Mapping the Physical Internet

Andrew Blum on representing the tubes that connect us.

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The Tubes That Connect Us

What should a “map of the Internet” look like? A few years ago, the Silicon Valley philosopher Kevin Kelly posed that question on his blog, asking readers to send in their answers. The drawings that came back were mostly of two camps. Some portrayed the Internet as chaotic expressions of a spidery infinity, like Jackson Pollock paintings. Others imagined the Internet as a fantastical village, drawn like a town in a children’s book. What was missing in all of them—quite conspicuously, I thought—was any semblance of real-world geography. These were maps of an imagined place; they suggested that the Internet is a landscape of the mind.

In my book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (and my related TEDTalk), I argue otherwise. Tubes chronicles my two-year journey to visit the physical places that make up the Internet: its real-world geography and actual buildings—the data centers, Internet exchange points, undersea cable landing stations, and roadside fiber-optic regeneration huts, among them. It is an account of the physical world.

But if the Internet is a real place, then what map did I follow to get there? In part, I used TeleGeography’s well-known maps of the Internet’s undersea cables and transmission pathways. But looking back, I realized that “my map” of the Internet was a far more ad-hoc, personal construction: a true psychogeography, illustrating a world that, as a singular place, I alone knew. Tubes is the narrative description of that place; a printed map of it has existed only in my head. Until now.

frog’s Megan Lynch has drawn a map of the Internet, based on my description and research, that blends its real and imagined landscapes. It wasn’t easy. The trick was “plotting the imaginary, the personal, and the physical in the same space,” she reflected to me. “It was interesting to make a map that is so technically specific in many ways, and so elusive in others.” She and her colleague Alice Hsu combined some of the tropes of traditional mapmaking, while adding more playful, narrative elements. “You look to elements like longitude and latitude to see that these things are true,” Lynch told me. “But here there’s also a mix of both physical locations and non-physical concepts being plotted in the same space.”

Is this the whole Internet? Of course not. But for me, it brings us a step closer to understanding the ragged border between the virtual and physical worlds. —Andrew Blum

1: The University of California, Los Angeles
Where a machine called an interface message processor was installed in 1969- essentially the first piece of the Internet

2: Palo Alto, California
Where the current physical form of the Internet was invented

3: San Jose, California
Where companies such as Cisco Systems make routers

4: The Dalles, Oregon
The Kathmandu of data centers: a foggy town that is home to one of the Internet’s most important repositories of data

5: Prineville, Oregon
Where Facebook’s data centers live, and where Apple will soon open data centers, too

6: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Where a once-grand edifice built in 1901 is filled with fiber optic cables and glass strands: a strange, steampunk piece of the Internet

7: Tysons Corner, Virginia
Where, on the 5th floor 8100 Boone Boulevard, the first hub of the Internet was created

8: Ashburn, Virginia
The bull’s-eye of America’s Internet; here, at an inconspicuous building at 21715 Filigree Court, more networks meet than in many other data centers around the globe

9: Brooklyn, New York
Where a squirrel chewed through a wire in author Andrew Blum’s backyard and disabled his Internet service, inspiring him to append two years tracing the tangible Internet

10-11: New York City, New York
Where at 60 Hudson Street, more than 400 internet networks live – including half a dozen of those connected to transatlantic cables, making this address a major hub

12: Washington, DC
Where a market research firm called TeleGeography creates an annual map known as GIG, or “Global Internet Geography,” that sells for $5,495

13: The Docklands, London
A massive agglomeration of network engineering firms, an entire Internet neighborhood

14: Cornwall, England
Where the capital of the undersea Internet cables is, in a small cove called Porthcurno; here lies one of the most important physical paths of the Internet, connecting its busiest intercontinental route: between New York and London

15: Frankfurt, Germany
The center of Europe’s Internet: the Deutscher Commercial Internet Exchange, where 800 gigabits of data flows each second through a big black box

16: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Where the “other” center of Europe’s Internet (the Amsterdam Internet Exchange) lives, heralded by the Dutch government as the “third harbor” of the Netherlands

17: Lisbon, Portugal
Where SAT-3, an early and low-capacity tele-communications cable, was installed underwater in 2001; it ran down the Western coast of Africa, and for years, it was the most important link for South Africa’s Internet users

18: Mtunzini, South Africa
Where in the late 2000s, a news cable arrived and linked Africa to London, offering 40 times the bandwidth of the SAT-3

19: Luzon, Taiwan
Where in early 2006, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck and severed seven Internet cables, causing Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and most of South Asia to be temporarily disconnected from the Internet

* The fuzzy location where many of us believe the Internet may exist

Illustrations by Alice Hsu, graphic design intern, and Megan Lynch, senior graphic designer at frog

Andrew Blum writes about architecture, infrastructure, and technology for numerous publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. He spoke at TEDGlobal 2012.

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