Here's What The Internet Looks Like

These data visualizations, caricatures, and images capture the internet in all it's wiry glory.

Though we carry it in our pockets, have let it invade our waking life, and ignore its many detractions for the cheap thrill of accessing it, the Internet remains mostly faceless to us. Like a faint memory, we feel we know it intimately but have no sense of its size, its scale, or its design. To give form to what we too prevalently consider a formless entity, we've rounded up some impressive attempts at capturing its likeness--from data visualization to caricature--to better answer the question: What is the Internet, anyway?

The Internet Is Our New Milky Way

Andrew Blum, a journalist giving a TED talk on the Internet’s underrepresented ties to the physical world, described the Opte Project’s map of the Internet (pictured below) as being strikingly similar to Apollo 17’s famous picture of the Earth, The Blue Marble (pictured below that).

In 2003, The Opte Project was the first to map the 14 billion pages that make up the network of the web.

But when charted on a visual plane, Opte’s image is far closer in intricacy and scope to our own Milky Way (below). And it should be noted that the top photograph is from 2003--since then, the Internet has grown quite steadily in what seems like a quest to outdo the universe’s reach.

Just like the Internet races to outpace the universe’s design, PEER 1 Hosting, a global hosting provider, has outpaced Opte’s imagery. Creating an app that charts the Internet on a 3D interface, PEER 1 has given users an easier way of understanding the global network that binds them to the world. Not only are they able to plot where noted domains and web companies are physically located on the planet, they also provide an interactive timeline of the evolution of the Internet (and as it’s projected to appear in the year 2020).

With this type of reference point, people can steer away from the notion that “the cloud” is little more than that--the Internet, in fact, is very much rooted in the physical world.

More Than Just Bits Of Information

If given 10 seconds to conjure a mental image of the Internet, most ardent web surfers would come up with CollegeHumor’s Simpsons-esque take . For many, it’s little more than a madhouse of remixable pop culture, captured astoundedly well in the image below.

Others, like Flickr user GustavoG, have a more intimate understanding of the World Wide Web, and the Internet it sits upon. They’ve been able to piece together their own visual interpretations of their online networks and how those function within their own ecosystem. Choosing 1,000 Flickr users at random, Gustavo plotted out their networks as clusters of interconnected webbing. The result is an elaborate cloud of Flickr-focused clout. Or, six degrees of separation, Flickr style. (It also bears a strange resemblance to Mickey Mouse.)

But none of the above would be possible without the work put in to connect the world through “real-world” channels. Thanks to the hardened work of telecom research company Telegeography, we can see through internet cartography how cables stretch across ocean floors and nations, in order to make emailing and Facebooking possible.

Google and Amazon also have their own roots in reality. Though seldom imagined by the average user, both web giants require as much physical leverage as their digital alter egos do online.

Photographer Ben Roberts and journalist Sarah O'Connor, for example, documented the takeover of a small British town by Amazon, as part of it was converted into a fulfillment center (below).

The new facility is the size of nine soccer fields, and seems to have given a lifeless corporate sheen to the people it was supposed to help rejuvenate in an industry-forsaken town.

In contrast, Google’s facilities appear more colorful and jovial. But are no less expansive and impressive. As part of what Google has dubbed “the physical Internet,” their images (below) further elucidate the features of a face we never get to see, and counter the impression that the Internet is some bodiless entity.

Council Bluffs, Iowa. One of Google data centers, this one boasts over 115,000 sq. feet of space.

Douglas County, Georgia. Insulated pipes that help power Google’s servers.

Douglas, County, Georgia. Pipeline inside data center.

The Future Of Internet Portraiture

But even as we begin to understand the Internet as this ever-growing and emerging entity that is starting to resemble our own galaxy, and has grandiose physical dimensions, we can also see just how fragile it really is.

Many security experts project that future wars might entirely be carried out electronically, and we’re already seeing the first traces of this in the news. The attacks tend to vary in style but, as the video below illustrates, can look eerily like a Shock and Awe campaign.

DDoS attack on the VideoLAN infrastructure.

CNN footage of beginning of Iraq War (2003).

Using Google’s website access log visualization tool Logstalgia―another important step in cataloguing the face of the Internet―the distributed denial-of-service attack was tracked with alarming clarity. 

A window into a future overrun by digitized violence, the video of the DDoS makes the work of the Internet Archive seem infinitesimally more precious. Though born of the desire to preserve the contents of the Internet, the archive has now begun to safekeep books and other physical units of knowledge.

Their end goal is to archive all the available contents of the world--including websites, films, music, books, and TV channels--in hopes of preserving the data for all future generations to freely access. The more elaborate the Internet becomes, the more fragile its existence, and so preservation becomes an integral part of its make-up. But before we assess its value, at least enough to conclude that is should be preserved for all time, we must better understand the Internet. And that can be done by understanding what it looks like.