The Hidden Infrastructure of the Internet

A rare look inside one of the nondescript buildings that house the major hubs of Internet connectivity

The Internet is more than just a series of tubes, but how many people can actually describe the physical structure of the networks we use every day? Andrew Blum argues in "Tunisia, Egypt, and Miami: The Importance of Internet Choke Points" that the hubs that connect this "network of networks" are incredibly vital, and vulnerable, whether located in Egypt or the U.S.

Ben Mendelsohn explores this subject in Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a short documentary created for his masters thesis at the New School. He takes us inside 60 Hudson Street in New York City, a nondescript building that houses one of the major nodes of the Internet on the east coast. In an interview below, he talks about the making of the film and why these structures matter.

The Atlantic: What motivated you to research Internet infrastructure?

Ben Mendelsohn: I completed this project for my MA thesis in media studies at the New School. My adviser, Shannon Mattern, does really amazing work on "urban media archeology" -- looking at the history of communications networks as they are embedded in the urban landscape. She was my inspiration for investigating where the Internet lives and why it lives there. When I started talking to friends and family about the topic, they all seemed to find it really surprising and interesting, so I thought that a documentary would be well received.

You take a bit of an investigative tone, and the title of the documentary suggests a hidden topic. Was it difficult to get access to these locations, or to the issue in general?

The issue of how this infrastructure is hidden fascinates me. Andrew Blum has a book coming out in May about physical Internet infrastructure, which I'm very excited for. He was giving a lecture and handing out postcards of "data monuments" in New York City, and I asked him: if these are monuments, what do they reveal about the culture that built them? Their message is really one of ambivalence. Service providers need to let potential clients know where they are, but they generally decline to make their presence widely known beyond that marketing purpose. Andrew did say that he envisions "brewery tour" style visits or class field trips to Internet buildings in the future, and I think that would be great, but the industry is not there yet.

In terms of access for my project, I just tried to be persistent in contacting facility operators and letting them know how interested I am in their business. For a while, I didn't think that I would get inside any of the major hubs, let alone take a camera, so I started looking at intrepid startups like Atlantic Metro Communications. Eventually, though, Telx let me in for a tour at 60 Hudson Street, and I'm very grateful for that.

How did you approach the interviews, and select interview subjects?

One of my goals was to integrate my approach to academic research with my approach to documentary, so this meant interviewing some academics. When it comes to cities and digital technology, Saskia Sassen is really the authority, and I was extremely grateful that she was interested in speaking to me. Stephen Graham is a fascinating geographer who, along with Simon Marvin, wrote the book on urban telecommunications infrastructure. He added tons of valuable insight. I learn so much from interviews, it’s a huge part of what makes documentary so much fun.

You seem to stay away from taking a stance on Net Neutrality in the documentary, even though it's closely related to the subject matter. Is it an important issue for you?

It's true. Net neutrality is not a topic that I've made myself an expert in. I avoided it largely because I don’t think that I have anything insightful to contribute. I'm as horrified as anyone by the idea of network operators also controlling content, and I think that we need to continue to resist that sort of thing. But I will say, after getting to know a little about how the Internet works and the types of firms that operate various aspects of it, I'm not sure true "neutrality" is really possible.

What's next for you?

I'm starting to work on another short documentary looking at political obsessiveness and the intersection of personal and political lives. My college roommate works for Grover Norquist, and I had to unfriend him on Facebook because I couldn't stop responding to all the anti-tax stuff that he was posting. I find it really interesting how various political issues penetrate our lives like that.

For more work by Ben Mendelsohn, visit http://benmendelsohn.com/.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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