As the dubstep soundtrack spins up, white points metastasize at recognizable locations of major cities on a globe. From these points spawn colored lines, advancing in parallel across oceans, to other points on opposite continents. The globe spins underneath the low-earth-orbit vantage point of the animation, and the earth is encircled in a web of digital colors, each representing the path of an undersea cable carrying fiber optic line, and with it, all the data of the world’s global networking infrastructure.
This is what the internet looks like.
Or is it?
The animation uses info from TeleGeography, a telecommunications research company which itself has inspired a number of projects to “visualize the internet” in the infrastructural realm, outside the content we view with our browsers. But this visualization doesn’t look like data, exactly—it more resembles the parallel lines of the conductive pathways on a photoengraved printed circuit board (PCB). Back in the early days of consumer technology, a lot of the PCBs were designed by hand, and the conductive copper conduits of the circuit had arcs and loops, showing the designers’ own handstrokes as they composed each circuit.
Today, the space on PCBs is maximized, designs drawn with computers, and printed by machines. And this is what the internet visualization looks like: the routes of cables are displayed with the orthogonal parallelism of ribbon cables and component shields. The submarine cables, of course, do not lay straight. Like everything else in the world, they are crooked, forced to flow over the complex and convoluted terrain at the bottom of the sea, around seamounts, over ridges, and between the great abysses that were sometimes only discovered as a cable-laying ship found their slack running out of the back of the vessel, down into the darkness below.
If it doesn’t resemble a circuit diagram, then, how do we decide what the internet looks like? Artist and researcher Ingrid Burrington began with data from TeleGeography in her 2014 project to visualize the submarine cables being tapped by the United State’s National Secruity Agency and the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), facts revealed by the often aesthetically-displeasing slides and hard-to-follow documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. But she quickly realized that there was more to it than just maps. As Burrington described in a recent interview with Hanna Hurr for Mask Magazine:
“I realized that part of the point is that it’s distributed. Initially I was looking at office parks, like where defense contractors work, then I realized that they all have data centers, and data centers take you to where the cables are…. I’d drive around Northern Virginia trying to find data centers, and at a certain point I realized that I was presuming the internet to be somewhere else. I wanted to figure out how to find it within my immediate surroundings.”
Her Seeing Networks project produced a guide doing that very thing, translating all kinds of signs of network infrastructure, from street access covers to spray painted buried cable markings, for the interested explorer. Artist Trevor Paglen took another route to get at the undersea cables tapped by the NSA: by using dive equipment to find and photograph the undersea cables themselves, in their anything-but parallel lines across the bottom of the sea.
James Bridle’s Citizen Ex project begins with maps and visualizations as a counter to internet surveillance, offering a browser extension that pulls up a map to show you where your browsing is routed around the world. But, where the project really becomes interesting is the written descriptions of how this routing works, and his stories of the history of particular top-level domains like .LY and .IO, which reflect the geopolitical environment into which the undersea cables are laid, translate the complicated functionings of Domain Name System (DNS) into language that the layperson can understand.
Even the experts need time and effort to understand the shape of the internet. A map of all the long-distance fiber optics cables in the United States took four years to produce. Such a map simply did not exist previously. Pulling out this information is not simply about creating a visualization, it is about huge amounts of research behind the map.
Researched stories are how we really understand our world, not visualizations. Jenny Odell’s Bureau of Suspended Objects begins where her Satellite Landscapes project left off, zooming in from that overhead vantage point to tell the individual stories of particular objects pulled out of the trash dump of Recology in San Francisco, tracing where they came from, and when. From these perspectives, we not only see a diagram, but we also see the fact that everything has a history, even if we do not yet know it.
The internet contains more information than we could ever know, and so we look to visualizations to understand it. But the minute that we draw a line to connect two points, someone could easily come and cut that line in reality, completely oblivious of our maps. The earth has always contained more information locked within its strata than we could ever know. Although we may think we control the traces we carve on the world, the true story of the earth is older than any of our stories, and we can never rewrite it completely.