Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Material Infrastructure of the Internet

Like most people, I presume, I have a tendency to think about "the Internet" or "cyberspace" or the "virtual world" as something fundamentally non-material. I type emails, I post on my Facebook page or this blog, I search and find things on Google, and it seems to me each time as if every strike of my fingers on the keyboard activates some kind of magical, ethereal force, existing outside of space and in hyper-compressed time. Of course, I am aware that there are material elements of my activity-- my laptop, the power chord and plug that connects it to my wall, the wireless router that has (of course) its own physical wire, to which I must maintain a certain physical proximity-- but each of those concrete, tangible items seem ancillary. They provide access to the Internet. They are material, of course, but the Internet itself is not. Or is it?

For the last couple of decades, people have been struggling mightily for an apt metaphor to explain what exactly "the Internet" is and how it works. The metaphors that have prevailed-- metaphors of "network" and "space"-- are partially responsible for our tendency to think of the Internet as non-material. But as we all know, when we really think about it, that "network" and that "space" must have a material architecture. My cyber-connections with the rest of the globe are also actual, physical connections. Millions of miles of material cable and wires, thousands of material mega-machines in material brick-and-stone buildings, must already be in place in order for me to tap my fingers and have a real-time conversation with my friend in Australia.

I came across this short (10 minute) documentary about all those material parts of the Internet, which are "bundled, buried and behind closed doors" (as well as, quite often, right there in plain sight!). It's a fascinating look into the architecture of the Internet, but what's really interesting about it is the way it shows that the routes and lanes of the Information Superhighway reproduce the routes and lanes of trade. And information, like all of the other goods and resources traded across seas and borders, concentrates power. As one commenter says, "communication is bound up, historically and in the contemporary period, with the projects of Empire." Take a look at some of the "maps" of the Internet presented here. Fascinating.

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors from Ben Mendelsohn on Vimeo.

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