Hot Tubs and the Weightless InternetPosted: April 5, 2012
Late last year, the Telegraph reported that the whole Internet weighs as much as a strawberry. Stunning in its absurdity, the proclamation quickly found many objectors, who pointed out that the Internet actually has a much heavier physical presence in the hardware that makes it work. The strawberry comparison had simply totaled the weight of all the electrons that are “in” the Internet but had neglected the cables, data centers, and servers that are undeniably part of it too. Nevertheless, such a neat metaphor for such a sprawling and diffuse entity—the audacity of comparing the Internet to a strawberry—got our attention, because it reminded us how few metaphors we have for what the Internet actually is.
This failure to grasp something that affects every part of contemporary life was the subject of Christine Smallwood’s brilliant 2010 piece for The Baffler, recently reposted on VICE’s Motherboard, in which she proposes a metaphor of her own: “The Internet is definitely more like a hot tub than a highway.” Smallwood also recalls the late Senator Ted Stevens’ dictum that the Internet is a “series of tubes” (a soundbite now consecrated with its very own Wikipedia entry). Stevens knew something about tubes, having pledged key support to the act that authorized the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. He knew less about the Information Superhighway, but amazingly, he wasn’t as wrong as he sounded—the Internet is more like a series of tubes than a piece of fruit. Andrew Blum, an expert on the physical infrastructure of the Internet, selected Tubes as the title for his upcoming book on the topic, after all.
Smallwood’s article catalogues pop culture’s handling of the Internet during the past two decades, joking that The Matrix (1999) may correspond most closely to Ted Stevens’ vision of the Internet. I have felt since The Matrix came out that it provides the best metaphor yet for how we relate to our computers and what those computers let us access. All that’s missing are the tubes—tubes again—that physically tether the pod-bound living to their machines, and maybe the red fluid in which they marinate. During the decade that architecture critic Blair Kamin has called the Nervous Nineties (for a different reason), rapid technological advancement and paranoia went hand in hand, and Smallwood writes: “In the Nineties, the look of the Internet—comic-book websites that changed to illegible green lines of code—corresponded to traditional fears about technocracy. Characters worked to rescue their identities from the machine.” These visions are all decidedly less fun than a hot tub.
As the Nineties gave way to the ‘00s, Smallwood argues, technology induced less paranoia and more self-questioning, as exemplified by Minority Report and the Bourne trilogy. The new threat these movies embodied was that the Internet would irrevocably fragment individual identities and induce widespread amnesia. In The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon’s character “accesses the multiple identities that he has strewn around the globe like the little pieces of ourselves that we leave littered around cyberspace.” The “look” of the Internet meanwhile became sleeker: fewer wires, tubes, and green lines of code; more touchscreens and minimalist interfaces. The concurrent explosion of Facebook and its ilk seemed to reinforce the fears of identity fragmentation. As Venkatesh Rao recently argued, though, this is really less likely than ever. In practice, the ubiquity of Facebook makes it harder, not easier, to reinvent oneself or maintain multiple personas—even if you pack up and move to a new town where nobody knows you, your Facebook profile and Facebook friends come with you. Wherever you go, there you (and everyone you know) are.
Since the Nineties, the physical presence of the Internet has decreased in its popular representations and in real life. Thanks to Steve Jobs and many others, wires and disks are increasingly rare hassles. The Internet is the foundation of the post-industrial information age in which the United States finds itself today, and invisibility is its dominant aesthetic. In this climate, it’s possible to believe that the Internet really does weigh as much as a strawberry, or no more than a few million MacBook Airs at most. But, like all infrastructure, the Internet weighs a lot, and there’s as much of it as there ever was, and it’s still ugly—it’s not invisible, just hidden. Manhattan and other major cities have become cleaner and more pleasant largely because their heavy industry, shipping, and waste disposal have moved to more remote locations in New Jersey and beyond—places you’re not likely to spend much time. Facebook and Google, meanwhile, operate massive datacenters in central Oregon. Even Internet infrastructure found in the heart of the city wears disguises. But that infrastructure certainly exists. As Kevin Slavin has pointed out, we are literally terraforming the earth and hollowing out skyscrapers to make way for it. In that sense, maybe old guys like Ted Stevens have understood the Internet better than we do.