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.