On page 105 of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum implies that for adults in 2012, the physicality of the internet is elusive because it seems magical. For eight-year-olds, he argues, internet tech is not a strange concept. Still, apparently, approaching the material structure of the web should be met with “childlike wonder.” While using the internet today in 2013 certainly elides distance and machine in the sheer immediacy of web browsing—made possible by technological innovation and applications of physics—it wasn’t always so imperceptible, even for average users.
My family first connected to the internet in 1996 with an ISP called Cajun.Net, basically the first service provider to lease the phone lines for data travel in Terrebonne Parish. Like many companies in Louisiana, its name is a bit “on the nose” emphatic local expression. Its logo features a zany crawfish on a surfboard, propelled no doubt by the tidal waves of information flowing through Cajun.Net’s routers. As far as I could tell at the time, most people I knew who used the internet sent chain emails to people who had the same area code, more for the novelty of sharing text and clipart than for serious communication. At 12 years old, I didn’t have (or know anyone with) a job in information, so who knows what Cajun.Net subscribers were doing with their computers. It seems Cajun.Net got at least the local ethos right: a crazy-looking crawfish on a West-coast transportation system, somewhere on top of an ocean. I mean that some people in Louisiana, who often make their locality visible (especially the well-defined tropes of their cultural groups), were able to participate in conversations they would have otherwise been left out of.
Nevertheless, there were physical problems with connecting to the internet that were neither foreign nor incomprehensible, ones that perhaps placed us more than our rad logos. Sometimes, when you dialed up the number of the ISP’s router, you’d get a busy signal. This meant the line was in use at the other end, same as in telephones. This and the other material trappings of telephony (sound at a distance)—phone lines, dial tones, etc.—emphasized the physical space between the user and the ISP, making visceral the gatekeeping aspect of local networks. Living in southern Terrebonne Parish, this distance was much more aggravating than magical. The phone lines were outdated technology with low bandwidth and no redundancy. I remember hoping for the day when AT&T would decide to drive down Highway 56 and lay some new wire. I longed for a T1 connection, though I’d have been happy with DSL. This was in 2003.
I would argue a type of “child-like” wonder was borne out of a serious consideration of geography. Chatting with French people on IRC chat servers in 1998, for instance, was a possibility opened up by the internet, but never elided that they were still over there. This is about access. Even as recently as 2006 when I spent an autumn in France, problems of connectivity were physical—searching for a place that was connected to the internet in order to bridge the gaps to communicate my family, searching (on foot) the Latin Quarter for a place that would give me access to both a plug-in and an internet connection. It was not as easy as it apparently is now. In 2004 and 2005, I worked on an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, which was serviced by a fiber-optic loop in combination with cellular and microwave broadcasting. This system was buggy and unreliable. The main use of the network was to deliver and report information to and from the platforms and the oil base and LOOP (Louisiana Offshore Oil Port) or whoever handled the pipeline.
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Although we may take the physicality of certain technologies for granted (a thing everyone always has done), I don’t believe we’ve yet entered the cloud metaphor entirely, even if the plutocracies (Google, Facebook, et al) insist we have. Access is neither universal nor guaranteed to those who have it. Not everyone treats the communication within the web as placeless—even if they don’t know the plot on land on which their data sit. But what we often do take for granted, even as we point out the materiality of the packet routes or the existence of deepsea fiber optics, is that these technologies and places—our data and communication stored there, the minerals that house them and the electricity that maintain them—these are loci of power and are loci that can be owned. This fact is a much more dangerous thing to overlook, and especially easy if we concede to Blum’s optimistic paranoia about how we are increasingly digital but the internet is increasingly human.