Imagining the Inner Workings of the Internet
|The Warriors of the Net Movie|
Have you ever wondered what a data packet might actually look like as it
zips along the phone line? What physical form might it take? The
operation of the digital communications layer of the Internet is
mysterious to most of us. We simply plug our modem into the phone jack,
configure some software, dial into our ISP and then (usually) data flows
back and forth. The basic protocols of the Internet mean that the nature
of data communications remains completely invisible to us.
However, if you wanted to explain this invisible, high-speed digital
communications, it would be useful to be able to visualize data packets,
network links, routers and the like. Of course data packets do not have
a physical form, so one has to invent an imaginary form for them.
Creating this imaginary, visual vocabulary to explain the inner workings
of the Internet was the challenge tackled in the 1999 short film,
Warriors of the Net . The artist and animator of the movie, Gunilla
Elam, drew on a range of physical analogies to show the typical journey
of Internet data packets in a tangible, accessible fashion for lay
audiences. She imagined the Internet as a mechanical world with data
packets being hulking, rusty steel trucks moving on conveyor belts.
The Internet is imagined, and made tangible, on
the movie screen, as a dank and grimy place, reminiscent of industrial
factories from the nineteenth century. Warriors of the Net is not the
slick, clean-room cyberspace of solid state electronics and
fibre-optics, but a dirty, mechanical otherworld of clanking machines of
riveted steel, levers, armatures and elevators. This is perhaps a
Victorian Internet . As Elam told Map of the Month in a recent email
interview, the way routers and firewalls work seems to me a lot like
old time factories. Picking up something here, dropping it there.
Nothing really new there, very mechanical. I had rough and mechanical
and went from there, trying to add some of the popular aesthetics from
the net culture ... the dark, moody space etc.
The visual aesthetic used in the Warriors of the Net is that of
steampunk (after the sci-fi genre cyberpunk) which imagines advanced
technologies based on machinery (usually steam powered) rather than
utilizing transistors and micro-electronics . Much of the steampunk
literature and films is set in the Victorian era the heyday of great
mechanical engines. A classic steampunk example is the novel by William
Gibson and Bruce Sterling in which they imagine a Victorian world with
computers built from mechanical parts rather than silicon chips .
Perhaps the best known examples of the visual aesthetic of steampunk
have emanated from Hollywood such as the time-traveling steam train in
Back to the Future: Part III (1990) or the eighty foot high mechanical
Tarantula in the Wild Wild West (1999). The journey of the data packets
To begin, the user clicks on a Web link which causes empty IP data
packets the large steel trucks to be filled with a load of data.
This is represented by a jumble of blue zeros and ones that tumble down
a chute into the waiting trucks, which are then sealed and labeled with
delivery addresses. They then trundle along a conveyor belt until they
are launched into the LAN (local-area network).
Network routes are evocatively visualized in the Warriors of the Net as
beams of light. These beams form tunnels through the dark void along
with data packets speed. On the LAN there are a number of different
types of data packets generated by the different networking protocols in
use. The beams can also cross and intersect each other and at key
junction points there stands a router, directing traffic. This is a
large gyrating machine with mechanical arms that lifts and sort packets
into the appropriate network paths to reach their destination.
The data packets travel on through the proxy server and firewalls out
onto the global Internet. This journey is not without its perils and
data packets do get lost and destroyed along the way. But most often the
packets reach their destination in a timely fashion.
Warriors of the Net, a
thirteen minute long animated film, was conceived and created, in 1999,
by a small team at Ericsson Medialab, Sweden. The initial idea to make a
short educational film was that of Tomas Stephansson. Tomas, the
network expert, used to go around within Ericsson having speeches of the
advantage of IP telephony, always moaning about how difficult it was to
make people understand the fundamentals, said Gunilla Elam. After one
of these occasions we started to talk about making a visualization of
the basic functions for him to use in these meetings. Although, none
of use realized at the time what a huge project it would end up
becoming, Elam wryly comments. In addition to the three-dimensional
animation work of Gunilla Elam, the atmospheric music and sounds for the
film were created by composer Niklas Hanberger, while the narration was
provided by Monte Reid. The movie took the team around six months to
complete, in amongst other projects and work commitments. The film was
premiered in may 1999 in Stockholm and it has been well received,
proving particularly useful for educators. It has been translated into
ten different languages and in 1999 it won first prize in the Pirelli
INTERNETional Multimedia Awards . The final results greatly
exceed[ed] our early expectations, says Elam.
Elamís background is in fine arts and she has been actively researching
the social aspects of computing and networking technologies over the
last few years, at the Ericsson Medialab and now works as a designer at
a startup venture called AirClic. Of the many challenges in making
Warriors of the Net, Elam says that, The hardest part was without
question to simplify the structure into an understandable, easy to grasp
concept. I had not been going into the tech part of the Internet much
before starting with this, so the way we did it was Tomas filling me up
with as much information I could handle, then let me think about it for
a while and melt it down to a level where anyone would be able to
understand it. She adds, basically I functioned as a translator in
that sense. There was information enough for a two hour movie and my aim
was to bring that down to 7 minutes which I failed to do, it's almost 13
min long. Although Elam may have failed to deliver a seven minute
movie, she succeeded admirably in creating a most unique and powerful
imaginative view of the inner workings of the Internet.
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