Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

Where is the internet? At the most metaphorical level, which is also the way that most of us think about it most of the time, it exists in a parallel universe called cyberspace. We peer into this other realm through our browser windows, and can take short cuts through it to places in our world that are remote in space and time. You could, for example, rewatch the fall of 17 wickets on the first day of the first Ashes test. Or you could take a look at the traffic on Fifth Avenue, or the shipping in Portsmouth Harbour. Or you could stay in cyberspace, assume a secret identity, and chat to someone else similarly disguised. Or you could play backgammon with them. Or you could download and play a game that you couldn’t play in real life (or IRL, as they say in the chatrooms), such as the elegant and fiendish Blackshift (www.foon.co.uk/blackshift). Or you could – virtually speaking – sit in a quiet corner by yourself and read the newspaper. The possibilities are endless.

The web browser as we know it, with hyperlinks you can follow simply by clicking on them, drop-down menus, scroll bars and – crucially – pictures, was invented in 1992 by Marc Andreessen, an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. The program that he and his colleagues wrote, Mosaic, paved the way for mass internet use by allowing the technologically illiterate to plug ourselves into the network. The world we enter when we open up Internet Explorer or Firefox (a much better browser than Internet Explorer for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s not made by Microsoft; download it free from www.mozilla.org) is an illusion, a phantasmagoria projected by a vast conglomeration of computers. The internet is both nowhere and everywhere.

It’s also in America. There’s a historical reason for this. The internet had its origins in ARPANET, which in the 1970s linked the computer systems of 15 universities that were funded by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Project Agency. Matthew Zook tells the story well in The Geography of the Internet Industry (Blackwell, £19.99). The technology that made the network possible had been devised by Paul Baran in the US and Donald Davies in the UK, working independently of each other – the Newton and Leibniz of the information age. ‘Packet switching’ allows data to be broken up into units (‘packets’) of a manageable and standard size, which can then be sent separately through the ether and put back together at the other end. Packets of data could be sent via landlines, radio or satellite, and each form of transmission worked in a different way. This was inconvenient. So a method of networking the networks was devised, known as ‘transmission control protocol/internet protocol’ (TCP/IP). The three ARPANET packet-switching networks were joined up in 1977, and TCP/IP is still the underlying basis of the internet today.

Websites aren’t really located at the ‘addresses’ we type into our browsers. All .uk domain names, for example, are held on a database run by a not-for-profit private company called Nominet, which is based in Oxford. When you type http://www.lrb.co.uk into your browser, a few packets of data are sent via your internet service provider to Nominet’s database, which sends them on to a host whose IP address is not www.lrb.co.uk but 82.112.100.113. The data that are there will then be sent back in packets to your computer (which has its own IP address, courtesy of your internet service provider), and appear in your browser as the LRB’s home page. You could type in 62.128.152.237 instead of www.lrb.co.uk, but the numbers are harder to remember and less meaningful than the domain name: you can tell straightaway that www.lrb.co.uk is the website of a company called LRB that’s based in the UK. Who knows where 63.161.169.137, say, will take you? The server that the LRB site sits on happens to be in London too, though it needn’t be: it used to be in Virginia.

No one knows where Google’s ‘server farms’ are. Well, some people do; but they like to keep it secret. According to John Hennessy and David Patterson’s Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach (2002), in 2000 Google had 11,000 machines at four sites, two in Silicon Valley and two in Virginia. One thing that’s certain is that the farms are growing all the time, as new hardware is continuously wired up, increasing the size of their databases. All the messages I’ve ever sent or received at my gmail account – gmail is Google’s rival to Hotmail – are stored somewhere on those computers. If you go to www.gmail.com, you’ll see a running total, showing that the storage capacity of each and every gmail account is increasing by 0.00004 megabytes per second (3.5 megabytes per day), far outstripping the rate at which any normal user of email would fill it. I’ve had a gmail account since October, and am currently using 2 per cent of my 2418 MB. And it’s all disturbingly free.

Although the internet has spread around the world, it’s used more intensively in some places than others. One of Zook’s useful maps shows that more than 35 per cent of the population of North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan use the internet, but the figure for most of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East is less than 2 per cent. In July 2003, there were nearly 17 million domain names registered in the US: a third of the world’s total, and more than the next three countries (Germany, the UK and Canada) put together. What’s more, almost all of the world’s internet traffic passes through 13 ‘root servers’ in America, which hold the master directories of domain name suffixes (.com, .net, .uk, .fr etc). In other words, a vastly disproportionate amount of the production, dispersal and consumption of data on the internet takes place in America. So much so, in fact, that if America were to withdraw from the internet – or, rather, to exclude the rest of the world from it – it would to all intents and purposes cease to exist as a worldwide phenomenon.

The UN Working Group on Internet Governance, which was set up by Kofi Annan following the World Summit on the Information Society in December 2003, published its report in June. One of its conclusions is that ‘no single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international internet governance’. There was talk of wresting control of the root servers from the US. The Bush administration demurred. So that’s that.

There’s another way of thinking about where the internet is, which Zook concentrates on in his book, and that’s to follow the money. ‘The great paradox,’ he writes, ‘is that despite the internet’s ability to transcend space, dot-com companies clustered in a relatively small number of urban agglomerations’: New York, Los Angeles, London, San Francisco. Zook concludes – from a lot of data, rigorously analysed – that the internet industry is concentrated in the same places as venture capital firms. Money makes money, in other words, and there’s nothing either virtual or new about that.