At times, the internet can seem like magicyou plug your router into the wall and instantly connect to an endless repository of data. It’s easy to forget that the web exists along fixed points in physical space, much like telegraph cables and phone lines. In his new book Tubes, journalist Andrew Blum explores key sites in the architecture of the internet, from transatlantic cables thousands of feet long to the buildings where the internet first began. Blum seeks to tease out the hidden monuments of the internet to make the intangible concrete. When we can understand how the technology really works, we can begin to imagine alternative, and possibly better, infrastructures.
As part of Venue, a roaming events series in collaboration with the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art and Columbia University’s Studio-X, the author led a walking tour of important communications sites in downtown Manhattan. We began at 195 Broadway, the original AT&T headquarters built in 1916, when they dominated the telegraph game. We later walked over to the joint AT&T and Western Union buildings, which served as their headquarters from 1927 through the 1960s and later became major internet hubs after the telecommunications giants moved out. Early web companies moved into the building along with numerous other tenants, including the Department of Corrections.
The internet infrastructure developed in an organic, ad hoc manner, in stark contrast with the top-down planning of the older telecommunications companies. In Blum’s estimation, the locations of the internet hubs are fairly random and are mainly a result of two factors: geography and sales. As a financial hub, New York is a choice location for undersea cables to surface, and the buildings were simply where the most effective salespeople were based.
Blum also pointed out the Empire City Subway (ECS) manholes, which provide access to internet cables, and one of the largest data connections in the world at 24 Walker, which he described as having the distinct smell of burnt toast and plastic.
Many of the companies we discussed are relatively unknown to the laypersonTelex, Datagram, Datagryd. We don’t know these names because we don’t choose our internet data companies; they are simply a fact of location. Blum ruminated, “Everyone is concerned with where their food comes from lately. There’s now the slow-food movement. But where does your internet come from? What will internet choices look like?” Some artists have begun to explore this issue, including the Rhizome-commissioned occupy.here project, a free, local internet. Perhaps one day boutique ISPs will again become widespread and local providers will tailor service to the needs and geography of their communities, resulting in better, more personal, service.
Top image: A Facebook data center, photographed by Martin Schoeller for Time magazine.