DQ: Thinking Physically About the Internet – and the Environment

Andrew Blum’s discussion of the physical nature and infrastructure of the internet in Tubes and in his photo essay on Wired, helps open the black box of the internet, allowing us to peer into the inner physical workings of something that is often thought of in abstract or virtual terms. Like in our earlier discussions regarding new media hiding labor, new media can also hide the physical infrastructure under the internet, as well as the work needed to maintain it. How does recognizing the physical geography of the internet change our perspective on on our actions on the internet?

This is an issue that I have been exposed to and thought about before. I would point out one major implication of thinking about the internet in this manner is realizing its environmental effect. In the public discourse, new media are usually  thought of  as “environmentally friendly,” as they use less paper, require less travel by car and plane, and other reasons. Yet because of the physical nature of the internet, there are very real-world impacts on the environment that are often hidden within the “black box.” For instance, the New York Times discussed the power needs and pollution effects of data centers. The mining of metals for electronic devices can cause environmental harm. While the issue of the environment was outside of Blum’s scope, he did discuss how real world factors, such as the availability of massive amounts of power, helped decide where some internet centers should be located. What other problems are uncovered by recognizing the infrastructure of the internet?  Besides the environmental problems, are there social inequalities or social justice problems that occur based on the physical geography of the internet?  Should this change how we think about, and how we use the internet?  As our dependence on new media and internet technologies for information increases, we will have to start to confront these types of questions.

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