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What Does the Internet Look Like?

by Christine Smallwood
on January 25th, 2010

ast summer, Popular Science broke important ground in Internet visualization theory—an ongoing effort to describe what happens behind our computer screens, or, more accurately, beyond them, inside Ethernet cables and satellites flying around in the upper atmosphere. What does all this activity look like? The answer, according to PopSci, is “an enormous, hulking Tootsie Roll pop.” The task your data faces is to lick its way to the center, where all the magic happens.

The history of the Internet is a history of metaphors about the Internet, all stumbling around this dilemma: How do we talk to each other about an invisible god? How does it appear, this mess of data and bytes and information and code, transforming itself into alphabet and image?

We can rule certain images out right at the start. We know, contra former Senator Ted Stevens, that the Internet is not a “series of tubes.” We know that “the Wild West” doesn’t fit, not for a landscape that’s been so nicely parceled, policed and manicured. We also know that it’s not that other Nineties favorite, an “information superhighway”— the point of a highway is to get somewhere, after all, somewhere that is not a highway, while the point of the Internet is to stay there, forever and ever, like a hot tub. A hot tub, after all, is shared with friends and strangers, whose warm water swirls around you, lulling you into complacency while silently transmitting disease. Yes: The Internet is definitely more like a hot tub than a highway.

You might be willing to call it a day with the image of a Tootsie Pop, but Popular Science isn’t stopping there. It also suggests that the Internet looks like a plane that stops at O’Hare en route from JFK to LAX—in other words, like an “inefficient” flight plan. Which, come to think of it, isn’t anything at all like a Tootsie Pop. A Tootsie Pop is among the most efficient of all human creations. Its purpose is to maximize taste pleasure. It does so simply, elegantly, cheaply and sweetly.

No: The Internet is not like a Tootsie Pop at all.

I’m not quite ready to give up on the hot tub idea, though. More on this in a minute.

The Internet is not merely a matter of mind; our bodies are positioned by it, conditioned by it, contorted by it. Maybe you get whiplash from sneaking peeks while your boss isn’t looking, or you slouch in front of it, slack-jawed, glassy-eyed, fluorescent-lit, all day long. Maybe you perch on the edge of your swivel chair to check your stocks and the headlines before the kids get up in the morning, and then creep back again at night for a little Amazon.com. Maybe you, a grandchild of people who “hunt and peck” with two forefingers, only write with your thumbs. Maybe you wear two wrist braces and tote around a special keyboard for ergonomic support. The way we address the god dictates how we sit and slump and bend and the height at which we hold our wrists and when we stand up and when we run back to the desk, just to check one more thing, before skipping out the door. Its magnetic pull yanks your head away from human interlocutors and redirects your gaze, a modern spring of Narcissus. Looking down at its tiny face on “smart phones” is surely the leading cause of non-lethal pedestrian crashes.

We also spend an awful lot of time gazing at other people using the Internet, on television shows, in commercials, on billboards, in print ads, in movies. On the fake-looking screens of CSI and 24 we get impossibly detailed online databases, rotating three-dimensional password prompts, and helpful scans of state secrets. We watch actors do Google searches, sort through YouTube clips, answer MySpace messages, upload photos, click “send” and participate in high-quality live-video chats. Sometimes these things look just like they do in real life. But more often, they look different. More technicolor. More volume. More official seals. More like . . . Important Business.

And yet, using the Internet—even the high-speed Internet—never feels like Important Business. Awkwardly jutting my face to the screen as I puzzle over the comments and ratings the anonymous denizens of Internet-ville have left behind never feels like the civilized tête-à-tête with a knowledgeable gentleman featured in those ads for YellowBook.com. It feels slightly more like the cacophonous ad for the “Optimum Triple Play,” a cable-phone-Internet package that features pirates, sea monsters and mermaids having a beach party, streaming video and rapping about calling Puerto Rico. And yet . . . on the couch, with my overheated laptop burning my legs, one eye on the pirates and one on Wikipedia, I’m all alone, far from the sea, and jealous of the flexible mermaids, able to shimmy with ease despite the hours they pass hunched in front of their computers.

My hunch about that hot tub thing must be right, though, because Optimum isn’t the only one peddling a water party. Hayden Panettiere, shilling for LG, uses her phone as an online “hobby-finder” before she summons her friends and favorite band to her backyard pool for a big blowout. Liquid in general connotes “fast.” Cox sells its high-speed Internet as a “Power Boost”—a foul-tasting sports energy drink that athletes spit out in disgust but that the Cox pod people, little marshmallow men in Hazmat suits, guzzle down the way the kids suckle cans of Monster Energy drink or Mountain Dew. The Internet, you see, is not only fast; it is also playful. Our most futuristic and, frankly, adult technology—a zillion hours of human creativity and brilliance have built a system whose primary use is to ogle pornography-is sold with youth and innocence.

The young, knowing as they are, must be protected. Even when one would prefer to smack them in the mouth. For worried parents, Optimum has a special line of security commercials. Two beefy men in suits, sunglasses and earpieces stand guard over the living room while “Billy” researches Abraham Lincoln. His mother tries to sail in with a glass of milk and a snack, but little Billy, that joker, pretends not to recognize her: “I don’t know this woman.” She’s confused, then exasperated in the way of a TV mom. Where a real mother might grow something like wrathful if her child were to turn the security apparatus against her, this commercial mom just rolls her eyes.

She should be less sanguine. People worse than pedophiles lurk outside the living room walls—people like the Eighties metal band Dokken, who represent, in an ad for Norton AntiVirus software, the terrible havoc that can befall your hard drive, imagined as a tender raw chicken. When Dokken does a synchronized pelvic thrust—i.e., when the virus fucks your computer—the chicken spontaneously combusts in the special kind of irony endemic to modern advertising.

Sometimes the viruses don’t announce themselves with scowls, leather jackets and torn blue jeans. Sometimes, they’re hidden. In Microsoft’s commercials for its search engine Bing, one human being asks another human being a softball question—such as, Did you book our tickets to Hawaii? or, Do pregnant ladies have special dietary needs?—only to discover that the yoga buddy, spouse or parent is not a human at all but has turned unexpectedly into an Internet zombie, monotonously rattling off useless facts. It’s a brain-harvest nightmare with a Freudian twist: an alien virus that colonizes minds and forces mouths to spew out random associations. It combines the technological (a robotic voice, access to infinite information) with the peculiarly human (an associative way of thinking). A search engine, after all, ranks information based on popularity over time in large sample sizes; free association is an individual tic whose meaning is private and unrepeatable. The terror at first seems to be that humans have become machines, but in fact the malfunction is the reverse—the machine has become human, has acquired a human pattern of thought. Hence the need for a technological solution, a superior search engine that will “cut through the clutter” for us feeble, Freudian-minded beings. Modern humans: still able hunter-gatherers, but lousy weeders.

Most Internet service companies sell something very simple: togetherness. In the living room, at poolside, in bed, on a train, you are always connected. You are never alone. The relentless parties they offer, though, only emphasize the Internet’s tragic flaw: It can’t tuck you in at night. It can’t make out with you. You love it, but it doesn’t love you back.

Two hypotheses:

1. We believe that the Internet has banished solitude.

2. The actual experience of using the Internet is inherently solitary.

Commercial pantomimes shore up the first hypothesis while denying the second.

We are born alone, we die alone, and we use the Internet alone. You may gather round the screen with friends to watch a video clip (turning the Internet into a television), or hang out while you play music on Pandora (turning the Internet into a radio), or post to your blog, or “comment” on someone else’s blog (turning the Internet into a roundtable, or a bathroom wall, depending). But these are subsidiary Internet uses. The essence of the Internet, the thing it does that nothing else can do, its Internet-ness, is the search. Comedian Dave Chappelle captured this with the skit “If the Internet Were a Real Place,” in which he loitered in a seedy mall like a modern Odysseus, ransacking CD stores, ducking into curtained rooms to indulge various temptations, and running away from spammers. Wandering around the Internet, the thing we are always searching for is the door—the exit ramp off the superhighway, the way home. But it’s hard to find. How do you know when you’re done doing nothing?

Searching can be defined as the simple action of typing language into a browser for the purpose of calling up more language, or images, or video, or sounds. Point, click, double-click, hunch over, type, scratch your nose, backspace. (Calling this “surfing” requires a level of irony, or cognitive dissonance, or wish-projection, that can only be labeled a pathological denial of bodily experience.) The search is not a group activity. Only one set of fingers can type, only one hand can guide a mouse to click on a link. Daily life presents few frustrations more profound than sharing a keyboard.

We are beholden to countless Internet fantasies: It’s quicker than the speed of light; it appears and dissolves at whim; it’s guarded by big strapping men friendly to our own interests and hostile to the interests of others; it’s magical, evanescent, as portable as our own bodies and imaginations; it looks like a swirling hypercolor tie-dyed video game. These are, of course, also common fantasies about capitalism. But the ultimate fantasy of being online, echoed in much writing about the Internet, is existential: that it’s a place where you are never alone. And yet, by definition, the experience of the Internet is an isolated one. The search demands solitude while promising to eradicate it.

It turns out that the old metaphor—the Net, or the World Wide Web—was a pretty good one: webs and nets are traps. Like a fishing trip, or like being a cop or a drug dealer, searching online involves hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror or pleasure. And more often than you’d like, you wind up ensnaring yourself, like a hunter lying bleeding in a bear trap.

We seek on the Internet because that’s where we find. In the tween movie Twilight, heroine Bella discovers that her boyfriend Edward is a vampire by consulting a website with a convenient link to supernatural occurrences in her very own tiny town. The Internet is here collectively written, but perfectly tailored to exactly her individual needs. It is not the wizened woman in the house down the road that holds the truth to Edward’s identity, but an anonymous and multiply sourced repository of lore. A silent film would have cut to an intertitle to explain a secret; a Thirties noir would have spun newspaper headlines in circles to leap forward in time; a Seventies sci-fi flick would have introduced a wacky professor or scientist to deliver a piece of arcana. Today a quick cut to Google delivers the missing link. It advances the plot.

The cinematic look of the computer screen is arranged to convey maximum information at a minimum strain on the viewer’s resources. Favored: Bright, readable colors; large, legible type; and unmistakably clear language. FILE NOT FOUND, with a big red X like a cherry on top. UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS. SPRINKLER TEST: NEW TIME ACCEPTED. In Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, a renegade stock trader played by John Travolta jerry-rigs a Wi-Fi signal in a subway tunnel so that he can log on and learn if his diabolical scheme to crash the market is working. Luckily for him, the generic finance sites he visits feature thick, helpful arrows indicating which commodities are “up” and which are “down.”

Internet visualization is not merely a matter of the appearance of screens—it’s a matter of Internet ideals, the divine tenets of the day. Film editing makes connectedness look like rapid cross- cutting and mobility like swooping, sudden zooms in and out; speed sounds like techno, or synthesizers, or, if you’re Miami Vice director Michael Mann, like Audioslave. And it’s a plot device, too: American movies since the dawn of the Internet Age have been about connectedness. Ensemble-driven stories—everything from Traffic to Babel to Crash to You and Me and Everyone We Know—are dazzled by the unremarkable fact that individual lives are interdependent and interpenetrating. A flap of a butterly’s wings triggers a monsoon, SARS spreads across the oceans, a virus originating in Bangladesh brings down Wall Street, and so forth.

There are three key cinematic moments in the annals of Internet Visualization: The Net (1995), The Matrix (1999) and Minority Report (2002). In The Net, Sandra Bullock’s life is turned upside-down by an evil hacker conspiracy chasing down the MacGuffin of a missing floppy disk. (As far as I’m concerned, a woman who enters her credit card information into “Pizza.Net,” which looks like it was designed by the makers of the original Donkey Kong, deserves to have her identity stolen.) When she brings them down, the Internet actually dissolves—“It’s eating through the mainframe!” someone cries, and pixels drip down, data reduced to a pulverized, bloody pulp.

As for a “series of tubes,” it’s just possible that Ted Stevens was a few years late to The Matrix, which imagines that the natural energy of bodies submerged in watery pods and connected via a complex of wires and, yes, tubes, is harvested in order to power a god-like machine civilization of sentient servers. Sort of like Microsoft’s Redmond campus.

In the Nineties, the look of the Internet—comic-book websites that changed to illegible green lines of code—corresponded to traditional fears about technocracy. Characters worked to rescue their identities from the machine. Since Minority Report, the focus has been on a more inner-directed search, described with a new search aesthetic: elegant touchscreens, grand postures, classical music. Tom Cruise, playing a future policeman, searches with sweeping gestures of his arms and hands, summoning images up and then casting them decisively aside, rifling, rotating, sweeping, zooming in and out. As in The Matrix, the Internet forms an architecture that frames human life; he’s actually surrounded by data. It’s still a solo flight—only one person can search the screen at a time—but it’s a full-body experience. Cruise doesn’t bend his neck before his laptop or have to do forearm stretches when he comes home at night to relieve his aching joints; he throws his back into it, hands and arms flying around like he’s conducting the New York Philharmonic.

The search used to be practical—In The Net, Sandra Bullock knew she was Sandra Bullock, her job was to convince everyone else. Our newer search anxieties are amnesiac. In The Bourne Identity, the assassin on a self-quest played by Matt Damon personifies the search. With nothing but a handscan (read: a few keystrokes) and a bank account number (an IP address), he accesses the multiple identities that he has strewn around the globe like the little pieces of ourselves that we leave littered around cyberspace. In The Matrix, Neo is “plugged in” via a series of Ethernet wires. In Minority Report, the “pre-cogs,” the human psychics, contain information that is downloaded to disks. In the Bourne trilogy, Matt Damon is the Internet. He is mobility; he is the point of connection; he is search-optimization. He’s a Bing zombie, without the zombie part.

The problem isn’t really that we don’t know what the Internet looks like. It’s that what it looks like is so horribly ugly: not a glistening Tootsie Roll pop, not an open freeway, not a shimmering clear pool of chlorinated water nor a siren-littered sea, not even a chiseled movie star, but giant, hulking factories dotting the landscape of the Pacific Northwest and the Eastern Seaboard, covering old landfills, sprawling, like dozens of Costcos smashed together, stacked with metal and diesel generators and powerful cooling systems, crossed by power lines that deliver 2 percent of the world’s energy to the so-called cloud, where your tax returns and credit card statements cross paths with Medicare files and corporate budgets and your old love letters and the photos of Jennifer Aniston’s newest boyfriend.

I wish the Internet looked like Matt Damon, or like lines of light written by an invisible hand in the night sky. I wish it sounded like tinkling bells and xylophones. I would be sad if it sounded like techno, but I’d get used to it. It turns out, though, that it looks like a warehouse of space junk, and it sounds like an industrial-strength air-conditioning system. Beyond the screen, the Internet looks like everything else. It looks like money.

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