In 1990, when I coined the word “telegeography,” the idea that cross-border telecommunications networks would play a defining role in the world’s economic and social order was still a matter of some debate.
The World Wide Web did not exist. There was no Google; no Wikipedia; no Facebook; no Skype or Twitter. Indeed, there were no graphical browsers for the Internet, which then operated as a relatively obscure network for exchanging data in standard ASCII (text) characters, primarily amongst computers tied to university researchers or the military.
Telephone service was overwhelmingly a First World convenience: more than two-thirds of all phones were installed in Europe, the U.S. and Japan. The great majority of those phones were firmly wired to homes and offices — people traveled, but phones stayed put.
Global connectivity was also rudimentary. Businesses relied on telex and fax; trans-oceanic calls were far from routine. There were only a handful of international communications satellites, and the largest trans-Pacific submarine cable could carry just a few thousand simultaneous telephone calls (at a price that often exceeded $3 per minute).
TeleGeography Inc., the eponymous business that was founded to map this new world, is now twenty-five years old. I was fortunate enough to oversee TeleGeography’s growth and edit its principal publications during the company’s first decade. Over the subsequent years, roughly overlapping the coming-of-age of today’s millennials, the facts have caught up with the idea, and the company has gained a global following. It seems like a good time, therefore, to take stock and, given my early association with the company, TeleGeography has invited me to contribute this essay.
Since 1990, TeleGeography’s success has gone hand-in-hand with the remarkable build-out of the world’s telecommunications infrastructure. It has happened so rapidly, and its reach is now so great that technological parallels are hard to find. Historically, the rate of diffusion of other transformative technologies such as agriculture, the wheel, moveable type, internal combustion engines, light bulbs has not compared.
During the last 25 years, the number of telephone lines worldwide has grown from roughly 500 million to more than 9 billion. Approximately 7 billion of these are mobile lines, in emerging markets. For example, India now has 5 times more mobile phones than Germany and France combined. In 2012, mobile networks marked a historic milestone by originating over half the world’s international calls.
The rise of personal computers has been equally dramatic. Since cheap dial-up modems first became widespread in the 1990s, the global network telephone has had to accommodate several billion PCs (and Macs). Well over half of these all-purpose digital communication devices are now found outside of Europe and the U.S., and their collective impact on network traffic and transmission protocols has been profound
International connectivity has blossomed. Fiber optic cables now link more than 180 countries including all of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and recent upgrades offer staggering throughput. For example, in the summer of 2014, the Apollo trans-Atlantic submarine cable alone was tested at 7.2 terabits (trillion bits) per second — over 11 times the cable’s original maximum capacity. The Apollo cable can transmit information at 25,000 times the speed of the most advanced cable constructed in the 1980s.
The capacity of today’s undersea cable systems is so large that all of the world’s international telephone traffic — some 550 billion minutes a year — uses less than one-tenth of one percent of active cross-border bandwidth. The other 99.9 percent of bandwidth is accounted for by Internet traffic and private data networks, including by large content networks such as Google (YouTube) and Facebook.
Since the 1980s, TeleGeography has mapped the growth of global telecom infrastructure, compiling an unrivaled set of data on the phone calls and bit streams coursing over these networks. The company records annual data on call volumes for 79 countries and over 1,000 routes.
Over the years, TeleGeography has licensed some of its data and communications maps to other publishers and news organizations (notably, the Times Atlas of the World, National Geographic, CNN, and the BBC); however, much of the underlying research and analysis has only been available to the specialized audience that purchases TeleGeography’s reports. Customers are primarily telecom service providers and buyers, data centers, vendors, consultants, investors, and governments.
TeleGeography is now unlocking its archives to the rest of the world, releasing numerous maps and reports, as well as over 15 years of international communications data. In addition, the company has created two interactive timelines to navigate this unique treasure trove of information.
A timeline of company publications offers a useful starting point.
The History of TeleGeography
In its early years, TeleGeography’s main output was an annual report about global telecoms carriers and traffic trends. Traffic volume data was used to rank the world’s telephone companies and to tease out the links between traffic flows and then-current economic, political and social trends. Telecom flows can be used to map much more than cross-border trading patterns and investment, however.
The 1994 report put it like this:
“Telecommunications geography is human geography. The flow of traffic…reveal[s] movements of people — migrants, guest workers, tourists and refugees. [T]raffic statistics disclose where the natural channels of human communications have been dammed at the borders and where they flow freely; where linguistic connections are strong and where they have thinned; which ethnic communities cohere and which have scattered across the electronic sea; which people of the world are rich in information and which have been left out.”
From AT&T to Tata
Using traffic flows to rank the world’s telephone companies made business sense. For much of the 20th century, call volumes were generally correlated with revenues and profits. Net traffic flows and the direction of those flows were important. National carriers (which, at the time, were typically state-owned “Post Telegraph & Telephone” companies or PTTs) handed off international traffic to one another at border points; carriers that took in more traffic than they sent out had a surplus and earned higher profits.
…few industries have experienced more wrenching change than the international long distance telephone business.
For some enterprises, the surplus could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars a year. This was the case for a number of PTTs in poorer countries that typically originated little traffic but landed much of it from North America and Europe. Revenues from incoming calls amounted to de facto development aid and TeleGeography provided a detailed guide to who got what and why.
That was then. Since the 1990s, few industries have experienced more wrenching change than the international long distance telephone business. Privatization, unsparing competition from disruptive new entrants (think Voice over the Internet, or VoIP, and its progeny, Skype), a fiber optic bandwidth explosion, huge price cuts, and billions of new mobile users have dramatically shaken the old order. Consumers, particularly in the developing world, may be the greatest beneficiaries. So too are Internet-based businesses everywhere, including some of the more nimble telephone companies from the monopoly era.
Look at TeleGeography’s international carrier rankings, for example. In the 1990s, the largest carriers were AT&T, Worldcom, and Sprint along with former European state monopolies like France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom. These carriers also collectively owned the world’s major undersea cables. In 2012, Tata Communications of India topped the list, followed by Belgium’s BICS. However, these new giants are, themselves, hard-pressed by the rise of voice and messaging applications that run over-the-top (OTT) of existing telecom services. Skype (Microsoft) and WhatsApp (Facebook) are two of the best known. In 2012, for example, Skype, the largest OTT provider transmitted 160 billion minutes of cross-border traffic — as much as the top five carriers, combined.
The growth of the Internet has also changed the ranks of international cable owners. Since 2008, Google has bought into the Unity (US-Japan) and the Southeast Asia Japan cables; in 2014, Google also invested in the new “Faster” US–Japan cable. Similarly, in 2012, Facebook said it was backing the Asia Pacific Gateway cable to China.
Early readers of TeleGeography’s flagship TeleGeography Report and its siblings, such as New International Carriers and various bandwidth publications, will not be surprised by the new order emerging within the global telecoms industry. Since its inception, the TeleGeography Report has provided a steady stream of forecasts about what lay ahead. Some examples follow:
“Telecommunication cables and satellites need know no boundaries; governments are defined by the boundaries they keep. The tension between telecommunications technology and national sovereignty has sharpened since the mid 1980s as the pressure for market liberalization [has grown]…. In the 1990s, the vast pools of national telecommunications traffic, once a country’s patrimony as much as its forests or its mines, have become the subject of fierce multinational bidding. “
“Recent trial and experiments…suggest that the next generation of [undersea] cables… will increase capacity by at least another order of magnitude to 50 Gbps and probably to 100 Gbps or more. That will be enough to transmit at least 3.5 million simultaneous phone calls….The enormous capacity…will result from two new technologies — optical soliton transmission [avoiding the need for mid-cable signal amplifiers] and wave division multiplexing (WDM)….As soliton WDM technology moves into commercial production, the historical relationship between inter-continental and local prices is likely to flip [making] a call from Los Angeles to Tokyo…less than a call from one of [the city’s] many area codes to another.”
“Every day the Internet grows bigger and faster, and it poses a greater threat to the traditional carriers Club. [It] is having a radical impact on other aspects of the industry too: As the major source of demand for new capacity…. As a new time clock for product development… As the biggest and richest R&D group…As a network model…with competing all-you-can use, distance-insensitive rates.”
“[O]ver the next decade tomorrow’s network will be characterized by four main features. It will be: (I) broadband from end-to-end, meaning high-speed; (2) Internet-friendly, meaning that telephony and other services will use the Internet’s common packet-switched transmission protocols; (3) always on, like electricity or tap water; and (4) pervasive.”
“On this network, like the Internet today, software applications created by thousands of different vendors will be the driving force… And software means code — code for conversations; code for [graphics]; code for routing traffic; code for authoring new codes…. In this sense, code acts like a compass. It points toward the network’s future…, showing us the underground springs of traffic which today are just a trickle but tomorrow will be a Mississippi. Look at the codes if you want to forecast tomorrow’s traffic booms … Look at the codes if you want to see where network access is open and where not. Look at the codes if you want to know whether the route forward will be private or public and, correspondingly, where (and how) regulators may intervene….”
As is clear from these excerpts, many of TeleGeography’s observations and predictions proved prescient.
To augment its written reports, TeleGeography has also regularly published a portfolio of communications maps, now widely prized for their eye-catching design and cartographic detail. The best known of these maps fall into two categories: infrastructure maps, which are primarily focused on international transmission links, and maps of communications flows. The maps are complementary: one set shows the physical capacity, or potential, for communications, while the other maps the virtual paths created by the actual use of these links (e.g. the changing flows of voice and data services).
Each type of map presents its own production challenges, from collecting and aggregating data, to finding ways to best illustrate the information, to selecting appropriate geo-physical projections. Trade-offs must be made at every point, especially for global data sets, as space is at a premium even for poster-sized wall maps.
These considerations have pushed TeleGeography’s map craft toward a spare and economical style; the maps are data-rich but the most important facts (e.g. a highly trafficked route or a communications hub) are immediately visible at a glance. Design is not chosen for branding purposes, but to enhance understanding of the underlying data and to provide a compelling and integrated visual narrative.
TeleGeography’s approach to map creation owes much to an early encounter with Edward Tufte’s work in the 1990s. Tufte, now an emeritus professor of political science and statistics at Yale, was a pioneer in the field of information visualization. He argued tirelessly against “chartjunk” and other noisy design elements that obscure information. Tufte’s seminal works — The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) and Envisioning Information (1990) — were favorites of the company’s staff, and it shows in the maps they created.
Mark Monmonier, Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University, was also an early influence on TeleGeography. His book, How to Lie With Maps, first published in 1991, provided an instructive caution: cartography is inevitably about description and deception.
Two kinds of maps, in particular, stand out in the TeleGeography archive.
Submarine Cable Maps
TeleGeography began issuing these infrastructure maps in the mid-1990s, when they initially included transoceanic satellite systems as well as subsea cables. They were published as part of a joint venture with the London-based Petroleum Economist, which had years of experience printing and distributing large format maps of oil and gas pipelines.
Since the 1990s marked the start of an undersea cable-building boom, TeleGeography began updating its maps regularly to keep pace and inserted infographics to flesh out key themes. Inserts include construction costs by route, cable usage (potential vs. actual or “lit” capacity), route-by-route pricing, cable resiliency and mean repair times by route and comparative transmission times (latency).
TeleGeography also uses alternative physical projections to highlight the integrative role of communications. For example, polar projections give readers a bird’s eye view of global traffic flows. Similarly, the company found that the land-centered focus of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion projections provide an effective way to show how the Internet knits different continents together.
…TeleGeography’s wall maps underscore one central point: in the age of telegeography, where a person works or lives frequently matters less than how that person connects to everywhere else.
All of TeleGeography’s wall maps underscore one central point: in the age of telegeography, where a person works or lives frequently matters less than how that person connects to everywhere else. As such, the maps also provide a running guide to where connections are missing — and thus to potential opportunities for enterprising carriers and investors.
TeleGeography’s research on infrastructure also fostered a unique ability to map the Internet. Far from existing in a “cloud,” the Internet’s physical topography is best charted as a series of hubs and spokes. TeleGeography’s research also revealed that the Internet’s basic plumbing, despite its global reach, is fundamentally parochial — the actual pieces are often close by if you know where to look.
Andrew Blum explained it this way in Tubes, his popular 2012 “travel guide” to the web, which uses TeleGeography’s maps as a starting point. The maps, said Blum, ground the ethereal world of global communications in the “hard truth of geography.” They chart the physical dimensions of our virtual worlds, showing that the words, voices and images that spring like magic onto our screens can be tracked back to discrete and identifiable communications cables linked via thousands of local switches.
The hubs of today’s global communications network are servers and data centers, while the spokes are transmission links (primarily fiber optic cables). This is how the network of networks that became the Internet is tied together. The largest spokes are made up of very high-capacity terrestrial and subsea fiber optic cables, which carry huge volumes of communications between multiple networks and are joined via hundreds of “routers” at major switching points or hubs. The largest hubs — connected by high-capacity fiber optic pipes or “backbones” — feed lesser ones; and these, in turn, provide switching points for even smaller hubs.
The more connections or routing options an Internet hub affords, the more attractive it becomes. This creates a self-reinforcing dynamic: the larger the hub, the more likely it is to become a prime location for locating content servers to reach the most people with the least delay at the cheapest cost per connection. Because routing on the Internet typically follows bandwidth (a proxy for cost), not geography, the largest high-capacity fiber optic links are typically cheaper and tend to attract traffic whether or not they offer the shortest path.
Until quite recently, TeleGeography’s hub-and-spoke maps showed that the bulk of the world’s Internet traffic was being routed via the U.S., even though much of the traffic originated and terminated in Asia or Europe. That made the U.S. a global transit point or hub for a wide range of Internet-based communications. It also gave America’s National Security Agency (NSA) a unique global monitoring capability via the PRISM program and its cousins.
Not surprisingly, disclosures about the use of PRISM to track online communications have prompted several countries to seek alternative network options for their Internet traffic. Even before these disclosures, however, TeleGeography’s research showed that the spread of ever-cheaper bandwidth within Europe and Asia had begun to create a new, much less U.S.-centric Worldwide Web. In fact, TeleGeography estimates that, except for Latin America, most global Internet traffic is now routed through hub cities in Europe, not the U.S.
The straightforward methodology TeleGeography uses to develop its hub-and-spoke maps reflects the company’s basic DNA.
The straightforward methodology TeleGeography uses to develop its hub-and-spoke maps reflects the company’s basic DNA. Again, here is Andrew Blum describing how TeleGeography’s cartographers “don’t use any fancy algorithms or proprietary data analysis software. They work an old-fashioned process of calling industry contacts and gaining their trust…” Then, “they distribute a simple questionnaire…requesting information about their networks in exchange for the promise to keep it confidential and to share the aggregate information with them.”
TeleGeography compares the network map derived from this type of bottom-up research (also used to produce the company’s traffic reports), with results obtained using basic traceroute software. This software records the actual route Internet data take to and from a selected group of host computers that in turn “ping” or query 2,500 additional network addresses. Altogether, the program provides more than 20,000 discrete routes to cross-check the basic network topology deduced from the questionnaires.
The traceroute programs that TeleGeography employs can also be used to plot pathways between the Internet’s main routing computers. These paths, when color-coded by the router’s top-level domain, produce an engaging image much like an enormous multi-hued bird’s nest. TeleGeography’s poster-sized versions of these images (the first, in 1999, was titled “The Whole Internet Map”) became quite popular and were later spun off to a new venture, Peacock Maps. All of the images used basic traceroute programs developed by Bill Cheswick, who was then working at Lumeta, a Bell Labs spin-off.
The Quest for Latency
One of the main concepts animating both TeleGeography’s cable and Internet maps is latency. The term has many definitions, often depending on the subject, but in the communications world, latency means delay. It refers to the time it takes to send information from one point on a network to another, often measured in terms of the round-trip time (RTT).
Low RTTs are an essential attribute of a robust communications system as anyone who has suffered through an echoing VoIP or satellite telephone call can attest. That is why telecom engineers pride themselves on low-latency circuits and service companies always try to claim a faster network than their competitors. If the aim is to reduce latency, bandwidth is key, especially for sending large amounts of data over long distances. So is route. The shorter the distance traveled, the lower the latency, even for the pulses of light that traverse today’s fiber optic circuits, and even when RTT differences may be counted in milliseconds (1/1000 of a second).
Latency also is critical on Wall Street, though it has a different meaning there. For traders, latency is all about transactions — that is, the time it takes to execute or act on new information. The lower the latency, the greater the opportunity to trade and the higher the potential profits. This has made the quest for ultra-low latency and high-frequency trading (HFT) a major driver of new fiber optic and wireless communications networks.
This high-tech world was popularized in Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, which may be the first popular telegeography thriller. The book focuses on the secretive history of Spread Networks and its founder, Dan Spivey. “Like every other trader on the Chicago exchange,” Lewis writes, “[Spivey] saw how much money could be made in trading futures contracts in Chicago against the present prices of the individual stocks trading in New York and New Jersey.” That was because each day “there were thousands of moments when the prices were out of whack — when, for instance you could sell the futures contract for more than the price of the stocks that comprised it.”
But you had to be fast to exploit these opportunities and, as Lewis explains, the definition of “fast” was changing rapidly. In 2008, with automated computer trading and fiber optic lines linking the nation’s two major stock exchanges, it should have been possible to trade in both places — to send an order from Chicago to New York City and back — in 12 milliseconds. But Spivey found that the routes being offered to traders by the major telecom carriers varied greatly and might take anywhere from 14 to 17 milliseconds. So as Lewis recounts, Spivey decided to build the straightest and shortest fiber optic route ever engineered between the two exchanges so that his HFT clients would have a few milliseconds’ advantage.
Flash Boys attracted considerable media attention. Much of it was focused on whether HFT “rigs” the market because low latency networks provide clients with advance knowledge of — and the ability to trade on — information about what other market participants are buying and selling. One alternative, Lewis suggests, is to route all trades over latency-neutral exchanges such as IEX (the Investors Exchange), which was founded by Brad Katsuyama and was also profiled in Flash Boys.
Latency is a global network phenomenon.
Neither Lewis nor the popular press, however, seemed ready to tackle the larger implications of Flash Boys. Latency is a global network phenomenon. It is not limited to the 800-odd miles traversed by fiber strands between Chicago and New York. More than a year before Flash Boys was published, an article by Aaron Timms in The Daily Deal chronicled the international “arms race” in communications infrastructure spurred by high frequency trading. According to one of Timms’ sources, the Spread Networks business “model works anywhere that any trading firm active in [dispersed] financial centers needs to be connected. As such, the race to build the fastest and most reliable network… can be seen as the race for…global adaptation.” Timms also reports that long-distance microwave links, which offer even lower latency than some fiber networks, are in our future.
Finally, it bears emphasis that latency is not solely of concern to telecom carriers and the trading community. Low latency networks are a top priority for large entertainment companies as well. In fact, when it comes to the Internet, no one wants to be in the slow lane. That has been underscored by the long-running debate before the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on “net neutrality.”
The core issue is the extent to which companies that physically control the Internet’s last mile (i.e. dominant cable TV and phone companies, such as AT&T and Comcast) can offer priority or faster access for certain content and sites. As Wired and other observers have noted, you can keep the last mile neutral and still let some companies use content delivery software to speed the flow of data packets over the network, so long as all content providers have the same opportunity to do so. That’s how Google and Netflix work today. Hence, the fight over net neutrality is not so much about whether there will be fast and slow lanes on the Internet (software now makes that a fait accompli) but whether infrastructure companies will be able to leverage their market power in the content world.
President Obama seems to see it that way too and recently asked the FCC to back his plan for “ a free and open” Internet. “For almost a century, [U.S.] law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access into and out of your home or business,” said the President. “It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call or a packet of data.”
Lessons of TeleGeography
The unending quest to leverage (and reduce) the latency of the world’s communications networks prompts two broader reflections about the rise of telegeography.
First, as TeleGeography’s data show, very high-capacity networks — far from being a great leveler or the unremitting driver of a “flat earth” — also act as powerful agents of division and power, privileging some providers and users over others and raising new virtual barriers to doing business even as they erase the geophysical ones of the past. This is not only true in the economic realm (for hedge funds or web-centric content providers) but in the social and political sphere.
The rise of cheap and near instantaneous global communications has not meant the end of geography — the death of distance — so much as it has led to an explosion of place.
The rise of cheap and near instantaneous global communications has not meant the end of geography — the death of distance — so much as it has led to an explosion of place. That may be the network’s most powerful message. The less the old geography of oceans and time zones and passports seems to matter, the more a virtual landscape has come to the fore — a connected infoscape demarcated by billions of domain names, web sites, dialing codes, Facebook groups, and private chat rooms.
This new landscape has fostered community and understanding, connected distant families and friends, and diffused empathy and aid in ways heretofore impossible. At the same time, it has also provided fertile ground for sowing discord and accentuating differences, and has made it easy and nearly costless to disseminate lies and hatred from a distance.
Our love affair with the online world often seems to blind us to this realpolitik. Google’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt and his colleague, Jared Cohen, offer a more nuanced judgment in their 2012 book, The New Digital Age:
“[T]he most significant impact of the spread of communications technologies, will be the way they help reallocate the concentration of power away from states and institutions and transfer it to individuals.”
It remains too early to know whether the telecom revolution will “ultimately result in a safer world or a more dangerous one,” say the authors. “We have only begun to encounter the realities of a connected world: the good, the bad and the worrisome.” When it comes to war, for example: “As an equal opportunity enabler, technology will enhance the abilities of all participants in a conflict to do more, which means more messaging and content from both sides” and a greater use of “cyber weapons.” The same might be said for criminal enterprises.
Second, the unresolved and often contradictory impacts of telecommunications — the felt sense of being “alone together” (to borrow from MIT’s Sherry Turkle), or of being disconnected from the world even as we Skype with more and more of it — stems, in large part, from a fundamental dialectic of electronic networks. At root, these networks operate like a giant mechanical piston (or, if you prefer, like a huge binary switch). Each new mega-cable and communication circuit fuels the down-stroke of the cycle — collapsing time and space, erasing differences, and concentrating power and money. The upstroke has the opposite effect. Driven by billions of network users, with ever increasing reach, the upstroke leads to an explosion of place, diffusing and decentralizing power as centripetal forces take over.
Day in and day out, across tens of thousands of international cables and switches, in scores of countries, this network cycle is at work, simultaneously concentrating and diffusing wealth and control; providing great intimacy even as it fragments our social and political lives.
This network dialectic was first outlined in the TeleGeography Report more than a decade ago. It has been echoed recently, not only by Schmidt and Cohen, but by several other observers of the modern world. For example, the French economist Thomas Piketty, has focused attention on the growth of income inequality over the last 50 years. The gap has grown apace with market liberalization and lower barriers to trade and investment, spurred in significant part by modern communications and computer networks.
In the introductory chapter to his 2013 book, Capital in The Twenty-First Century, Piketty writes:
“To sum up what has been said thus far: the process by which wealth is accumulated and distributed contains powerful forces pushing towards divergence, or at any rate toward an extremely high level of inequality. Forces of convergence [i.e., equality] also exist, and in certain countries at certain times, these may prevail…”
Piketty stresses that the main driver of inequality — the tendency of returns on capital (denoted as “r”) to outpace general economic growth, defined as output and incomes (and denoted as “g”) — “has nothing to do with market imperfection.” “Quite the contrary,” says Piketty, “the more perfect the capital market the more likely r is to be greater than g.”
That should come as reassuring news to anyone betting on the returns from low latency networks and the frictionless (i.e. more “perfect”) capital markets they help to fuel. But Piketty’s message is far less reassuring for the majority of telecom users who are more likely to prosper if overall economic growth is not only greater, but more evenly distributed. Thus, in the face of Piketty’s work, they could be forgiven for thinking that, as part and parcel of the global economy, the world’s telecom networks are (to paraphrase Michael Lewis again) “rigged” against them — Facebook, Google, and Netflix notwithstanding.
These musings hark back to the origins of TeleGeography’s work. At the outset, the TeleGeography Report was intended to provide a guide to the emerging infrastructure of the global information economy. How big were the communications links between one country and another? Where were they sited? Who owned them? Who used them and why?
At the time, it was apparent that telecom and IT were becoming more essential economic inputs, but it was not the stuff of maps (and, recall, you could not Google the answer either). As Stewart Brand recounted in The Media Lab (1987), you could go to a local book store and get an atlas that showed where coal was mined, where major crops were grown, and the world’s major shipping routes. But there were no maps of the new digital world or of the swirling electronic information flows that defined it.
“Wired people should know something about wires.”
Over the last three decades, TeleGeography has done a great deal to address this shortfall. The company’s maps and reports have ground-truthed the Internet’s virtual clouds, anchoring the globe’s telecom networks to the physical world of coastlines and cities. TeleGeography has also put nation-states back into a discourse on global communications, which often seems dominated by stateless corporate apps and services. That is a signal accomplishment with important implications for anyone with a democratic impulse.
Andrew Blum’s book, Tubes, underscored this point. As Blum points out, when you start seeing and thinking of the Internet as ethereal and untouchable, rather than as a physical network, it is easy to cede control to others that know better (including governments, especially in authoritarian states). In a later article for Wired magazine, Blum also quotes the popular cyberpunk writer, Neal Stephenson. It’s simple: “Wired people should know something about wires.”
Yet, even as TeleGeography has worked to put the geography back into our post-geographic lives, most people seem only too content to outsource their route finding. Why not? There’s an app for that! They typically use cloud-based maps backed by the satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) — there is no small irony here: the more we get around, the less we can navigate for ourselves. To be sure, GPS apps are a godsend for many, but the further they let us wander, the less we may know where we are going.
Telecommunications has become our ocean and, like the fish in the sea, we can’t taste the salt. Nor do we recall what it was like when we had to find our way with a paper map, let alone with a compass, timepiece, and sextant. The demise of such run-of-the-mill 19th century navigational skills may be exacting a heavier toll than we think. At least that is the message of Harvard physicist John Huth in his 2013 book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way. The book is one part survival manual and one part science text, urging readers to get offline and out of their electronic “bubbles” in order to better explore the world around them. For anyone who likes to hike or sail, Huth argues, the life you save may be your own.
Huth and others also argue that allowing our natural way-finding abilities to atrophy (particularly, the ability to create and use mental maps) may crimp brain development. This is because the neurological work required to build mental maps has other cognitive benefits and makes our brains more flexible.
In 2014, the Nobel Prize committee finally recognized the evolutionary importance of how the human mind encodes spatial data by awarding the prize for medicine or physiology to John O’Keefe, now at University College London. O’Keefe first identified the brain’s “place” cells in the 1970s. His Norwegian co-winners, Brit and Edward Moser, were recognized for discovering “an inner GPS in the brain,” and for identifying the “grid” cells that also play a crucial role in forming mental maps.
So, let me end with a plea for TeleGeography’s next 25 years: Stay true to your roots. As more and more of the world’s activities become wrapped up in (or by) the Internet, don’t lose sight of the importance of ground-truthing our electronic clouds. This is important for many reasons, including the real-world travel and conversations it requires (even though online trace routes will still play a crucial role).
Likewise, while interactive digital maps may seem the Holy Grail of conveying information about the globe’s communications links, don’t forsake the poster-sized wall maps that have been TeleGeography’s trademark product since the 1980s. The design and map reading skills they encourage are invaluable. They also provide a quick way of gauging the relationships between our physical and electronic realms, and we all need to have a basic mental picture of both of these worlds.
As importantly, the compelling visual display that the company’s large wall maps provide in countless offices, data centers, meeting rooms and universities around the world is likely to spark curiosity and new explorations. With these explorations will come new mental maps and new notions of how to chart the world around us, which will, in turn, continue to breathe new life into telegeography and ensure that the idea, as well as the company, keep evolving.
Gregory C. Staple founded TeleGeography Inc . and, until the company’s sale to Band-X in 2000, served as editor of the TeleGeography Report. From 2001 to 2009, Staple was a partner in the international law firm of Vinson & Elkins. He is currently the CEO of the Washington D.C.-based American Clean Skies Foundation and Chairman of Renewable Power Direct.