Mobile networks and cloud computing make the internet feel seamlessly invisible. But behind phones, apps and laptops lies a physical infrastructure with cables and buildings that shuttle and store our all of our information. For its ubiquity, the nuts and bolts of the web isn’t necessarily the most immediately visible. But whether stored in massive data centers built in rural expanses away from large cities, or tucked into high rises amidst large population centers, the internet is indeed still a physical object.
This unappreciated footprint led photographer Dave Greer to his ongoing project, “Internet,” which has led to his travel across the United States and Europe documenting the structures housing the nuts and bolts of digital communication. After One Wilshire, a relatively unknown Los Angeles office building sold for a record $437.5 million in 2013, he wondered why such a price fit a seemingly ordinary location. The building, it turned out, housed some of the most important information cables in the United States and is a crucial focal point for internet connectivity between the US and Asia. Proximity to these cables are highly prized by telecommunications companies.
He discovered that one of the biggest data centers in Philadelphia was just down the street from his apartment. Since then he has dutifully tracked down locations of the some of the most important data centers and cable landings in North America, showcasing their scale, or in many cases, the banality obscuring the importance inside.
Greer points how public understanding of these systems has not grown alongside our ballooning dependence on them. “Just Google ‘fiber optic outage’ and you can see that this stuff is everywhere and maintenance never ends,” he said (appropriately) over email. “There are wires in the dirt, diesel generators, ships, massive amounts of work and people and power structures to make all this nonsense work.”
As we grow increasingly reliant on internet services to live out our lives, “not knowing at least a little how the ‘magic’ works,” Greer points out, “is going to become increasingly careless.”