A Network of Fragments

There’s a poetry in the bits and pieces of Internet infrastructure that hide in plain sight all around us.

Ingrid Burrington

Throughout Donald Barthelme’s short story “See The Moon?” the narrator keeps saying that fragments are the only forms he trusts. It may be ill-advised to borrow mantras from a fictional character convinced that the moon hates humanity, but it is a phrase I return to often, most recently while driving across America in search of The Cloud. Why? Because The Cloud is a landscape that can only be seen in fragments.

Sam Kronick

Of course, our route was not determined by fragments so much as monuments: by data centers and data-center regions, by historical landmarks and plaques commemorating historical landmarks. But trying to see The Cloud through these sites of the infrastructural sublime was kind of like trying to see all of America through a cross-country road trip. In the server room as on the road, there is always a sense that something is missing, that the truest and most compelling moments happen not at the landmark but somewhere between landmarks, in the places hidden in plain sight and only really comprehended as they recede from view.

For me, those moments tended to happen while driving, basically whenever we saw signs of buried fiber or glimpsed a microwave or cell tower. The American highway system, like the American railway network, is home to a lot of buried fiber-optic cable because like railroads, highways offer telecoms access to long stretches of right-of-way. While we couldn’t pull over for every single fiber marker we saw, they became a source of reassurance, weird talismans reminding us of where the Internet actually lives: in perpetual motion, trafficking between devices and across oceans and under interstates.

Fiber lines don’t tend to be the subject of stories the way data centers can be the subject of stories; they aren't quite as legibly heroic as data centers. They lack the grandeur of purpose-built power substations, the ambient hum of cooling systems, the sheer volume and scale and distance that draw artists like Timo Arnall and Evan Roth to go full Caspar David Friedrich on data centers and submarine-cable landing sites. Their politics are also similarly illegible: It's not always easy to figure out who the fiber belongs to (as it often bears the name of a now-defunct company), whether it’s actually being used, or how it got there. There are press releases for the openings of data centers, not so much for fiber trenching. Despite (or, as is often the case with utility signage, due to) the bright colors used to mark them off, they are weirdly easy not to notice. And they tend to be in places where it isn’t especially easy to pause: just past the shoulder, off the side of the highway.

Sam Kronick

The same can be said for towers. While they tend to loom larger on the horizon than orange posts and little orange flags for buried cable, towers are more often observed in passing because they tend to be pretty inconveniently located for any detours. Since line of sight is crucial to wireless technology, they are frequently placed on elevations, along rarely trafficked mountain roads and up dirt ones that were never really designed for two-wheel drive. And while most towers feature placards that provide all of their relevant FCC registration information (owners, ID number), unless you’ve come to a specific tower for a specific purpose these placards remain pretty opaque. They do not tell a story as easily as a data center does.

Sam Kronick

I find these infrastructural fragments of the network sort of moving, sites more for practical magic than daunting sublime. There is something profoundly comforting about the small signifiers, about all of the things that are just out of the corner of your eye, doing their thing, apart from you but maybe connected to you via an imaginary diaphanous traceroute. Maybe you sent a packet down this highway once, maybe Google sent a packet back to you. Maybe you’re sending packets down this highway right now, as you check your phone to remind yourself that there is a larger world outside the confines of a pickup truck, and that your entire life does not begin and end in this 10-hour day of driving.

In another part of “See The Moon?”, Barthelme’s narrator notes that “It’s my hope that these … souvenirs … will someday merge, blur—cohere is the word, maybe—into something meaningful.” I have spent the last few years trying to glimpse the totality of the network in the fragments of network infrastructure, and while it is a far more coherent landscape today than it appeared to me a few years ago, at the end of the day these fragments remain the only forms I trust.