As “The Cloud” becomes a household expression and nearly everyone is walking around with an internet-connected supercomputer in their pocket, how many of us actually know that “The Cloud” is really other people’s computers? Or that there are giant, nondescript buildings out in the fields of Virginia hosting row upon row of very real, very resource-intensive computers? Or that the fiberoptic cabling under our cities is all-pervading?
Ingrid Burrington is one of the few researchers and designers paying attention to the infrastructure that powers and connects all our shiny gadgets and gives us access to all the knowledge in the world. “De-obfuscating” the near-invisible hardware behind our precious network, she has written a field guide to the internet infrastructure of NYC in which she includes “illustrations and descriptions of various manhole covers, antennae, architecture, and street markings.” As Burrington told Hyperallergic:
To some extent, that assumed separation is tied to how people tend to interface with the internet as a black box that serves them things. The geography and the infrastructure are (understandably) obscured. Seeing the physical realities of the internet just walking down the street in New York doesn’t unravel the entirety of ‘how the internet works,’ but it is a reminder of all the stuff of the internet that’s been obscured and how much the internet already permeates our physical world, whether we notice it or not.
As the internet and our smartphones are now the means by which we connect to each other, to government, to employers and to more and more connected “things” around us, it’s vital that we keep a modicum of literacy in how those systems work. Such guides and similar projects are useful tools in gaining and spreading that literacy.