Seeing Networks: New York’s Very Own Field Guide to the City’s Internet Infrastructure

Time Warner

It’s easy to take for granted the massive scale of a city’s infrastructure: the cables, tubes, wires and tunnels that undergird a network of streets, buildings, bridges and subways. In New York specifically, where people scamper through traffic with their eyes glued to phones, it’s no wonder we underestimate how our city functions mechanically. But there are markings left all over the place that are literal gateways to New York’s underground networks, like manhole covers that shield the city’s Internet, for instance.

Seeing Networks is the independent project of Ingrid Burrington, a writer and former resident at the Eyebeam Art Institute that serves as a field-guide to New York City’s internet infrastructure. The project, which is also a book called Networks of New York, intends to make sense of the markings and hieroglyphic scribblings we see etched into concrete walls or on city streets. It explains why construction crews spray-paint orange characters on the ground before an excavation job, and what exactly Time Warner’s manhole covers lead to.

Although the city’s network is immense, Burrington says much of the information regarding its whereabouts and ownership isn’t that easy to access. “I assumed it was already public knowledge and very quickly found out how hard it is to get anyone to tell you anything, at least at the level of the actual cables and objects of infrastructure,” she says.

Illustrations of various street markings. Photo: Ingrid Burrington.

Because of Internet companies’ reticence, Burrington has had to snoop around construction sites–asking workers in the midst of excavation jobs what certain markings reveal or conceal. She found herself “pestering dudes who work in manhole covers,” as well as taking notes on spray-painted characters and referencing them with the logos from various internet companies.

Many characters stand to warn construction crews of cables that sit close to the street surface, but others indicate corporate ownership of certain wires, and stipulate where crews can drill, and where they can’t.

Burrington says the internet is “a marketplace and the marketplace has real estate,” which makes digging up streets a precarious job for construction crews. Basically, the orange characters that otherwise look like gibberish for passerby mean serious business for internet providers.

It required a lot of field work, but what Burrington came away with is a layman’s guide to the hyper-connected world living beneath our feet. Burrington hopes that Seeing Networks can “start some of the conversations about how we live with technology and how it surrounds us all the time,” which is, by all accounts, something humans overlook constantly. 

Networks of New York can be purchased here.

Burrington's book, Networks of New York.

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