The internet’s tangible properties

A recent article in The Atlantic reminded me of a central issue that I address regularly in my own research — the materiality of the Internet, and I felt like bringing this topic to the blog. In “What the Internet Actually Looks Like,” Megan Garber discusses the geographic mapping of fiberoptic cables provided to Fortune Magazine by GeoTel Communications. I’ve included one of the images below, which also appeared in a piece in Mashable about the importance and ubiquity of fiberoptic cables.

(Graphics data courtesy of GeoTel, designed by Nicolas Rapp for Fortune) The data show how the physical infrastructure of the Internet is distributed worldwide and also within metropolitan areas. So how is this attractive visual depiction of how the Internet works different from the other pictorial constellations that seek to explain how information travels in the blogosphere or who edits Wikipedia? Why does this matter?  These images are not showing how content on the Internet flows among users, or how information is produced; instead, it shows how the Internet is grounded in real, tangible hardware that makes the information flow we take for granted online possible.

It’s easy to fall into the pit of undefined abstractions when talking about the Internet and its global reach, and this is partly the result of the “network metaphor,” which describes the Internet’s connectivity as a web of connections or “nodes” that communicate with one another. We have become so accustomed to information flow (popularized by Manuel Castells) and to talking about the Internet and, actually, all of our other offline experiences, as part of a social network, that the Internet becomes a black box, as enigmatic and invisible as the ephemeral, ad hoc, horizontal networks it theoretically enables.  But if we take this network view of the Internet as an ethereal and elusive cloud of traveling information, we lose sight of its physicality, or to borrow the idea from Mimi Sheller and John Urry among others, its immobilities

The physicality of the World Wide Web is deeply embedded in the geopolitical position of countries in the global order and the operation of global capitalist markets. Even at a glance, it is clear that the fiberoptic lines threading between continents in the image above are densely entangled around the global hubs — the United States and Western Europe. Comparatively, sub-Saharan Africa has only sparse spindles weaving across the world. This is a point that the piece in Mashable and in The Atlantic fail to tease out of the GeoTel conclusions. Indeed, the authors note that the financial centers of New York and London are more thickly criss-crossed by the physical cables that make the Internet possible. But it’s not enough to say it’s cool to look at elegant graphics about global telecommunications.

We have to go to the next step and ask: so what does this distribution mean? Part of that question depends on another element of the physicality of the Internet — its ownership. The fiberoptic cables, ISPs, and global servers are not public goods, independent of corporate or capital interests. When we see a graph of Internet cables, we should also ask who owns the infrastructure? In the U.S., we can predictably look to the telecom giants, AT&T, Verizon, etc. In the developing world, European companies like Vodafone dominate, and the actual infrastructure is often part of a broader development agenda materially and financially paid for by international aid and monetary bodies. At the same time that these private interests often wrest power from autocratic regimes and their submissive telecommunications authorities, we should not be deceived into believing that a lack of government involvement means a free and open telecom environment.  Now as ever, in the age of the Internet and globalization, it is important to identify and interrogate where information originates, how information economy infrastructure is distributed, and who owns the physical “immobilities” of the digital age.