The Internet As Place

Heinrich Holtgreve

January 9, 2016

In the summer of 2012, Heinrich Holtgreve happened upon a blog post — BLDG BLOG — in which its author, Andrew Blum, outlines the potential dangers of the centralization of information. It was this discovery that sparked Holtgreve’s fascination with the physicality of the internet. The internet is a place one can visit: Buildings of varying importance that are related to its facilitation and management are scattered all over the world, and are situated contrary to typical notions of a connected world. The internet connects cities, countries and continents via fiber-optic cables that follow the shortest path between two points. Egypt is a significant location for international data traffic and the cables carrying data follow the same path that international trade lines do, passing through the Suez Canal. Downtown Cairo hosts the largest internet exchange — the Cairo Internet Exchange or CAIX — and cable systems like SEA-ME-WE-3 and 4 or FLAG are routed ashore in Alexandria. Egypt’s geographical location has benefitted the state in a number of ways. Just as the Suez Canal has annually brought in billions of dollars, there is money to be made from selling licenses to cable laying companies, and the Egyptian government is well aware of this. Yet, while he is fascinated by the tangibility of the internet, Holtgreve is also aware that it’s “not all sparks & romance,” and that Egyptians don’t enjoy many of the same freedoms as others with the same infrastructure. For example, the internet was shut down nationwide from the CAIX directly on January 28, 2011, in an unprecedented move by the Egyptian government. It might not sound advantageous that the informational infrastructure for most countries is in the hands of private companies with their thirst for profit, but it’s frightening that governments also maintain such a tight grip on networks, broadcasting the voices of some and silencing others. Indeed, in its brief history, the architecture of the internet has managed to withstand a number of threats. Despite these pertinent issues, Holtgreve hopes to show that Egypt is in a critical location for international data flow, and that Egyptians can proudly say that the magic of the internet, both tangible and intangible, flows from a handful of buildings in Cairo and Alexandria.

Ordinary Wi-Fi routers in living rooms in Cairo.

An area for praying amongst old server racks at a warehouse run by Alcatel-Lucent on the outskirts of Cairo.

A map of all international submarine cable systems that physically connect the world is seen on a wall at the Cairo offices of submarine cable operator MENA SCS.

The point of the Egyptian coast at Alexandria where four international submarine cables enter Africa.

An apartment block in downtown Cairo.

A mobile phone antenna disguised as a palm tree in Cairo.

Rows of chairs near the Great Sphinx of Giza.

A fishmongers stall at a supermarket in the Cairo district of Zamalek.

T-shirts featuring a popular meme for sale at a stand in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

Exposed lights on an empty billboard in Cairo.

A residential window in the Cairo district of Zamalek.

The headquarters of Telecom Egypt in Smart Village, a suburb on the outskirts of Cairo.

A Point of Precense in downtown Cairo.

A large image of a data center near an ECC Data Center facility in Cairo.

A television broadcaster sets up a temporary internet connection to broadcast live from Tahrir Square, Cairo.

A cross section of a fiber-optic cable, photographed office of cable operator MENA SCS in Cairo.

Part of a building complex that acts both as a “Point of Presence” (an access point to the internet) in Alexandria and as a cable landing station for international submarine cables.

The Cairo Internet Exchange (CAIX) building, the most important internet hub for Egypt and the whole North Africa region.

Left: Computer parts for sale in Cairo. Right: Lights that illuminate the Pyramids of Giza.

A box of wires that connects an area of Giza.

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