A City Tour Reveals the Infrastructure of the Internet All Around Us

A 50-minute Dublin Bus ride links the glistening European headquarters of the world’s tech giants with some of the vast anonymous warehouses that help them control the Internet.

Paul O’Neill wants to explain why this matters, one tour group at a time.

An academic, artist and activist, O’Neill is organising a series of tours of the Internet’s physical infrastructure in Dublin.

The aim, he says, is to offer a glimpse into these technological black boxes that power the web, to show people a little of how they work, and where the power lies.

“My take on this is, we can challenge and subvert network systems simply by highlighting where they are,” he told a tour group of a dozen people on a recent Saturday.

‘If you don’t know what is going on [inside], we are being disempowered,” he says.

The Mission

O’Neill is inspired by others doing similar tours in cities around the world. “I’m definitely not the first person to do this and I’m not claiming to be,” he says.

Artist and writer Ingrid Burrington has mapped out the infrastructure of the Internet in New York, from manhole covers to street markings. French artist Benjamin Gaulon has run workshops on surveillance. Closer to home, Conor McGarrigle’s NAMAland also used technology and tours as a tool for political criticism.

“There is a lot of crossover between art, tech and politics in these,” says O’Neill. “It is a lot easier to disseminate this kind of research via cultural channels rather than academic journals.”

To reach people who might not be switched onto these issues otherwise, he says. “Who might not otherwise have access – have the time, inclination, interest to go to a gallery or who might not have the opportunity to go into third-level education.”

Part of a growing global “critical tech” movement, O’Neill believes the cause is particularly important in Ireland as the host – and in many cases regulator – of the world’s largest technology companies in one of their biggest markets: the European Union.

“There is not too much debate or reflection on Ireland’s role or accountability for hosting all of these corporations here when you consider their actions abroad,” he said.

The Tour

Saturday’s route began upstairs at Dublin’s Science Gallery, with a potted history of the Internet, and an explanation of all the servers a simple Google search bounces off in the milliseconds before results are displayed on your phone.

Finding a list of the IP addresses that identify the servers is relatively easy. But identifying where they are physically located can be challenging.

The group, a cohort from the Future Landscapes workshop run by NUI Galway and the School of Machines in Berlin, then takes to the streets for some mobile-phone-tower spotting and a brief lecture on the history of the underground network that has been laid with fibre-optic cable in recent years.

On Pearse Street, O’Neill stops the tour outside Lido’s chipper to point out the manhole below, the cellular tower above. “Once you start seeing these things, you can’t unsee them. You start seeing things all the time,” he says.

He compares the various generations of telecoms manhole covers – from the old Ministry of Post and Telegraph to Eir. It’s hard to get information on this subterranean network, some of which is over a century old, he says.

Eastwards in Silicon Docks, O’Neill gives a whistlestop tour of the big tech HQs. Security guards at such buildings don’t always appreciate the attention, he says. On the steps outside Facebook’s EMEA headquarters, he takes issue with the sign saying “4-5 Grand Canal Square”.

That’s not what the city street sign says, says O’Neill. “We’re actually on Misery Hill.”

Outside the Irish Tax Institute, he hands out Granny Smith apples for his audience to munch on, as he talks about how much of Apple’s global revenue is booked in Ireland and how little tax it pays.

Silicon Docks

At Airbnb’s offices on Hanover Quay, Ceilim Robinson steps up as a guest speaker.

“I’m a Docklands child,” says Robinson, 21, who lives nearby with parents and after months looking for work, took a job in Caffè Nero.

The area has been transformed by tech giants, he says. “We are effectively being driven out to the outskirts of the city. The government at the moment does not want working-class people dirtying or polluting the central business district.”

He couldn’t afford to live here, except with his parents, he says. “You have to conform to the middle class or you can’t survive here.”

The area is policed in a way it never was before, Robinson says. Now, the middle classes might be affected.

A Web of Cables

Around the corner on the banks of the Dodder overlooking Ringsend, O’Neill takes over again to describe the web of cables that snake in and out of Ireland.

Since the first telegraph cables appeared over a century ago, Ireland has been an important node on the transatlantic network. Today the fibre-optic superhighways are crucial to Ireland’s aspiration to be a hub for the tech firms and their giant data centres.

But they can represent major data security risks too, as Berlin-based artist Evan Roth explains to the group, describing work he did around the landing points of similar cables in Britain. In 2013, Edward Snowden released documents accusing British intelligence agency GCHQ of tapping data from the cables on an industrial scale.

Says O’Neill: “I feel there needs to be some kind of connection between what is happening around the world and what is happening around here. We should be keeping more of an eye on them here in Ireland.”

“I’m not suggesting we go and burn all these buildings,” he says. “No. No. They’ll just go somewhere else.”

“What I am suggesting is that decisions about some of the shady shit they are doing are probably being made around us,” he says.

To the Data Centres

After a break for lunch, the group gathers at the 77a bus stop on Pearse Street for the second half of the tour, where the glamour of Silicon Docks gives way to the non-descript industrial estates in the south-west of Dublin that house vast data centres.

Photo by Conor Humphries

En route, geographer Patrick Brodie rotates in as speaker, giving a run-down of the geography of data centres and Ireland’s industrial policy. In the ’60s and ’70s, he said, Ireland sold itself as an industrialised virgin land where the obliging locals would do anything to win US investment.

In more recent years it has touted the T50 fibre-optic cable that tracks Dublin’s M50 ring road and the fact that Ireland’s temperate climate is perfect for keeping servers cool – something Brodie describes as a “facile argument”.

What the data centre brochures don’t mention, Brodie says, is the lack of employment, how data centres hoover up energy, and the environmental costs of decommissioning vast server farms.

After the group piles off the bus, the tour continues through industrial estates in Tallaght where O’Neill points out the huge unmarked grey Amazon Web Services data centres nestled between garages, electronics shops and food warehouses. The US company’s on-demand cloud-computing services power businesses around the world, from Vodafone to Netflix.

“You are now standing right in the middle of an Amazon ‘availability zone’,” says O’Neill, to the group, who gather around a light-grey corrugated-iron fence marked with the logo of building firm Paul.

“Generally, data centres don’t like to advertise their location too much,” he says.

The centre is “silent, it’s hidden, it’s closed off and you can’t really see what’s going on”, he says.

While most of what happens in the centres is benign, it is impossible to know if any of the work Amazon does for US government agencies takes place on Irish soil, he says.

“We are being disempowered,” he says. “We can see literal black boxes all around us.”

In the shadow of another Amazon data centre, whose dark-grey wall stretches hundreds of metres along the industrial estate’s road, O’Neill begins an impromptu picnic, pouring Tesco lager into small white plastic cups.

He hands out mock Amazon postcards offering “Greetings from EU West One” – the name of Amazon Web Services’ Irish “availability zone” – to be sent to Jeff Bezos with a question mark on the back.

To let him know we are watching, O’Neill says.

Taking the Tour

It’s too soon to say how regular the tours might become, says O’Neill, as the group hops the Luas back to the city centre. “Ireland’s weather is always a thing.”

Once a month over the summer would be good, he says. “I am also open to people contacting me and saying, ‘Hey, we have a group, would you be able to do it?’”

He’s considering putting maps of routes online too. That way, people can explore Dublin’s Internet infrastructure under their own steam.

Some on the Saturday tour said it nudged them to educate themselves more about the presence of big tech. “And also to demand transparency from these companies and from the government,” says Erika Marcet, a language researcher at Dublin City University. “I think we should be all worried about it. We are not in possession of our own data any more.”

Says Paola Gonzalez: “It’s different when you see a presentation. Here you see the real thing. It’s real life … it’s more tangible.”

[UPDATE: This article was updated at 13.30 on 22 May to include that the tour group was part of the Future Landscapes programme.]

Authors:

Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at lois@dublininquirer.com.

Conor Humphries: Conor Humphries is a journalist based in Dublin.

Reader responses

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Pauline Scarborough
at 22 May at 10:13

How do I find out when the next tour is? Thanks

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