The Internet, for most of us, is a fairy-dusted invisible terrain, a current through which we drift in and out with seamless ease. A cloud, we call it. A Web. Whatever it is, the Internet is very light.
It is this lightness that’s difficult to square with the nuts-and-bolts hardware that powers our virtual worlds, which is perhaps why we so often disregard the hulking, physical Internet in our midst. When Google signed a contract a week after Thanksgiving to pay close to $2 billion for a former Port Authority fortress downtown, the sheer numerical bulk of the deal made headlines: a block-size behemoth with more square feet than the Empire State Building, a footprint bigger than two football fields, the city’s biggest real estate transaction of the year, perhaps the biggest single-property sale ever.
But more importantly, the deal represents a seismic claim on the fiber-optic highway coalescing around Ninth Avenue and Hudson Street.
In 1997, when developer Taconic Investment Partners bought the building, it sized up a new breed of tenant emerging on the skyline: tech companies seeking wide-open spaces and enough electricity to power their eternally chattering servers. On the crest of the tech boom, Taconic began hastily converting 111 Eighth Avenue into one of New York’s largest carrier hotels, a digital crossroads where the nerve endings of virtual reality sizzled and sparked with their physical infrastructure. The building’s square footage more than doubled in rent in a matter of years.
Carrier hotels (also sometimes called switch or telecom hotels) occupy an odd place in the real estate landscape of New York, booming for a few quick years, then largely dropping into the background, an over-speculated byproduct of the dot-com bubble’s exuberance. They came about in the mid-1990s, when major telecom giants–the keepers of data-transmitting lines and cable–began renting out their connectivity to young start-ups and venture techies. Along long halls of locked rooms, one company’s machinery sucked up power beside the next. They ferried electrons through shared networks of wires and pipes with all the communal anonymity of a hotel–a giant fiber-optic inn of servers and routers.
Though privacy was often guarded with spy-thriller zeal, with some companies employing handprint IDs and retinal scans, carrier hotels were largely inconspicuous places. Behind blank-faced facades, they hummed with the sound of massive air-conditioning units, necessary to cool their overheated hardware.
BUT TRAFFIC, EVEN the traffic of electrons, is never really a new story in Manhattan. It’s not happenstance that today’s tech corridor runs roughly parallel to a route demarcated by the Port Authority decades earlier. The 15-story building, originally known as the Inland Freight Terminal, was intended to relieve the tight-packed arteries of traffic that formed along the West Side tracks and the Hudson River. At its groundbreaking, in 1931, Governor Franklin Roosevelt vowed that the terminal would serve as a “post office for freight,” allowing truckers to bypass their string of stops along the West Side piers and consolidate all their pickups and deliveries into a single location.
Many of the quirks that would later make the building attractive to telecom companies were the same qualities that made it a functional trucking hub. The structure was built to sustain roving trailer trucks, massive equipment and vast open spaces. On one side of the building, cargo came directly from the piers, and it was processed and sorted by the time it reached the truckers at the other end. Giant freight elevators heaved whole trucks up and down floors, and the floors were reinforced with concrete. At one point, helicopters were known to take off from the helipad on the roof.
Today, Google employees glide on scooters to conference meetings at the other end of the building’s cavernous tundras. The Internet empire’s $2 billion claim on the space moves it from the status of a very important New York telecom hub to an all but singular position in a much broader world, one whose invisible currents, whether we know it or not, are the stuff of our everyday existence.
Since Google first occupied a portion of the building back in 2006, its publicity-shunning operations have fueled all sorts of speculation about the company’s ultimate goals. Was Google planting a server farm near downtown Manhattan? Creating a panoptic network to unseat broadband providers altogether?
But maybe it’s the most prosaic aspects of Google’s move that warrant the most scrutiny. Like any major company staking its claim on Manhattan, Google is compiling untold algorithms–financial calculations and political projections, play-by-play, choose-your-own-ending best estimates–into an approximate vision of the future. Only, in Google’s case, it’s the future of the real estate beneath the building that matters most: the largely unseen biosphere of pipes and cables and bandwidth, populated in the same heartbeat by fervent Tumblr outpourings and high-frequency Wall Street trades, by millions of electrons at once converging and invisible to each other.