Over at The Atlantic, Ingrid Burrington recently finished up a series about her cross-country road trip in search of the infrastructure behind the Cloud. Along the way she hits up microwave towers, undersea cable landings, buried cable lines, and a bunch of data centers, but my favourite entry is actually not part of the series itself. Its about her visit to 14th Annual International Utility Locate Rodeo, where utility locators – the people who mark buried cables and conduits whenever people want to dig – compete to demonstrate their proficiency at locating the last mile connections of public and private utilities.
Looking at what locators do highlights not just how tough it is to follow the infrastructure, not just as a practical matter but also at the system-wide level.
Ever since I started looking for visible signs of infrastructure, I’ve heard people tell me that it’s invisible. “Invisible” is a word that people use to describe things—cables, networks, systems, people—when they don’t want to admit they are still learning how to see. It is a word that suggests subterfuge where there might be only incompetence, a master plan where there may only be a missing or outdated map. Locators see this system for what it is: fragmented, full of lost and abandoned histories, and, while very hard to see, impossible to ignore and forgotten at great cost.
The whole, “it’s not subterfuge, just fragmentation” really rings true here. It also helps explain why we get a burst of “understanding The Internet” books every few years that spark identical news stories and then vanish without a trace. If you’re trying to describe The Internet then you’re not really describing anything at all.
I have an extra reason for bringing up Burrington’s series, which is as a pre-apology for the fact that my next batch of posts are part of a series looking at navigation and guidance technology in the Gulf War that sort of negatively name-checks an essay of hers as inspiration. I feel bad each time I mention the connection, but how else to explain how I got going down such a weird path?