WormholesPosted: July 17, 2012
Yesterday, I went on a walking tour of New York’s Internet infrastructure. Andrew Blum, who just published a book about the same topic, led the tour, showing us a few buildings that are key nodes in the physical network of cables (“tubes”) that constitutes the tangible, globe-encircling Web: 60 Hudson Street, 32 Avenue of the Americas, and 33 Thomas Street, all of which sit in close proximity to one another along New York’s most important data corridor. The Internet, as Blum has gladly explained, is anything but a cloud.
60 Hudson Street, the second-to-last stop on our tour, is probably the most important of those buildings. 60 Hudson Street is a wormhole. After seeing 60 Hudson, the former Western Union Building and the point where the greatest number of transatlantic cables enter New York to connect with other networks, I could not get the “wormhole” idea out of my head. The full-block building in Tribeca and its counterpart in London’s Docklands are the twin nexuses of the fiberoptic connection between New York and London, and the points where that connection is most direct. As Kevin Slavin has explained, financial firms engaged in algorithmic trading have gained tiny (but critical) speed advantages by locating their offices adjacent to these buildings. The Internet has eradicated the distances separating huge areas of the Earth’s surface, but Tribeca and the Docklands are just slightly closer together because the Internet’s bits still need to travel through wires in order to cover that distance.
Wormholes are everywhere in the networked environments that most of us inhabit (I assume you’re reading this on the Internet) and network topology trumps physical distance. High-speed transportation is another example: Queens and Los Angeles are thousands of miles apart but really just six hours, thanks to the JFK-LAX wormhole. Northern Maine and eastern Montana, meanwhile, are separated by less distance but remain much farther apart due to their relative network positions.
Where wormholes exist, the surrounding landscapes develop unusual qualities. The Louisville and Memphis airports, the respective UPS and FedEx hubs, have become the centers of bizarro logistics cities because they occupy the most accessible real estate in North America for air freight. Similarly, a Tongan community has burgeoned in Dallas due to the extensive hub-and-spoke system of American Airlines, which makes Tonga quite reachable from DFW (many Tongans take jobs with American, earning free flying privileges that enable them to visit their families far more easily than they otherwise could, as Greg Lindsay has described). That wormhole drastically cuts the distance between the two far-flung Tongan communities. Saskia Sassen’s Global Cities thesis—that places like New York, London, and Tokyo are more culturally connected to one another than to their own hinterlands—is yet another manifestation of network wormholes.
Form, distance, and dimension once affected city life much more directly than they do today. Lars Lerup, reflecting on architectural theorist Manfredo Tafuri, writes, “Tafuri’s realization that the geometry of the urban plan needed no correspondence in the form of single buildings seems graphically played out in the modern metropolis.” The suburban mode of living, in Lerup’s eyes, marks a departure from geometric urban patterns like grids and plazas. Suburban single-family homes are not oriented toward one another but toward networks: freeways, shopping centers, and the infrastructure that support these. Instead of space, there are numbers representing flows, such as how long it takes to drive to work or the number of bars one’s cell phone gets at a certain location. Wormholes exist at every scale, from airports to freeway exits to the Redbox outside the supermarket, and determine a lot about life in these suburban environments, shortening distances between people, goods, and information and surreptitiously rearranging the city as well as the globe.