How do you make a map of the internet?

A very large map.
A very large map.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“Industrially, Milwaukee is known across the face of the earth,” the 1941 WPA Guide to Wisconsin rhapsodized. The United States became a country that produced ideas more than things. But Milwaukee’s industry didn’t disappear entirely. It quietly holds on today, having moved out of the city and into the suburbs, like so much of American urban life. Early one morning I followed its path, driving from a downtown hotel on a deserted street to a new industrial neighborhood in the northwest corner of the city. My destination was the tidy tan building across the road, with the giant “KN” painted on the side.

Kubin-Nicholson was the “printers of the humongous.” Its current press—as big as a school bus—sat within a cavernous hall. I watched from inside a glass-walled customer lounge, as the pressman peered into its innards, a cordless phone wedged in the crook of his neck, a long screwdriver in his hand. Beside me was Markus Krisetya, who had flown in from Washington to supervise the job at the press that day. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could be done over email. No digital scan would properly capture the nuance. FedEx would be far too slow for the back- and-forth, trial and error, required for the final settings. Krisetya accepted it as one of those things that still had to be done in person, a fact made even more surprising by what was being printed: a map of the internet.

Krisetya was its cartographer. Each year, his colleagues at TeleGeography, a Washington, DC–based market research firm, polled telecommunications companies around the world for the latest information about the capacity of their data lines, their busiest routes, and their plans for expansion. TeleGeography’s cartographers don’t use any fancy algorithms or proprietary data analysis software. They worked an old-fashioned process of calling industry contacts and gaining their trust, then choosing just the right moment to make a few leaps of conjecture. Most of that effort goes toward a big annual report known as Global Internet Geography, or GIG, sold to the telecommunications industry for $5,495 a pop.*  But some of the key pieces of data are shunted into a series of maps of Krisetya’s creation. One diagrammed the internet’s backbone architecture, the key links between cities. Another illustrated the quantities of network traffic, boiling trillions of moving bits down to a series of thick and thin lines. A third—the map on the press that morning in Milwaukee—showed the world’s undersea communications cables, the physical connections between continents. All were representations of the spaces in between, the strands of connection that we typically ignore. The countries and continents were afterthoughts; their action was in the emptiness of the oceans. Yet these maps were also representations of physical things: actual cables, filled with strands of glass, themselves filled with light—amazing human constructions, of the kind a Milwaukeean would be proud.

Krisetya examined every inch of the test print, pointing out imperfections. The pressman responded by moving levers up and down on a huge control panel, like the soundboard at a rock concert. Every few minutes, the giant press would spool up and spit out a few copies of the newest version. Krisetya would then go back over it again, inch by inch until finally, he put down his magnifier and nodded quietly. The pressman affixed a neon orange sticker to the map, and Krisetya signed it with a black marker, like an artist. This was the gold master, the definitive and original representation of the earth’s underwater telecommunications landscape, circa 2010.

The networked world claims to be frictionless—to allow for things to be anywhere. Transferring the map’s electronic file to Milwaukee was as effortless as sending an email. Yet the map itself wasn’t a JPEG, PDF, or scalable Google map, but some- thing fixed and lasting—printed on a synthetic paper called Yupo, updated once a year, sold for $250, packaged in cardboard tubes, and shipped around the world. TeleGeography’s map of the physical infrastructure of the internet was itself of the physical world. It may have represented the internet, but inevitably it came from somewhere—specifically, North Eighty-Seventh Street in Milwaukee, a place that knew a little something about how the world was made.

In Kevin Kelly’s “Internet Mapping Project,” people drew how they thought a map of the internet would look.
In Kevin Kelly’s “Internet Mapping Project,” people drew how they thought a map of the internet would look.
Image: Courtesy of Kevin Kelly

To go in search of the physical internet was to go in search of the gaps between the fluid and fixed. To ask, what could happen anywhere? And, what had to happen here? I didn’t know this at the time, but in one of many strange ironies involved in visiting the internet, over the next year and a half I would see TeleGeography’s maps hanging on the walls of internet buildings around the world—in Miami, Amsterdam, Lisbon, London, and elsewhere. Wedged into their plastic office-supply store frames, they were fixtures of those places, as much a part of the atmosphere as the brown cardboard shipping boxes piled up in the corners or the surveillance cameras poking out from the walls. The maps were themselves like the dyes that trace fluid dynamics, their mere presence highlighting the currents and eddies of the physical internet.

When a squirrel chewed through the wire in my backyard in Brooklyn, I had only the slightest inkling of how the internet all fit together. I assumed my cable company must have a central hub somewhere—maybe out on Long Island, where its corporate headquarters was? But after that I could only imagine that the paths went everywhere, the bits scattering like Ping-Pong balls bouncing through dozens if not hundreds of tubes—more than could be counted, which was basically the same as saying none at all. I’d heard about an internet “backbone,” but the details were sketchy, and if it were truly a big deal, I figured I would have heard more. At the least, it would have occasionally become clogged or broken, bought or sold. As for international links, the undersea cables seemed mythic, like something out of Jules Verne. The internet—other than as it appeared on my ever-present screen—was more conceptual than actual. The only concrete piece I had a clear image of were those big data centers, photographs of which I’d seen in magazines. They always looked the same: linoleum floors, thick bundles of cables, and blinking lights. The power of the images came not from their individuality, but from their uniformity. They implied an infinity of other machines standing invisibly behind them.  As I understood  it (but mostly didn’t), those were the parts of the internet. So what was I looking for?

I became an armchair traveler, querying network engineers with the same set of questions: How did the network fit together? What should I see? Where should I go? I started working up an itinerary, a list of cities and countries, of monuments and centers. But in the process I quickly stumbled on a more fundamental question about the network of networks: What was a network, anyway? I had one at home. Verizon had one too. So did banks, schools, and pretty much everyone else, some reaching across buildings, others across cities, and a few across the entire world. Sitting at my desk, I thought they all seemed to coexist, in relative peace and prosperity. Out there in the world, how did they all physically fit together?

Once I got my nerve up to ask the question at all, the whole thing started to make more sense. It turns out that the internet has a kind of depth. Multiple networks run through the same wires, even though they are owned and operated by independent organizations—perhaps a university and a telephone carrier, say, or a telephone carrier contracted to a university. The networks carry networks. One company might own the actual fiber-optic cables, while another operates the light signals pulsing over that fiber, and a third owns (or more likely rents) the bandwidth encoded in that light. China Telecom, for example, operates a robust North American network—not as a result of driving bull- dozers across the continent, but by leasing strands of existing fiber, or even just wavelengths of light within a shared fiber.

This geographic and physical overlapping was crucial to understanding where and what the internet was. But it meant I had to get over the old, and really misleading, metaphor of the “information highway.” It wasn’t really that the network is a “highway” busy with “cars” carrying data. I had to acknowledge the extra layer of ownership in there: the network is more like the trucks on a highway than the highway itself. That allows for the likelihood that many individual networks—“autonomous systems,” in internet parlance—run over the same wires, their information-laden electrons or photons jostling across the countryside, like packs of eighteen-wheelers on the highway.

In that case, the networks that compose the internet could be imagined as existing in three overlapping realms: logically, meaning the magical and (for most of us) opaque way the electronic signals travel; physically, meaning the machines and wires those signals run through; and geographically, meaning the places those signals reach. The logical realm inevitably requires quite a lot of specialized knowledge to get at; most of us leave that to the coders and engineers. But the second two realms—the physical and geographic—are fully a part of our familiar world. They are accessible to the senses. But they are mostly hidden from view. In fact, trying to see them disturbed the way I imagined the interstices of the physical and electronic worlds.

It was striking to me that I had no trouble thinking of a physical network of something, like a railroad or a city; after all, it shares the physical world in which we exist as humans, and which we learned as children to navigate. Similarly, anyone who spends time using a computer is at least comfortable with the idea of the “logical” world, even if we don’t often call it that. We sign in to our home or office networks, to an email service, bank, or social network—logical networks all, which encompass our attention for hours on end. Yet we can’t for the life of us grasp that narrow seam between the physical and the logical.

Here was the rarely acknowledged chasm in our understanding of the world—sort of 21st-century original sin. The internet is everywhere; the internet is nowhere. But indubitably, as invisible as the logical might seem, its physical counterpart is always there.

*This was the price of the Global Internet Geography report when the book was written. Today, it sells for $12,000.

Excerpted from TUBES by Andrew Blum Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Blum. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.