Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

long read

One Writer's Quest To Find The Internet IRL

Forget the cloud—the internet is more tangible than you think.

One Writer's Quest To Find The Internet IRL

While satellite dishes and television antennas are the most obvious clues to the existence of communications networks, the internet's infrastructure is tougher to spot. The new book Networks of New York is a guide to identifying what's hidden in plain sight.

Loading a web page seems simple enough: Type in a URL, and content appears. It's easy to forget that for that information to appear, it had to travel through a complex infrastructural network buried under our streets and embedded in our buildings. As computing becomes more reliant on the cloud, we're increasingly removed from the physicality of the internet.

The web's abstraction made Ingrid Burrington—a technology and politics writer whose work has appeared the Atlantic, The Nation, ProPublica, the San Francisco Art Quarterly, and Dissent—curious about the tangible systems that support it. A few years ago, she embarked on a project to document the infrastructure of communication networks in New York, where she lives. Burrington bills the resulting book, Networks of New York, as a field guide to the complex and layered communications systems that operate in the sprawling metropolis.

In addition to offering essays that give readers a crash course in how the internet actually functions, the book acts as a manual to the everyday infrastructure that fuels the internet. From deciphering the secret language of construction workers' spray paint markings on the pavement, to uncovering the meaning of various manhole covers that lead into the tangle of communication systems underground, much of this infrastructure is hidden in plain sight.

We spoke to Burrington to learn more about how she researched these stealthy, seemingly invisible networks.

Co.Design: How did you become interested in the internet's infrastructure?

Ingrid Burrington: I started primarily thinking of the architecture of the internet and with the frustration with the visual vernacular that currently exists for representations of the internet. Like in 2013, when all of the Snowden stories started dropping, you’d have this good reporting and these stock photos of like a black screen with green letters. I didn’t know what the internet looked like, and I didn’t think [it looked like] that. I wanted to find out what I wasn’t seeing.

Initially, I was looking at it more from the angle of, "who are the companies and corporations?"—looking at office park architecture sort of stuff. But the second you start looking into things related to the surveillance industrial complex and the companies who contract out to the NSA, and the second you start poking around Northern Virginia, you start to notice all the data centers. And it became hard to ignore the fact that this military industrial apparatus couldn’t function without all of this other infrastructure that’s also part of my everyday life. That became a more compelling topic and story to me maybe because it touches so many things and is so vast.

Networks of New York author Ingrid Burrington[Photo: Jonathan Minard]

There are numerous art projects that attempt to visualize the internet, like revealing the Wi-Fi signals, or here’s what Google’s hidden data centers look like. The web is something that exists in our homes and offices, but it’s kind of invisible because our notion of it is that it's wireless. But it’s also got incredibly complex systems that are out of sight and out of mind, in a way.

Yeah, and I think that the internet is often something that’s somewhere else. Even if you have the internet in your house, where the internet lives is shorthanded to a room with servers in it. One of the things that kind of drove me to the book's approach was realizing that I wasn’t just going to be able to get into a lot of those places that get visualized as the hidden server rooms and the secret buildings. I have a lot of photos of the outside of buildings where I wasn’t allowed inside.

In New York, which is a very dense city and has a lot of old infrastructural elements, I find that looking at the internet's infrastructure is a way to appreciate a lot of the everyday aspects of the city. Walking down the street in the city, it’s easy to take for granted how many things need to happen and function just for me to check my email on the street corner. Looking at all sorts of spray-paint markings emanating from a manhole cover, or noticing a little flock of cell towers on a roof, and just starting to take in all of those elements, is a nice reminder that the seamlessness of what I do with my phone stands on top of years and years of infrastructural development.

The manhole covers embedded on city streets lead to different underground networks. This one signals that communication infrastructure—aka cables for telephone and internet—lies beneath.

What was your research process like? What are some of the most interesting things you uncovered while working on the book?

Like the internet's infrastructure, the information is similarly hidden in plain sight, like in old franchise agreements. If you know the right way to key your Google searches for PDFs on a government website, you can find a lot of old paperwork that has a lot of relevant old histories. A lot of this info is public, but it’s not necessarily super accessible to the public.

I learned a lot by chatting with people working in manholes. Generally when I see people working, I just run up to see what’s going on, which sometimes weirds people out. But most of the time, when you have a job where most people by default try to move around you, the idea of someone wanting to know about what you do and thinking that it’s interesting is sometimes refreshing. Some telephone people are totally happy to tell me what they are doing. People who are much closer to the actual infrastructure were very forthcoming and friendly and able to chat. It probably helped that I’m like a small girl. I once asked if I could take a photo of an open manhole somewhere in Brooklyn and some guy said: "You’re not a terrorist, are you?"

In the book's introduction, you wrote: "In the span of three city blocks, I can find out where the fiber optic cables are buried, who owns the cables, and where the surveillance cameras are." What visual clues are you looking for?

A lot of it involves doing the two things as a New Yorker you’re not supposed to do, which is look down and look up.

My favorite thing to look for when identifying where parts of the internet exist on the street is definitely the spray-paint markings. That’s something that’s usually placed on intersections in advance of street excavation work. Before somebody goes to work on a gas line, the markings are illustrated so they don’t accidentally knock out the power grid because they didn’t know this cable was buried there. So those markings are all color-coded based on a national, agreed-upon standard. Orange spray paint signifies telecommunications. After I first saw the chart that broke down what each color means, it became really hard not to pay attention to the spray paint on the ground and to decipher it. Before, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

Other things that I look for when searching for indicators of networked objects or systems in a streetscape are above pavement level, like different types of antennae. A lot of times there are different networked objects and sensors that are part of the N.Y.C. transit system. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has like this really amazing complicated program for monitoring traffic, so looking for patch antennae and traffic cameras. [Editor's note: Patch antennae are flat and rectangular.] The NYPD cameras have patch antennae on them.

You commented that visualizing the scale of the internet is one of the most difficult things to do. How would you best describe its enormity and composition?

No one quite agrees what the internet is. The scale of just the physical objects spans the entire planet. You have things that are below the ocean, you have [satellites] that are in low earth orbit. And you have everything else in between. If you’re just talking about things that are connected to the global internet, that’s a lot of things. But if you want to factor in other networks—like the DOT using a network that’s not really the internet but it’s a networked system like the internet—the volume of objects is pretty daunting.

You point out that a lot of the newer internet infrastructure piggybacks on existing infrastructure for phone lines, which were then built upon telegraph lines. What are the challenges in maintaining this type of infrastructure and should the city be concerned about its current state and future resiliency?

The short answer to that is yes! They should care about it. But it’s trickier with internet infrastructure insofar as the internet is increasingly accepted as a necessary public resource—or that, generally, the public needs access to it, as opposed to something that’s optional, that you could live independently of. That hasn’t been true since about 2004. So there’s an understanding that it’s a utility, but it’s certainly not regulated the way a lot of utilities are, and it’s not generally maintained the way utilities are.

Constructions workers' spray-paint code is often meaningless to passersby. But the symbol shown here stands for "fiber optic" cable, another piece of internet infrastructure, and reveals where they are buried underground.

In N.Y.C. you have a lot of public authorities that manage the transportation system and things like that. The internet is mostly managed by private companies that oversee the maintenance of the ducts that hold the cables. There’s so much stuff buried at this point. It's unclear if it's all still working, but the anxiety and the thought of taking stuff out [for maintenance and potentially] taking down a network [in the process] is more unnerving. There’s a great story from 2002 about the rebuilding of the Financial District after 9/11, and it's just about the telecommunication infrastructure. No one knew what any of these cables were doing—are they reconnecting something that was doing anything in the first place, or is it just a spaghetti pile?

One of the places where you can kind of see some movement on that problem is coming from a new class of franchises to run cable in New York City. You have to get something from the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications called a franchise agreement, and there’s a new franchise for information services, which means running purely internet services. A lot of these are smaller business-to-business type endeavors. Stealth is one of them, ZenFi is another.

I was curious about the process of just trying to get permits to run cable from one part of Manhattan to another. One of the companies basically had to go north in order to go south because the crowdedness of the duct meant that they could only put the cable in a certain way. The most convenient way to do it was deeply inconvenient. For a lot of these small information services companies, time literally is money. The more cable you have to lay, the more latency is going to be in the connection, the slower your connection is, the more upset your client is going to be because they’re looking for the fastest speeds possible.

I think that whatever kind of advocacy or lobbying that’s happening from those groups might contribute to dealing with the crowdedness of the cable ducts and the volume of old or dead material that’s buried within the ground. In terms of thinking about improving connectivity, putting in new wire tends to be the default solution, but wireless is so much faster and cheaper."

Do you think the internet should become more like a public utility versus a private good?

It’s such a hard question for me in terms of knowing how to balance what that public utility would be regulating. Going national, things probably wouldn’t come out so great. Look at countries with state-level control of the internet and the volume of censorship that happens. It’s probably not what you want. At the same time, the total absence of regulation—I was really really hopeful after the Net Neutrality ruling and the possibility that it opens up to improve or increase regulation just for the sake of increasing access.

I think that there are a handful of cities, a lot of them are in the south, that have started creating municipally run cable services or networked systems. Chattanooga is the most famous one, which I think really works at a certain scale. I think that many federated services can work well with others. I would love a future like that, but the cards are stacked against that given how a lot of these dominant internet companies are almost beyond regulating at this point.

What about private tech companies entering the public infrastructure and networking game, like Sidewalk Labs and LinkNYC?

The scale and complexity of what LinkNYC is doing, [which is bringing fast, free Wi-Fi to the city], is really remarkable. I don’t think it’s something that the city of New York would be prepared to do on its own. The desire to contract out or set up a franchise agreement or turn it into an N.Y.C. core competency is up for debate.

I think there wasn’t a very adequate conversation about the potential trade-offs or long-term consequences, like if what the city was going to get [from LinkNYC] was more beneficial to the city or to LinkNYC, and by extension to SidewalkLabs and Google.

There’s this parallel I’m mentally drawing between LinkNYC and the city's early water system. I listened to one of the hearings to approve the LinkNYC franchise and somebody testifying said that access to the internet’s as important as access to drinkable water. Maybe that's true; it’s a bold statement. So back in the late 1700s N.Y.C. had a major water crisis, which came from the fact that access to drinkable water barely existed and people were getting sick—it was a bad scene. Aaron Burr got a charter from the city of New York to start a water company that would provide fresh drinkable water to the people, but he didn’t do that because he was particularly benevolent—it was a really weird sideways way for him to start a bank to compete with Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of New York. In doing this, part of the water company charter said excess profits could go to starting a bank, so he proceeded to run a really terrible water company.

This is a long way of saying that the city has agreed to the charter of LinkNYC to provide access to the public via this vast system of kiosks as this aftereffect of massive data collection and profit seeking through ads. I wonder to what extent [internet access] was the main concern—like what is the real business that’s operating here. It’s probably not going to give anyone cholera [like Burr's wood pipes did], but [it's] perhaps not entirely in everyone’s best interest—or not in the interest they thought they were buying into.

The city kind of got a raw deal, I think. The estimates predicted they’ll make $500 million over 12 years. It doesn’t seem like that much money when you think about it. The question I think about, then, is how much money do SidewalkLabs and LinkNYC make? What’s their estimate look like? What’s the ratio? If giving up personal information and constant ad tracking leads to revenue that is then used to provide more money to the participatory budgeting process, great, okay—we get new basketball courts. There are trade-offs, but at this point, it doesn’t look like it’s going to distribute much more money.

What impact do you hope the book has?

One of the most exciting aftereffects of this book that I heard about involves a lawsuit filed against the city to try and get information about where internet cable is buried in the Bronx to make a case about digital divides in that part of the city. The city refused on national security grounds. My work was included as evidence. They said, "This isn’t secret; someone made a tour guide for finding it." And they won. They didn’t win purely on the grounds of the book, but they were able to get some of that data out, which will hopefully be helpful in the longer campaign to improve connectivity in the Bronx.

The lawsuit is something I never could have imagined, but makes me really happy. I think at a very baseline level, there’s a general appreciation of the volume of labor that goes into what is seemingly everyday. Being able to look at the [construction] markup of an intersection and recognize the volume of stuff going on underneath the street, I find that very satisfying and humbling. It’s something that’s useful for remembering not to take parts of the city or the internet for granted.

Networks of New York (Melville House, 2016) is available August 30 from

[All Images (unless otherwise noted): © Ingrid Burrington. Courtesy of Melville House]

The Fast Company Innovation Festival