Early computers were so bulky, they filled entire rooms. Now powerful microprocessors nestle in our hands. At the same time, the array of equipment that supports our devices has grown nearly as vast as the planet. From the rivers of cable below our feet to rooftops bristling with microwave antennae, the infrastructure of our online lives is all around us.
It has gotten to the point that Ingrid Burrington, author of the new book "Networks of New York," says we've passed a threshold: we now live inside a giant computer. "It takes a tremendous amount of material resources to make the internet function in the world," Burrington said as she walked around Manhattan identifying a creeping kudzu of nondescript routers and junction boxes. "And those material resources are often very hard to see."
Burrington made it her project to map as much of it as she could, beginning with the spray-painted scrawls that increasingly cover our streets: those color-coded hieroglyphs that communicate clues to New York's tangle of underground utilities. (There are no markings for alligators in the sewers ... that we know of.)
You might ask, "All this so millennials can chase Pikachu around Bryant Park?" Well, yes. But of course, the internet is infinitely more important than that. Modern life would be unrecognizable without it, though some would argue that the constant need to interact online has started to flatten our experience. In her book, Burrington quotes writer Quinn Norton's critique of "a world where falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same."
Of course that world is here to stay, at least until brain chips are perfected or the seas rise up to carry us away.