The internet is not a virtual world that exists outside human consciousness. Our online world has a very real and tangible offline presence. I have come to learn that the magical internet, connecting us all together through space signals between phones, is not the real Internet. As a web designer, I understand connections of cables to routers and small signals from these routers to my devices. But I did not know until recently, how big a physical footer print the Internet as a whole actually has.
The internet’s physical infrastructure lives and breaths beneath our city streets and above ground in data center and internet exchange buildings around the world. These buildings are connected by tubes laid along our ocean floors. Within these tubes, the Internet is running as energy in the form of light, as energy in the form of fans cooling warehouses filled with cables and spinning hardware. And even more fascinating, it also runs on social connections. The speed in which a particular webpage loads is partially based on a social connection between two network administrators. There is a human connection responsible for every hardware and cables connection. Direct connections make for faster transfers.
A new documentary highlighted on the Fast Company Design blog, takes a deep look inside the physical internet. I came across this teaser for the documentary Internet Machine as I was reading Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum. I’m interested, much as Andrew is, in what is behind the wi-fi signals I spend my days connected to. I find it funny that I’m a creator of the web and didn’t know much of what powers it. Data centers are what I thought the internet was based upon. Tubes is teaching me quickly about the who and where behind the what.