Fifteenth Street used to be so nice to walk down. It has Chelsea Market, Artists & Fleas and the Highline overhead. Plus it ends to the west in that little park near the edge of the
Google lives there.
Ingrid Burrington wrote Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet (Releasing August 30, $15.39), a new book from Melville House Publishing. It’s a naturalist style guide to what you can see of New York City’s internet infrastructure, from the wires that patch our computers into the worldwide web to the networked devices that keep an eye on us. After meeting up at Empire Cake on 8th Avenue and discussing the implications of her narrative, she walked us down 15th Street, past the Google building, a Palantir building (the company that crunches numbers for spies), the NYPD Intelligence Division and the spot where the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force set up shop in 2005.
In her book, she covers those same blocks, writing, “There is something weirdly dislocating about walking through the retail corridors along 15th Street, aware of the layers of state and the infrastructural control a few floors above ground and and layers of fiber-optic networks several meters underground—systems and histories mostly glimpsed by following orange spray-paint marking from Eighth Avenue to the end of Fifteenth Street.”
Burrington uses the orange spray paint we all see on the ground to bring readers into her narrative. The little markings on streets and sidewalks become so much visual white noise for city dwellers, but Burrington explains the cursive hieroglyphics in her book and how it indicates whose wires are buried where.
There’s a lot about the networks of New York City that can’t be seen. The point of her book was to help readers make sense of as much as we can see. After all, it becomes more clear every day that we need to keep an eye on these companies. It’s only fair. They go to such lengths to keep an eye on us.
Burrington explained that it might have been possible to do a book where she, for example, found a way to get inside the guarded cores of the network infrastructure, such as the data centers or the various carrier hotels (where networks hook up). She could have made it a book about describing for people what they will never get a chance to see. “I feel that’s not a generous position to be in as a writer,” she said. “What’s fun about putting together this material is it’s kind of something that anybody could do.”
Anybody can see the objects and markings that Burrington points out, and they might even be able to identify them, but after going through Burrington’s book, they can understand better how they describe the way we keep in touch now. One striking difference between Manhattan and much of the rest of the country is how much we don’t see. Not many wires and cables run overhead in New York because of the blizzard of 1888, whose drifts rose so high that they tore down electric cables, which started fires that burned down millions of dollars worth of buildings.
That blizzard gave us the Empire City Subway, in 1891, which has a franchise over all the underground telecommunications ducts in Manhattan (not to be confused with the transit subway). When Verizon was formed in 2000, the system became part of that new entity, but you can still see manhole covers all over the city marked with the letters “ECS.” Burrington’s book even provides a sketch of one to help readers spot its distinctive hexagonal motif.
ECS has control of all the ducts for telecommunications systems in Manhattan, but under its deal with the city, it’s supposed to provide other companies with access as well. One day Burrington saw a Verizon worker in the East Village working inside an old ECS duct, and she could see all the cabling jammed inside.
So she asked him, “’Why don’t you guys take the dead stuff out? You know some of that stuff doesn’t work, right?’ And the guy said, ‘Look, I work for Verizon. If I make room in this duct, Time Warner can put stuff in.'” She’d never encountered someone who was quite so frank about guarding turf. “It’s just New York,” she concluded. “Everything becomes a real estate story.”
But Verizon isn’t really the elephant in the room here any more—even though a section in her book is titled, “Verizon: The Infrastructural Elephant in the Room (or Really, in the Ducts).” Verizon has been overshadowed in ambition and reach by a new arrival to New York, and one that loomed over Burrington and me as we talked inside Empire Cake on 8th Avenue. Across the street we could see the old Port Authority Commerce Building at 111 Eighth Avenue. Now, from where we sat, it has clearly become Google’s east coast beachhead.
In her book, she describes the building where we started the walk, writing, “111 Eighth Avenue is interesting in itself, but it’s also a compelling site because of its Chelsea neighbors. Sometimes I think of it as a metaphor for the internet itself—a weird palimpsest of law enforcement, network infrastructure, spectacle and commodities.”
And Google itself is becoming something of a metaphor for the dissonance between what we believed about the internet and what it actually is. The company is no longer this thing that exists purely in the cloud, It has begun to take up real space, sensor-laden space in the physical world. On the west coast, it takes the shape of self-driving cars controlled by a Borg mind. Nationwide, it has become a nascent telecom, with its wi-fi powered Project Fi. And on the east coast it has erected the 9-foot advertising monoliths of LinkNYC.
We thought the company was this sweet new friend that eager to answer our weird questions, but like Gizmo the Mogwai in the 1984’s blockbuster Gremlins, that friendly face concealed a menacing potential. It could already be that we have metaphorically fed Google the Mogwai after midnight, by asking too late what the company might do with the insights it gleans from answering our questions.
“I’ve also kind of had to accept that, what I thought the internet was, it never really quite was that,” Burrington said as we talked, of the web as this democratizing overlay atop the real world. “There’s sort of a nostalgic early 2000s or like post-crash lull period—when I was most actively engaged with it—that had a kind of delusion of openness and possibility and… don’t pay attention to the fact that this is all being run by private companies and propped up by venture capital.”
She said, “To some extent recognizing that the promise of the internet as a liberatory technology was maybe a promise that was never there to begin with.”