NPF: WHAT THE INTERNET LOOKS LIKE

As I have noted many times previously in this forum, I am not ashamed to admit that I don't really understand the internet or how it works. It has been explained to me many times, often with a sampling of metaphors intended to simplify the more complex parts, to no avail. I get it, but at the same time I don't get it. The internet isn't a physical thing, but at the same time it is (as evidenced by giant server farms).

Look, I'm OK with this. I can take a thing or two on faith in this life – I accept the internet as part of our shared reality without understanding quite how the words I type (which end up stored…somewhere, I guess) reach the end user. You are certainly free to take a crack at explaining it in the simplest terms, but that really isn't necessary. I've made my peace with it. Not knowing is OK sometimes.

All that said, last year I read an article (not available online, ironically enough) in The Baffler entitled "What Does the Internet Look Like?" That piece offered plenty in the way of interesting discussion and metaphors for the ol' World Wide Web, yet it too struggled with the fundamental question of how the internet can look like anything if it is intangible. Well, maybe partially intangible. There is some part of the internet that we can touch, right?

Devote 11 minutes to this excellent short documentary about the infrastructure of the internet – servers, routing stations, fiber optic cables, and more – hidden, sometimes in plain sight, all around us.

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors from Ben Mendelsohn on Vimeo.

I still can't tell you how the whole process works. I am comforted to know that if The Internet ever becomes self aware and mankind needs to destroy it, there is something real and tangible out there that we can blow up, smash, or otherwise turn into rubble. Then again, since the information on the internet is distributed (or something, right?) even a full pitchforks-and-torches assault might fail to kill it.

So I guess the best analogy for the internet is the hydra…an enormous, stupid hydra full of porn.

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19 Responses to “NPF: WHAT THE INTERNET LOOKS LIKE”

  1. Nate! Says:

    A hydra where if you open it up you will find a series of tubes.

  2. Tim Says:

    And human consciousness is a mysterious phenomenon if you are a Cartesian dualist. *rolls eyes*

    The Internet is not intangible in any way, shape, or form. Those servers, wires, etc. ARE the Internet. They deliver electronic impulses to your computer which are interpreted into a form you can understand.

  3. Middle Seaman Says:

    I am amazed at the difficulty you have with a simple mechanism.

    The Internet is five monkeys, fluent in English, each has 3 pockets. The monkeys collaborate perfectly with each other. When you write a post you send it to a monkey. This monkey may be busy and will send your post to a less busy monkey who puts the post in a pocket. The monkeys have perfect recall. When I want your post, a monkey can get it for me.

    It's a zoo out there.

    (I sent my first email in 1980 when we knew all the computers, i.e. monkeys, connected in existence – later known as the Internet.)

  4. S Says:

    @Tim:

    Well, consciousness /is/ somewhat of a mystery in that it seems to occur not only in your brain, but also other humans' and non-humans' brains. And there's always the question of whether Agent Smith, Data, or some in the future actually existing AI have consciousness. Consciousness can be realized in many ways, is what I'm saying, and we cannot always be sure whether something is conscious, and to what amount (some aspects of the abortion discussion hinge on this).

    Now for the internet, the situation is very similar (on this abstract level), in that it is also realized in many ways. In principle, I could have a (very slow) internet connection over a bunch of wires, with one bit being one pull of the wire (or something mechanically more convenient). One might even end up in vague areas: If grandpa prints out individual packets, reads them to grandma, who types them up and sends them on their merry electronic way, are the grandparents part of the internet?

    So, arguably, both consciousness and internet are abstractions on top of possibly wildly different physical implementations. (Also, Middle Seaman: E-Mail in 1980? You're part of history.)

  5. Jon Says:

    Coming from a background of pulling wire and programming computers, the internet is quite easy for me to envision. It's a bunch of wires connected to equipment. Easy.

    What baffled me for most of my adolescence was how a light switch could *remember* anything. It was explained to me over and over again that a computer is basically 1s and 0s, and those were represented by a switch being on or off. But how in the world does the switch know if it's on or off and how the hell do you use that to scale up to a computer?

    Eventually I took digital logic and design classes in college and when I built my first memory circuit using wires, nand gates and a d-latch, a light (not to mix metaphors) went off in my head. With my own two hands I'd built a light switch that could *remember.* Granted, it could only remember its previous state and use that to make a decision as to its next state (of being on or off), but it blew my mind then, and still does.

  6. acer Says:

    Douglas Rushkoff's new book is all about the value of understanding the technology we use.

    Also, one of those monkeys apparently just took a smoke break and made me lose my comment. I'm voting for the dude who wants to bust their union.

  7. eponymous Says:

    If anyone's interested, I recommend checking out the research done by Martin Dodge. He's published quite a bit on the Geographies of Cyberspace and has actually published an atlas of Cyberspace that, I believe, includes some maps of the physical infrastructure of the Internet.

    There was also a grad student at George Mason University – Sean Gorman – who was doing dissertation research on the some of the physical infrastructure of the Internet culled from open source references right before 9-11 (especially those that existed in the metro NYC area). After 9-11, the FBI and other government agencies got wind of his research; as a result, a portion of it was classified as secret.

  8. chautauqua Says:

    It's indistinguishable from magic, so I hear. What really gets me, though, is that it works mostly by pushing tiny electrons through wires*. And, in an AC circuit, the electrons just endlessly pulse back and forth, back and forth. So, you're not actually using any "new" electrons. It seems scandalous, somehow.

    * Or photons through little soda straws made of glass.

  9. JazzBumpa Says:

    I still remember the exact wording of the first email I ever wrote, close onto 30 years ago. We had just installed a Vax network at the place where I was working at the time. The email was to a physicist who worked in another department. It said:

    "I think there's something fishy about the Poisson distribution."

    No other email I ever composed achieved that scale of aqueous humor.

    Cheers!
    JzB

  10. Laie Says:

    Describing the Internet in terms of servers, routers and cable is like talking about literature in terms of ink, glue & paper.

  11. bb in GA Says:

    Take a look at the ISO's 7 layer model of communication (OSI.) This models how traffic moves in a modern communication system which we could argue that the Intertubes is a form of…

    or y'all might condsider the TCP/IP model of the internet which is less rigid about categorization (more liberal :-))

    Deep doo, y'all…but people here are supersmart.

    The internet reminds me of the ancient Indian (subcontinent) tale of the blind men describing the elephant.

    //bb

  12. RT Butte Says:

    Somewhere out there, there is a folder on a server that stores this web site. When a user requests your web site, specialized software grabs that folders and vomits it into the tubes and into your browser, which picks through this e-chud and shows you pictures of cats with "hilarious" captions.

    Take away all the subnets, fiber links, wires, dotted-decimal notation, OSI 7-layer dip, and all those boring implementation details and you get the essence of the internet.

    Browser: I want this.
    Server: Well, you can't have that.

    or

    Browser: I want this.
    Server: *retching noises* Here you go.

  13. Mike Says:

    The Internet is just a way for computers to talk to each other without being on the same physical network.

    Layered on top of that are a bunch of protocols for *how* they talk to each other. For example, if you want to send an electronic mail, format the data in such-and-such way.

    Today, when someone says "Internet," they often really mean the web. HTTP is a really dumb (in a good way) protocol for asking a server for some piece of data (like a web page) or sending data to a server (like a blog comment). And layered on top of *that* is HTML/CSS, which is a really dumb (in a bad way) method of formatting human-readable documents so that your web browser can display them.

  14. Mike Says:

    Also: What Laie said.

  15. Nick Says:
  16. Eric Titus Says:

    A lot of these posts miss the paradox that the internet is at the same time physical and non-physical thing. Since I'm a social scientist with a telco background, I'll do my best to explain it.

    You have a similar paradox going on with prices in the stock market. Is there a stock market or stock prices outside of the buy/sell decisions of all the individual investors? Well, sort of: we can pretend like Google's stock has a specific price, but a professional investor better know what's actually going on. Similarly, the internet is arguably nothing more, from a lay perspective, than a huge pile of data that you can query, and you'll only start to wonder if that's a good enough perspective when you try to video chat with someone in Japan.

    The film is a solid introduction, but it's worth spelling things out. The physical internet contains three primary units: cables, servers, and switches. Servers hold and send information. Cables carry information from place to place. Switches move information from one cable to another. Thus, this page is coming to you from a server somewhere, over multiple cables and switches.

    However, some things make this basic analysis more complicated. The first is that every major internet provider has its own network of physical cables and switches (they rent them from specialized companies that actually own the cables, such as FiberOne). Thus, if I am using Comcast at home, at some point a Verizon-hosted website has to cross over between networks. So a location like 60 Hudson is one that has multiple providers going in, where a signal can be handed off from one internet company to another (these connections are called "peering"). When you request a website, the server will more or less instantaneously decide the ideal network path for the data. Normally, end users don't even notice that the data has crossed multiple networks–peering agreements among major providers allow data to move seamlessly between networks.

    The networks themselves look a good deal like, well, networks. ISPs own or lease space on fiber connections between cities. In a given city, that connection will enter at one or more key points, such as 60 Hudson. There, it will get handed off to "metro" networks that will move the data to hubs that are more local. Via a series of hubs and switches, the data will finally get to your computer.

    So that explains the basic structure of the internet, but isn't a full explanation of why a building like 111 8th Avenue is so important. The reason is these buildings are home to colocation facilities like the one Telx offers, in which companies can place their servers. So Google may have a server in the 111 8th Ave Telx room, and that server connects directly to the Verizon box in that room, allowing it to quickly send out data over Verizon's network. The benefits for a company of colocating rather than running everything from their own data centers come down to cost and performance.

    Cost is a factor in two ways. First, high-performance, secure data centers are expensive and difficult for companies, especially small companies, to build. Second, bandwidth is magnitudes cheaper and more reliable in server rooms than in office buildings.

    Performance plays an even bigger role. Most data centers have multiple providers, so companies don't have to rely on any one network. In addition, being located on a data hub means that you can receive and send data more quickly. It also means that you can service customers in that location without having to wait for your West Coast data center to respond. As a result, companies like Google/YouTube have a complex network of servers located in colo facilities in most major cities. Large financial companies like Goldman will have network structures that mirror the exchanges'. But I'd say the movie's argument about the potentially hegemonic nature of the physical structure of the internet may be overblown. If Google pulled out of New York's data centers, the impact on performance would be miniscule. There are successful internet companies hosted in practically every major city. The structure of the internet is interesting, but perhaps only marginally so to social scientists.

    I'm happy to explain some more, if anyone feels like they are inches away from an understanding of how the internet works.

  17. Ben Mendelsohn Says:

    Late to this thread — but some really awesome discussion here. Eponymous – I actually interviewed Sean Gorman, but it didn't make it into the video. His experience with the government is pretty interesting. Eric – thanks for laying out some more of the technical details in such clear terms–all really helpful information that I also couldn't quite weave into the film. What kind of research do you do? I'd be interested to take a look. To clarify on your comment about the "hegemonic nature of the physical structure of the Internet"— I don't know that I was making that point. I do think that the material infrastructure itself definitely possesses some kind of power, but I would by no means call it all powerful, or deny the other dimensions of the network. Thanks to all for taking a look, glad the video's getting seen!

  18. * Says:

    I'm cool with "Describing the Internet in terms of servers, routers and cable is like talking about literature in terms of ink, glue & paper." (very well put indeed.)
    By saying "cool" you know I am lieing out my @$$.
    What I don't get it how it works wirelessly!

  19. Warmbowski Says:

    Take it from Moss and Roy. THIS is the Internet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLg6N4MFfbk