the complex internet landscape of the “electronic terrain,” what they call “new geography.”

With Networks of New York, Ingrid Burrington aims to demystify urban internet infrastructure.

What is immediately clear is the scale. In these maps, the disparities between different countries' internet infrastructure are suddenly obvious. The largest and busiest arteries pass through the United States and Europe, while those supporting traffic from the entire African continent are small and infrequent. These visuals tell a story of access and ownership. As access to the internet becomes aligned with access to education and jobs, these maps show unequal pathways to opportunity. TeleGeography’s archive of Global Internet Maps, starting in 2012, shows this certain yet unequal growth. 

Included alongside the TeleGeography maps are data points about stakeholders, usership, and access. One fact that stands out is that while China has the most internet users, the United States hosts the majority of servers. The servers hold an ever-ballooning body of data that is in turn transferred to users. Requiring intensive cooling systems and energy to operate, the carbon footprint of the centers and each cumulative stream or search has real consequences. Forbes noted that as the music video for “Despacito” reached 5 billion views, the energy equivalent to powering 40,000 homes was used. When streaming feels so seamless and the servers are much more discreet that traditional industry, it is difficult to fathom the material impact.

Burrington's book includes guides to symbols and signifiers of internet infrastructure.

“People need to understand the systems they’re participating in to make demands of them, to challenge them, and to change them,” said Ingrid Burrington, whose book Networks of New York and the accompanying website Seeing Networks advocates a stronger understanding of the urban internet infrastructure. She catalogued manhole covers, street markings, and antennas to decipher the networks of infrastructure in plain sight and to make those symbols legible to others. Through revealing the meaning of these urban markers, Burrington gives readers the tools to understand the ownership, surveillance, and location of an obscured and critical resource.  

Burrington described a “public alienation from technical literacy” in which the inner workings of the internet become a “secret sacred knowledge for ‘technical’ people,” rather than something understood and therefore checked by the broader public. “When more and more of how people live and work is shaped by the internet, making its inner workings this class of esoteric knowledge effectively becomes a form of disenfranchisement,” Burrington said, emphasizing the real risk that comes in not understanding the system. A system that is dominated by only a few providers.

Lucia Cozzi's internet map aims to communicate its tangled complexity.

Unlike the major cable companies who control the majority of urban internet infrastructure, groups like NYC Mesh are emerging to create alternative networks. Through connecting directly to the internet backbone, their system of nodes bypasses the expensive and privatized networks most New Yorkers use. They are providing a more affordable internet connection, as well as a map of how the mesh is connected. In an industry that is becoming increasingly convoluted, this transparency is radical.

Product designer Lucia Cozzi, who hosted a workshop with NYC Mesh a few weeks ago, talked about the risk of thinking of the internet as a cloud floating above us and called for a grounding in the physical structures which contain it. “I’m interested in making the internet tangible so we can begin to transform it,” she said. Using maps as a means to “approximate constantly changing unknowns and possibilities,” Cozzi sketches the internet as a means of contending with how the physical and emotional components of the internet come into contact. In her maps, access can describe a physical constraint or a social one. She communicates the tangled complexity of the internet sphere. This map would probably look different for everyone who drew it.

For the Internet Mapping Project, Kevin Kelly asked people to visualize the internet as a place.

A few years ago, Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly conducted The Internet Mapping Project, for which he asked a variety of individuals to map the internet. He had noticed people speaking about the internet as a “place,” and was interested in understanding what that place looked like. At first the drawings showed emotional and imagined characteristics of a “place,” but overtime – as people started using smartphones – he saw the drawings shift to become more technical diagrams of links between cables and servers. He hypothesized that when the internet is always on and there isn’t the sense of logging on or off, there is less of a journey to somewhere.

Over the course of Kelly’s conversation with The Journal, it seemed like it would be worth posing the project again in slightly different terms. The prompt now is to “Draw the online world.” Perhaps through undertaking this exercise, one might uncover some of their own biases, relationships, and blind spots.

Kelly received a wide variety of maps, ranging from simple diagrams to elaborate sketches.

Melanie Hoff, a teacher at The School for Poetic Computation, led a similar workshop at Pioneer Works, asking people to sketch what they thought Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa looked like. These types of activities are a bridge between our perception of the internet and how the internet functions. Through mapping, users might uncover what they think should be changed or protected and become more engaged in the development of this infrastructure.

For some the internet operates much like a city. There are locations where people gather, money is exchanged, work is created, connections are made; there are popular gathering spots, and defunct corners; and there are real material infrastructures. This “city” is very much still taking form and everyone has a stake in its development. Issues such as privacy, Net Neutrality, surveillance systems, 5G, access points, coverage, and data are still being negotiated and even understood. The question is maybe less about what the internet looks like now, but what do we want it to look like in the future?

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.

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