Visualizing the Internet

Submarine fiber optic cables around the worldOrdinarily, when one talks about visualizing cyberspace, they think of massive neon-structures or cityscapes made up of cascading symbols of data. While these images – the creation of writers like William Gibson and film makers like the Waschowski Brothers – are certainly visually appealing, they are not exactly realistic, and hardly do the real thing justice.

Thankfully, a recent article over at policymic has presented us with a new and interesting way of visualizing this thing we call the World Wide Web. By compiling images of the various deep-sea cables that allow us to transmit information at the speed of light, author Laura Dimon reminds us that while the internet may be made up of trillions of bits of data moving about at any given moment, it is dependent upon real-world physical connections.

Submarine Cable Map 2012And these connections are extensive, with more than 550,000 fiber optic cables running along the ocean floor that are responsible for transmitting trillions upon trillions of interactions per day. According to the Washington Postthese cables “wrap around the globe to deliver emails, web pages, other electronic communications and phone calls from one continent to another.”

But surprisingly, few people seem to truly appreciate this. In an age of WiFi where more and more networks are being added to our public airwaves every day, the perception that all this information is something ethereal seems to have become rooted. Luckily, real-world events – such as the severing of several Seacom cables off the coast of Alexandria back in March – have managed to remind people just how grounded and potentially vulnerable the internet is.

Global Internet Map 2012Given our immense and increasing reliance on the internet for business, personal communications, entertainment and shopping, one would that we as a people would possess at least a passing knowledge of how it works. But as Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chair, claimed in his book The New Digital Age: “The internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand.”

Luckily, Laura provides a breakdown in her article which is a good start:

It consists of tens of thousands of interconnected networks run by service providers, individual companies, universities, and governments. There are three major parts to its construction: the networks that physically connect to each other (with about 12 that are particularly significant); the data-storing centers; and the architecture that lies in between. That is where it gets really interesting.

Global Internet Map 2011And just in case this doesn’t provide a clear picture, there are numerous images that have been created by organizations like Telecom Maps and The Fiber Optic Association. These show just how immense, extensive, and crisscrossed the cables that bring us all our emails, videos, blog feeds, and ability to surf are.

In addition, they also remind us that the historic gap between the developed and underdeveloped world persists into the information age. For every network of cables, there are cable landing stations that connect the deep sea lines to the continent they are servicing. As the maps show, Europe has more international network capacity than any other world region.

Global Voice Traffic Map 2010

They also remind us that the once undisputed technological supremacy of the United States has been slowly eroding as humanity enters the 21st Century. This has been especially apparent within the last decade, where localized service providers have eschewed the US as a central hub and begun to connect their networks to other countries and regions.

Fascinating, and educational. I hope someday to be able to use these sorts of visualizations in the classroom, as a means of letting students know what enables all their surfing habits. I imagine most of them will be surfing on their smartphones as I speak!

Sources: policymic.com, telegeography.com, thefoa.org

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