Map of the Month
Mappa.Mundi Magazine
Martin Dodge is a Researcher in the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), University College London and is the creator of the Atlas of Cyberspaces.

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Atlas of Cyberspace
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Further Reading:

» For more information about this subject, the following resources are recommended.

» (1) See the Warriors of the Net website for more details and free download of the whole 13 minute movie. Note, the movie is a big download at some 78 meg.

» (2) In fact there is a book called The Victorian Internet written by technology journalist Tom Standage (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998) that provides a readable account of the technical and social history of telegraphy in the nineteenth century.

The book was featured in a review by Mappa.Mundi Magazine in March 2001.

The Victorian Internet
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» (3) See for example The Steampunk Archives and Steampunk Central by Sarah O'Donoghue.

» (4) The Difference Engine, by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (Bantam Spectra Books, 1992). A world in which Charles Babbage succeeds in building his Analytical Engine.

The Difference Engine
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» (5) See the short Wired News story.

By Martin Dodge, CASA Map of the Month Archives »

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 [1]. 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.

Click for larger image
A data packet being loaded.
(Courtesy of Ericsson Medialab)

Mechanical Networking

       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 [2]. 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.

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Scenes from the Warriors of the Net
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Olive Right Top Corner

Click for larger image (Courtesy of Ericsson Medialab)

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Khaki Right Bottom Corner

       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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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.

Movie Making

       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 [5]. “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.

 Copyright © 1999-2001
ISSN: 1530-3314

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