The Very Visible Invisible World of the Internet

Paul Jenkins

University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

To the many who are more technologically savvy and in-tune than myself, I imagine the very real and tangible physicality of the internet is nothing new. But to me it came as something of a revelation. From a certain perspective the physicality of the internet is plainly embodied in the staggering number of people who use it everyday: as of this moment there are 3, 490, 889, 220 internet users worldwide; 92, 826, 500, 827 emails have been sent so far today, while 2, 008, 370, 583 Google searches have been performed; and there are 1, 762, 841, 947 users of that most archaic of social media, Facebook. Even more amazingly, all these figures are already hopelessly out of date. I got them from Internet Live Stats, a site I learned of a couple of months back. While these figures are stupefying this is not the sort of physicality to which I am referring. Instead I was struck far more by some other figures: as of this moment, 3, 224, 700-odd smartphones have been sold today; while 1, 379, 300-odd MWh of electricity (and counting) has been used to power the internet, which has produced 1, 226, 500-odd tons of CO2 emissions (and counting) so far today.

These sobering figures refer to a sort of physical presence that, naively I never considered, to a physical infrastructure that lies behind every laptop screen, every smartphone, and every app. I feel so stupid that I am sharing my ignorance publicly with you, as a gesture of atonement. Then again, perhaps I have not been alone. Certainly, the photographer Dave Greer’s ongoing project entitled Internet nicely demonstrates how the physical infrastructure that makes the internet work has long been hidden, albeit in plain sight. This project is, I think, as compelling visually as it is conceptually. I find it does a wonderful job pulling the viewers head from the cloud (or other mobile network) and refocusing its attention on an often sepia-tinged world of old structures and technology. Of course, that could just be further evidence of how out of touch I have been. Still, I thought these photos and the link to Internet Live Stats worth sharing.

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