We tend to think of the Internet as vast and infinite, an amorphous nebula of tweets, cats, and words spilled on Flappy Bird. And to an extent, we’re right–according to some estimates, 90% of the world’s data was generated in just the last two years alone. Yet the Internet and its crushing presence is very much finite, inasmuch as the space and infrastructure required to contain it is, physically speaking, limited in form. Reddit’s server rooms take up space. And so does your computer.
Which is why in many ways, this Internet–the physical Internet–is even more mysterious to us than the more-familiar information universe housed inside it. And now, one ambitious photographer would like to change that. Invisible Networks is the ongoing project of Shuli Hallak, whose end goal is to showcase the palpable parts of the net we otherwise never think about. Part fine art project, part editorial, Invisible Networks sucks us into the weird alternative universe of massive carrier hotels and amazonian broadband networks pulsing beneath our cities. And–perhaps unsurprisingly–it’s pretty damn fascinating.
After getting her MFA at the School of Visual Arts in 2005, Hallak’s journey as a photographer led her to do an artist series on cargo ships. It was there the seed for Invisible Networks was planted. “I photographed the whole world of cargo shipping for like two years and got access to a port. I was really fascinated with how ships come in and how containers come off the ships,” she told Fast Company. “There was this whole invisible network of infrastructure we don’t see.” I sat down with Hallak over coffee on a slushy day in February to talk about her goals, the creative process, and the Internet most of us are unfamiliar with. The following is an edited transcript.
FAST COMPANY: So a cargo ship, huh? What were the accommodations like?
SHULI HALLAK: Not too bad! It was like a Best Western. It was crazy. And a lot of fun.
So I’m guessing that living on a cargo ship is not where you came up with the idea to photograph the Internet.
No, no. It’s been a long, organic evolution. After cargo ships, I became fascinated with all the invisible stuff that makes our world run that we don’t see, like energy. Coal, oil, renewable resources–stuff like that. In the back of my mind, I was always thinking about The Matrix, you know? [Laughs] The world we really live in and the whole illusion thing.
Then, about two years ago, I was reading about how data centers consume all this energy–almost as much as small cities. And I’m like, “Well, that’s crazy.” Facebook is building these huge server farms on the Arctic Circle. And they’re huge. They’re enormous. And all it is really is our photos, the stuff we do every day. We’re building a whole other layer–a whole new world–on top of our existing world. And we don’t even see it.
It just made me really curious. At first, [I just wanted to photograph] data centers because I think that’s all I had a visual concept of. It just points to the fact that we think of the Internet in the abstract. Or in the cloud. And it’s absolutely not. It’s very, very physical. It’s graspable. And it’s why I started Invisible Networks last March.
How do you even go about photographing the Internet? Where did you start?
I made contacts and told people what I was doing, and found a few who were interested. Some of these telecoms and people building infrastructure really want to get their stuff seen and heard in the right way. I built the right relationships, I think, because I was in it for the long haul.
So the telecoms were receptive to you taking pictures of their work?
Yeah. I met this guy named Hunter Newby, who helped me out a lot. He was one of the people who started Telx. He told me about 325 Hudson, which is this huge carrier hotel here in New York that I photographed for my e-book.
What’s a carrier hotel?
It’s this neural point in the network where these core networks come together and start connecting. A core network is a network that carries high bandwidth. Facebook is a core network. Sony is a core network because of all the gamers. There are a bunch of other ones that we haven’t heard of.
So, they bring their equipment to a carrier hotel and set it up inside what’s called a “meet me room.” They run a fiber through a “meet me area” and then, if they want to connect to another network, that network brings another fiber into the “meet me area,” too. It’s so they’re not dealing directly to another company’s equipment.
So it’s like diplomacy, but for Internet connectivity?
[Laughing] Exactly. It’s a neutral area within a neutral area where everyone’s connecting. They need to physically connect, but we think of all this stuff as just… there.
Let’s talk about your creative process. How do you go about composing photos when you get to a site? Do you already have a story in mind?
Sometimes I really have no idea what I’m going to see. For some of the stuff, I’m really happy that this is a long-term thing because I get to grow with it. It’s not a one-off thing, so there’s no pressure. I try to just not think, because I think when I think. And it ruins it.
As a photographer, I realized that all your work is done way before you ever get there. You’ve already done your work as an artist by beating yourself up and by taking in all the visual stimulus and punching it through. It’s just there. It’s an impulse, I think. If you really love what you do, you don’t think about it. I’m just paying attention to what’s happening. I try to get into it.
Have you ever gotten to a site and thought, Whoa I wasn’t expecting that?
Some stuff–like manholes. I photographed these companies pulling fiber through the streets of New York, like Stealth and OCG Fiber. They opened up the manholes and I actually went down into one. It was a mess. [Laughs]
You went down into the sewer?
Yup. That’s our critical infrastructure. It’s a mess. It’s a total disaster. It’s not the companies’ faults–they’re just doing whatever they have to do. It’s just layers and layers of a person or company pulling whatever it is they need to pull. It’s actually pretty cool because it’s a history of New York down there–electric, telecom, whatever. You look down and you don’t think it’s so bad. But then you go in!
Apparently, the one I saw wasn’t even that bad.
So where do underwater cables come into the picture? Do you plan on diving or anything to photograph them?
The funny thing is it doesn’t even really require diving. [The cables] do go on the water, and there is an element to it that requires a submarine rover. But the process is really about the physical part of it: The cables that get manufactured and then loaded up onto these huge ships. It takes like three weeks to load these giant cables onto the actual ship.
And then the ship goes out to sea for like a month. It’s a beautiful process–kind of an art form. There’s over a half million miles of submarine cables all around the world that are tying all of us together and sending us our information. I’m excited to see it. It’s going to be really beautiful.
Are these cables really attacked? Like that one in Egypt a few years back?
Apparently, they have cable cuts all the time, but it isn’t that big a deal. When the cables come close to shore they are usually buried. But anchors and fishing ships sometimes cut them. From what I understand, it happens quite often.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Why do you think it’s important for people to see this stuff? This living part of the Internet?
It’s important because we’re moving into an information era from the industrial era. This is the infrastructure we are relying on. In the industrial era, we relied on electricity and actual highways to make and move products. Now, we’re relying on broadband to move things. We’re making things on the Internet and transporting them on the Internet. We’re at a disadvantage if we don’t know what that looks like because it’s physical, and we’re building our entire next era on this.
Our lives, our economy, everything is built on this–the future of cities are going to be built around where the best broadband is, or where the best access it. There are a lot of implications. If we know what this stuff looks like, then we can actually speak about it and think about it. It’s not actually very complicated or difficult. We’re visual thinkers. And we can speak about things when we have a visual concept.
What do you mean?
When we don’t have a visual concept, we’re grasping for how to speak about it. We don’t know what a fiber cable looks like. We can imagine it, because we kind of know what cables look like. But when we’re talking about fiber optics, we’re just drawing up blanks. Like, what the hell’s a router? What’s a carrier hotel? These kinds of things are important. Words are meaningless without an actual symbol.
Hallak’s e-book, The Birth of a Carrier Network, is available for download here.