The cloud as fantasy, and the black magic of networked infrastructure. Photos by Ada Banks.
The first time I connected to the web was in the mid 90s when my dad decided it was time to get a dial-up connection. Soon, my sister and I would fight over the computer every day, while our parents tried to restrict our internet use altogether; it was expensive, and we only had one line, so connecting to the internet meant clogging the phone line. As soon as broadband became somewhat affordable, we upgraded. And boy was it a noticeable difference.
It feels like every year, being connected to the internet becomes a little more seamless, a little more natural. Like that Quarz report that went viral last winter revealed: “Millions of Facebook users have no idea they’re using the internet.” And yesterday, Apple launched Apple TV which will enable the app-ification of everything on big screens in the same way that smartphones did for mobile devices.
How do you see the internet? Do you picture it as the series of websites and apps you look at every day? Do you see a big cloud hovering over us like a drone? Perhaps you imagine stock photos of data centers, or satellites beaming invisible signals down to earth? Or perhaps you don’t think about it all. I have friends who think wifi appears in apartments because when you sign up for service a satellite starts beaming internet into your home. We may laugh at this, but nerds who really understand what’s going on would probably laugh just as hard at my version of how things work. Do we really need to know, though?
Enter Ingrid Burrington. The Brooklyn-based artist and designer turned technology researcher and writer on networked infrastructure. She has spent the last three years studying and thinking about how the internet works, and the many, many pieces of material infrastructure that goes into creating our fantasy of the cloud as nowhere and everywhere at the same time. She first started obsessing about this question after the Snowden files leaked in the summer of 2013. Why do all websites keep recycling the same photo of the NSA logo or a computer in the sky? Neither seems an accurate representation of what’s really going on.
One thing she learned was that sometimes you only really notice how something works when it breaks. After Hurricane Sandy, millions of people experienced power outages as far west as Michigan. But a photo taken shortly after the storm shows parts of Lower Manhattan – the home of the Goldman Sachs building and some of the post-9/11 more heavily militarized areas – still beaming with light. In her “Crash Course in Digital Literacy,” Ingrid Burrington pulls up the infamous picture as an example of why we should care about the infrastructure we rely on but rarely understand. Most of us don’t think about infrastructure until it breaks. But when it does, you start to notice who it really serves.
The internet didn’t “break” after the Snowden leaks any more than it did after Kim Kardashian’s butt went viral, but it did teach us something about how little we really know about the technologies we use every day. Namely, that unless we use encryption, there’s no privacy online, and that the metadata of everything from phone calls to chats can and will be stored and processed and sold by private companies and harvested by the state. Many of us adopted a cynical outlook of the post-privacy world we now seemed to be living in. Burrington, however, decided to track down the stuff that serves us internet. You may have seen her book Networks for New York – An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide. The book outlines the many different signs, symbols, and street scribbles that mark various types of infrastructure around New York, giving insight into which cables are hidden under the streets and inside manholes and which companies own them.
We decided to interview Ingrid Burrington for the Hacker Issue not only because of her work on networked infrastructure, but also because we thought she exemplified the hacker ethos in everything she does. Yes, she used to have blue hair, sort of dresses like a cyberpunk, and obsesses about magic. But most of all she makes lots of interesting, funny, weird, beautiful things with her ideas.
our love is like a submarine cable: spanning great distances, full of light, leased to multiple telecoms and threatened by pirates & sharks— Ingrid Burrington (@lifewinning) March 4, 2015
Like her study of Craigslist Missed Connections, or her visualizations of the impact of fare hikes and submarine cables. She’s made astrology charts for national spy agencies like NSA, she helped design the Occupy newsprint Tidal, she helped a friend buy some land and start his own micronation somewhere in Utah, and she’s made some pretty funny protest signs. She’s written about big data and the future of policing, the cloud, Jeremy Hammond, data centers and the architecture of surveillance, the Chelsea Manning trials, and more. She’s a member of the cyberfeminist research group Deep Lab, she’s a former Eyebeam resident – the list goes on. Her exercise in Venn diagrams captures it pretty well: Ingrid Burrington likes to study ubiquitous concepts and systems and take them apart to better understand how they work.
I went to meet Burrington in her home one morning at the end of August to ask her about the internet, magic, and being comfortable with failure in the often sexist world of technology.
You’re about to drive to Utah for a residency. What are you going to do there?
The residency is run by an organization called The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). They are based in LA and run a residency program in Wendover, Utah, a town on the Utah-Nevada border. There are some casinos, an abandoned air base and a couple of stores but it’s a pretty desolate place. CLUI’s specifically interested in people doing projects about the land and the territory around that part of the north Utah desert.
I was going to drive out there anyway to help a friend with an art project that’s kind of near Wendover – my friend Zaq’s micronation project. I’d been wanting to go see some of the data centers of the American West, and become really interested in the weird overlaps of railroad history and internet history, especially in those parts of Western United States. A lot of fiber-optic cable ends up being laid alongside railroad tracks in the US, so a lot of places that are or were major train transit junctions are now major data transit junctions. I was thinking that those would be fun detours to take on the drive, so I pitched a project to CLUI where I would take all of the stuff I’m going to do on this drive and turn it into something coherent. It’s probably going to be maps and writing and pictures of some of the different landmarks and different kinds of telecommunications landscapes.
This morning I got really excited digging into FCC antenna licenses. We’re stopping in Pittsburgh first and between New York and Pittsburgh there are a lot of microwave antennas for high frequency trading (HFT). I want to try to figure out which holding company does licenses for different HFT firms that have antennas where, and see if I can map out a route that corresponds to those.
What are these antennas exactly?
Microwave antennas are used for lots of things, but the ones I’m interested in are used in high frequency trading, which are rapid algorithmically generated transactions in the stock market. Latency has been of a huge concern because the faster you can do it, the more money you can make. For example, between Chicago and New York through Pennsylvania there’s a fiber optic cable that’s designed to be literally the shortest path possible. They bore through a mountain to get it from Chicago to New York and have the shortest transfer time – about 13.3 milliseconds.
Microwave recently became a more popular way to do HFT. Microwave has its shortcomings, too, insofar as you can transfer less data at a time. But it moves slightly faster because when you move data through a glass tube it’s going to be slightly slower than the speed of light, and that’s not good enough! With microwave you’re just doing direct line of sight radio waves from one antenna to the next. In theory it can be faster. Of course there are always things that build resistance, like trees or rain. I think it’s a little bit of snake oil; I’m skeptical that it makes that huge of a difference but they keep building them.
So excited for a future with no minor inconveniences and all the same shitty structural problems— Ingrid Burrington (@lifewinning) June 12, 2015
You’re an artist, you’re a writer, you’re a researcher of infrastructure, data, technology. How did you find yourself doing all of these things?
In 2013 when the Snowden leak happened, I was immersed in various New York City left circles and was concerned for obvious reasons. I was paying a lot of attention to the stories, and became really frustrated with the way that all of the imagery around it was being depicted. All of the stock photos was that one picture of the NSA that everyone used, or black screens and green text. I was like, I don’t know what this actually looks like, but I don’t think it looks like this.
My previous work had been very focused on places, trying to understand landscapes or places through different conduits. I asked myself, where are all these places, where are all of these sites of surveillance? I realized that part of the point is that it’s distributed. Initially I was looking at office parks, like where defense contractors work, then I realized that they all have data centers, and data centers take you to where the cables are ... I’d drive around Northern Virginia trying to find data centers, and at a certain point I realized that I was presuming the internet to be somewhere else. I wanted to figure out how to find it within my immediate surroundings. I assumed it would be super easy, that someone had already done it, but it turns out that no one has. Andrew Blum has written the most accessible trade publication about on topic, but that was kind of it. There are a few OK resources but it still remains this area of specialized knowledge, and the kind of people who can get into switching stations and data centers still remain mostly men who have the right connections and look the right part. I was like, well, that’s not fair. I wanna get in the data centers. I ended up trying to find sideways paths to study this stuff.
How does your current interest in networked infrastructure relate to your earlier work on art, design, and visualizing data?
I like taking apart systems and trying to understand how they function, and I like putting incongruous things together to try and figure out how something works. From 2009 to 2011 I was looking at data from the Missed Connections section on Craigslist – it’s kind of silly and goofy. This was at the time people started making apps for dumb reasons and I remember being very confused by it. All these developers approached me, asking me to tell them about what I was doing, because they were going to “fix missed connections with their app.” I kept thinking, You can’t fix missed connections ... What’s wrong with you?
I’m interested in the question: What are the underlying systems or transactions that happen in a place that are part of how it works that we often don’t notice? Missed Connections is a really fun example of that, and internet infrastructure is too.
You’ve spoken several times about your interest in magic. Can you talk about how you see magic being tied to technology, power, and infrastructure?
Magic is just inherently interesting to someone like me, a nerd who grew up with fantasy and sci fi. The intersection of people who like technology and people who like magic is surprisingly high. But the intensity with which magic gets invoked in technology discourse seem to me to have accelerated in the last year and a half. Some of it had to do with surveillance becoming this big topic in the media – because government agencies, especially US and Western spooky government agencies (we call them spooky for a reason) love to invoke magic. Trevor Paglen has this amazing book that’s a collection of patches from top secret programs. They all have dragons and wizards and people with lightning rods on them.
The overlap between magic and machines has existed for a long time. Early cryptography has an element of magic to it, of transforming language from one thing to another, transmitting secret messages ... A lot of Western cryptography can be traced to political intrigue in the Renaissance but also to Christian theology and early occultism.
Where I get interested in using magic as a way to talk about power goes back to infrastructure. We live with lots of incredibly complicated things that are presumed in many ways to be magic, simply because we’re not sure how they work. Being able to understand how something works often makes it seem less magical, but it also makes you feel like you know magic. There’s this annoying tendency among people who have specialized knowledge to scoff at those who don’t understand something, and act as though something is childishly trivial and simple when it’s actually something you just had to spend a lot of time learning. It’s a very ungenerous position to operate from. I’ve been trying to find ways to invoke more everyday magic that can be held by lots of people, and not reproduce that power dynamic.
I always come back to something Kate Crawford said at some point, which is that magic is frequently just a shorthand for faith. We don’t really know how this thing works but we trust it and we’re just going to believe it. There’s something to be said for never assuming you fully understand something. Something can always break, and there’s always something beyond your grasp and reach.
There’s a lot of things that computers are doing that we just don’t understand. Which is scary and cool and maybe a valuable reminder of that computers are subject to the same rules as the rest of the world – you can’t escape the existential problem of never being completely sure.
There’s also a gendered aspect to it. Like the distinction between wizards and witches, and how certain people were persecuted for having specialized knowledge that gave them a certain degree of agency and power in society. Discrepancy between which ideas or practices were rationalized as knowledge and which were dismissed. You know, alchemy was a lot of nonsense, but we probably wouldn’t have chemistry without alchemy.
I’m interested in how you currently think about and understand the cloud and the internet. I can’t help but think of “the cloud” as something akin to surplus value or capital in Marx, in the sense that it is this mystical force that is a product of everything we do, that has material elements to it but can’t quite be pinned down, and if it’s a force it’s because all the things that produce it are also produced or controlled by it. Both capital and the cloud seem like these infinite, self-generating forces.
I think data is mostly another channel through which to enact capitalist intentions, it’s a means. Often it’s a means to make decisions and tell yourself that they are the right ones. A means to justify decisions that you may otherwise find unethical. It’s a piece of financialization. Like the telegraph, the internet is a facilitator and an enabler.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jennifer Granick’s keynote at Black Hat this year. She warns against the possibility of the internet becoming just like TV. The internet has become just a medium for consuming things rather than for actively engaging in building things. I worry about this with apps. Someday we won’t even use browsers and you won’t be able to “inspect element” anything and never understand how things work. That’s frightening because ... I mean, that’s how I learned. I took other people’s stuff apart and if I hadn’t had the means to do that, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
Would you say that one of your goals is to make people interested in learning about technology?
Well, I know that awareness raising itself does not bring legislation change. Things I’m interested in aren’t necessarily legislation or policy. Some of it is very intimate or existential. The thing about not being in control of the universe as a way of talking about magic and machines – that’s not a thing any legal apparatus can help you deal with. That’s not going to be addressed by setting rules for how telecommunications companies operate. It’s deeper and weirder.
Beneath all of the fucked up things that people can and are and will do with data in the next few decades is an earnest belief that technology is the right thing to do and that we are building a better world with it. Changing people’s belief in this, challenging that faith, is not something any legal framework can do. That’s a different kind of work. My path is rooted in very unconventional things, like trying to call more attention to the physical objects that build up that system, and their geographic and geopolitical contexts. I’m better equipped to engage with those things. I’m not a very good organizer and I never have been. I’m trying to play to my strengths.
Good career options if you want to be constantly anxious about your competence: - writing - code - teaching - art— Ingrid Burrington (@lifewinning) March 25, 2015
You seem very comfortable talking and joking about failure. And I get the sense that you can be very brave because of it.
It’s a hard thing to do. In spaces like tech, failure is super hard. When I was in college and art school I always felt that when men were vulnerable and failed it was seen as provoking and interesting and people want to discuss it, and when women failed it was confessional, like you’ve done something wrong. With tech and programming there’s this expectation that you should just know everything, so asking for help can be very hard.
The thing that’s been helpful for me is realizing that a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing. I’m also coming from a pretty far removed vantage point. I grew up with computers and was an early internet adopter in the home but I was not deeply exposed to it and I had no formal education in most of this stuff. That is sometimes useful because it means I don’t expect to know everything. I can cut myself a little bit of slack and be like, OK, I’m going to figure it out because lots of other people seem to figure it out. You’re going to fail when you’re working on these things.
Can you think of movies, books or music that you often bring up in conversations that influenced how you think about the world?
One thing that underpins a lot of my thinking about infrastructure is early Smithson writing. In 2011 my friend Charles and I went to Passaic, New Jersey, looking for the monuments in Passaic in Smithson’s essay. As it turns out, they’re not there. But that sort of 1970s land art, conceptual art, weird writing-based practice that contains many odd references to sci fi … that’s a really useful touchstone for me. If Robert Smithson were alive, he would be obsessed with data centers.
I’m drawn to things that deal with taking apart systems or looking at big complex systems in detail. Like The Power Broker – I read that for the first time two years ago, it’s so good. I was really into literary fiction, and that has given me a certain sensibility; it helped me think about systems without being very dry about it, emphasizing the human piece of it.
In the last few years the piece of popular culture that I’ve found the most resonant for this current moment is the podcast Welcome to Nightvale. The way in which it blends the surreal and the human is really powerful and well executed. The tone feels very familiar and appropriate in terms of living in a world where you’re never entirely sure what is going on and things that you think are absurd or implausible keep happening.
I don’t know if this is a piece of culture or just a shameless shout out, I think @RealAvocadoFact on Twitter is the best. It’s not performance art, it’s actually just talking on the internet, but there’s something about internet characters that inhabit people’s lives in this weirdly personal way that I find really interesting and appealing and inspiring. There’s a certain kind of fearlessness to that Twitter account that I really admire. Maybe it’s just easy to speak fearlessly when you are a talking fruit.
I like things that remind people of their own humanity, or that keeps people’s humanity in check. A lot of the land art stuff that verges on the banality of the sublime does that because it forces you to remember that you are In the world, you’re not in a vacuum, you’re not the center of the universe. The infrastructure work is trying to occupy the same space.
Photos by Ada Banks.