William Drenttel | Essays

Maps of Cyberspace

AIGA Poster Designed by Corey McPherson Nash. Enlarge.

When this poster for the upcoming American Institute of Graphic Arts conference in Boston arrived in the mail this past week, I immediately thought, oh, another map of cyberspace. It has that pseudo-internet-in-space look, after all. Designed by Corey McPherson Nash, this typographic cacophony allows selected tidbits of language to emerge from the ether: "listen," "experiment," "inspire," "change," "discuss," "create." As a poster for AIGA, it's promoting buzzwords with DESIGN as the organizing conceit.

But it's also an image that suggests other things: fluidity of language, mutation and transformation, media saturation, random noise, virtual chaos, layered clutter. If you went deeper into space, layering even more words on top of words, the colors would ultimately dissolve into blackness. If every word were a sound, you'd just hear a hazy, constant din. Mostly, it's an allusion to chaos, to our perception that cyberspace is cluttered with bits, to an anxiety that there is so much "out there" that it's incomprehensible.

This is in stark contrast to the modernist fantasy of designer Muriel Cooper from her days at the Visual Language Workshop at the MIT Media Lab where language was information that could be dynamically organized within a rational 3-dimensional space. (An example of her influence is this Intel commercial by Imaginary Forces and Mark Zurolo.) This tradition is also evident in some of the more recent work of David Small and Lisa Strausfeld.

Of course, it is the internet that has changed our perception of space, precisely because the sheer volume of interconnectivity is beyond our imagination, whether it be language-based, data-based, or community-based. Add black holes and photographs of asteroidal moons around Jupiter, and our world seems increasingly expansive. Yet, if we cannot map it, how can we understand it?

Poster Designer: Unknown. © 03.04 [email protected]. Enlarge.

Imagine mapping the endless and repetitive paths of your computer's mouse for a single week — every click, every fetch, every drag. It's a map of one activity drawn over a defined period of time — a mouse that traveled 5.47893 miles in a single week. Every graphite line fragment signifies the gathering of some bit of information, a connection to a friend, the highlighting of a textual phrase to erase — plus the implied risk, after this distance traveled, of Repetitive Strain Injury. This drawing happened at a desk somewhere, but the context being mapped is elsewhere. It's a map that captures a piece of the puzzle, but only a sliver.

CAIDA Internet Topology, April 21-May 8, 2003. Enlarge.

Of course, there are more literal maps of the internet. CAIDA, the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis, pictures "a robust, scalable global Internet infrastructure, visualizing internet topology at a macroscopic scale. When the Internet was in its infancy, monitoring traffic was relatively simple. However, after experiencing phenomenal growth in the 1990's, tracking connectivity has become a daunting task. CAIDA researchers attempted to strip away lesser-connected autonomous systems in order to find out how Internet connectivity is distributed among ISPs. The May 2003 CAIDA map graphs 1,134,634 IP addresses and 2,434,073 IP links, probing approximately 865,000 destinations spread across 76,000 (62% of the total) globally routable network prefixes." Trackable over time, the CAIDA map treats the internet as a worldview, much like astronomers have historically forced celestial events into worldly circular forms. (See Johann Elert Bode, Projection on the Plane of the Ecliptic of the Parabolic Orbits of 72 Comets, 1802).

More recently there have been numerous online attempts at mapping content in real time. The SmartMoney Map of the Market is a quantitatively-generated representation of the market's sectors, along with individual stocks within each sector presented in Mondrian-like patterns. Marcos Wescamp's Newsmap shows stories in the news, derived from the Google News news aggregator, by presenting a treemap visualization of "the underlying patterns in news reporting across cultures and within news segments in constant change around the globe." Buzztracker, created by Craig Mod and Chin Music Press, is a dynamic map of where news is occuring — software that "visualizes frequencies and relationships between locations in the Google world news directory."

The interconnectivity of the internet is moving at a speed that defies our imagination. Blogs, a term unheard of even two years ago, are now a ubiquitous part of the online experience. Technorati, as of today, tracks 10,552,890 weblogs and 1,164,251,940 links. A month ago this number was only in the 9 millions. We are counting sand on the beach, the numbers almost beyond our comprehension. But this growth leads to efforts to summarize "the real-time web, organized by you," with subject tags turning into a typographic map of blog content. That almost half the tags being mapped are in non-roman alphabet says a lot, finally, about how international the internet really is. (That "music" is not a primary tag, but that "música" is, of course, says it all.)

Flickr. All time most popular tags as of 05.27.05. Enlarge.

Of course, Technorati did not invent the mapping of tags. Flickr came first, only months ago, and has changed everything, both by archiving the photography of the world (over 16 million images to date), and by opening up a shared community through "tags." Cyberspace suddenly becomes one giant photo gallery, a make-your-own-archive of imagery. The Flickr map of "all time most popular tags" is not a history of photography: it is a map of this week's most popular subject matter as articulated by user-defined tags. In the same way, del.icio.us is a universe of shared bookmarks, "a social bookmarks manager."

Of the 145 Flickr tags mapped in typographic scale, half are cities and places — africa, amsterdam, austin; beach, bridge, building. (Darren Barefoot has actually mapped the most photographed cities here.) Eight tags are colors: blue, color, green, orange, pink, red, white, yellow; missing are black, silver, gold, purple, rose, brown, grey, beige, etc. The "hot tags" for the past 24-hours include bavaria, waterfront, cornell, nerd, retriever and style; over the past week, they include championsleague, kaboom, alchemy, sonic, sidekick, and infrastructure. Meanwhile, typographic scale suggests that the most popular tags are: art, beach, birthday, california, cameraphone, cat, family, flowers, friends, japan, london, me, nyc, party, travel, vacation, and wedding. (Designers can take some solace in their ongoing obsession with street signs: graffiti, sign and streetart are three popular tags.) These maps not only summarize the ways millions of photographs are categorized, they are access to both broad communities of topical interest and narrow cliques of shared experience.

Bill Marsh/The New York Times. Enlarge.

The Flickr map is, of course, a macro view of the world. The micro perspective of internet connectivity, its DNA if you will, is harder to get at — and why the map of Enron e-mail above, and its reporting by The New York Times, is so remarkable. While privacy concerns typically keep researchers from analyzing deep patterns in email correspondence, the failure of Enron allowed the U.S. Federal Regulatory Agency to make public 1.5 million internal corporate emails. After eliminating the duplicates, researchers at many institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and Johns Hopkins, are having a field day analyzing the half-million emails left over from 150 accounts, including those of the company's top executives. It's a corporate Peyton Place made public for all to see and relish. What happens to the pattern of communications when one new email address is added to the universe? What happens when broadly distributed e-mails suddenly generate statistical anomalies in private messages? Can one track when certain people are suddenly left out of the loop? Can one tell where decisions are really made from e-mail traffic patterns? Plus there are social dynamics: increased traffic during the Texas football season; and increased traffic about fantasy football just as Enron was fading fast in its final weeks.

The mapping of cyberspace is the mapping of our time, just as much as mapping DNA sequences is the mapping of the human genome. We should hope that there would be hundreds of maps, statisticians and social scientists and designers working to explain —and to visualize — this evolving new world. It's an exploration worthy of Ferdinand de Magellan's voyage around the world in 1519-21.

Posted in: Science , Technology

Comments [12]

Magellan was coping with an unknown but finite physical space. These maps of course, are of a virtual space that expands and changes as we move through it.

Consider the following list, drawn from the first chapter, a mere 33 pages, approximately 11,500 words, in a recent popular text on the visual world (Virginia Postrel, The Substance of Style (New York: HarperCollins, 2003: Chapter One). These are only the proper nouns; this list does not include numerous people identified only by function, e.g. "the head of the division's global aesthetics program."

People's Names: Jack Welch, Thomas Edison, David Brown, Philippe Starck, Plato, Puritans, Ellen Dissanayake, Hartmut Esslinger, Walter Gropius, Antoine Lavoisier, Grant McCracken, Adolf Loos, Michael Graves, Karim Rashid, Martha Stewart, Amy Spindler, Michael Bierut, Ian Schrager, Pierluigi Zappacosta, Howard Schultz, Hilary Billings, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, Mark Rothko, Al Gore, Katherine Harris, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, William Hague, Tony Blair, Iain Duncan Smith, Junichiro Koizumi, Gerhard Schroeder, Tom Ford, Hamid Karzai, Arthur Marwick, Denzel Washington, Cameron Diaz, Susan Minot, Amy Tan, Sebastian Junger, Zadie Smith, Ricky Martin, Jonathan Rauch, Susan Faludi, Penny Sparke, Dennis Dutton, Nancy Etcoff

Place Names: Selkirk, Manhattan, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Albany, New England, Massachusetts, Vermont, Schenectady, Pittsfield, Pasadena, Salt Lake City, Washington DC, France, India, China, Mexico, the Caribbean, Japan, Europe, United States, Boston, New York, Miami, La Jolla, Sydney, Australia, Istanbul, Turkey, London, Tokyo, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Italy, Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, Wisconsin, Canada, Thailand, the Philippines, La Guardia, O'Hare, Philadelphia, Hollywood, Florida, Germany, Britain, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brisbane

Company and Brand Names: General Electric, Iomega, Handspring, Kyocera, Disney, IBM, Compaq, Starbucks, Larousse, Chanel, Apple, Target, Volkswagen, Nordstrom, Visa, American Express, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Armani, Kinko's, Logitech, Microsoft, Pizza Hut, California Pizza Kitchen, TGI Friday's, Black Eyed Pea, McDonald's, Ford, 7-Eleven, Dunkin' Donuts, Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, CNN, The Learning Channel, BBC, Discovery Channel, MTV, Eyestorm, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Sheraton, Westin, Wolfgang Puck Cafes, Figs, Beverly Centre, StyleWorks, Gallup, Japan Airlines, Clairol, L'Oreal, Perry Ellis, Zip drive, Visor, Lexan, Cycolac, iMac, iVillage, Vamp, Beetle, Oxo, PayPal, PowerPoint, Formica, Muzak, Home and Garden Television, W, Weetabix, Herbal Essences True Intense Color, Féria

Periodical, Television, and Movie Titles: Seven, The Washington Post, Elle, Lucky, Clueless, Maison Française, Dwell, Business Week, Time, Sydney Sun-Herald, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Trading Spaces, Changing Rooms, Ground Force, House Invaders, While You Were Out, Surprise by Design, Crib Crashers, Lion King, White Teeth, The Adonis Complex, Looking Good, The Journal of the American Dental Association, Fashion Theory, Journal of Design History, Enterprise & Society

Institutional Names: Art Centre College of Design, Harvard, Bauhaus, Industrial Designers Society of America, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, Domus Academy, American Institute of Graphic Arts, American Society of Interior Designers, American Association of Retired Persons, Fashion Institute of Technology.

Did you catch all of that? What are the hyperlinks our minds conjure for all of these words? And what do the mind's equivalent visual maps look like? If design is to continue to be meaningful, as opposed to just good at randomly sparking nerve endings, perhaps our task is to reduce and discipline it, not stimulate more variety?
Brian Donnelly

What a great post. What great maps!

Odd that the mouse-tracking map looks suspiciously like the USA.
marian bantjes

The artist Mark Lombardi, who died in 2000, made diagrams of conspiracies, or as he called them, "narrative structures" which followed money trails and other relationships. Ironically it's almost impossible to display the resulting pencil drawings on the internet satisfactorily. You have to go to a gallery and look at the surface of the paper to see their obsessional, angry, tidy beauty.

Michael Bierut on Mark Lombardi.
Rick Poynor

Interesting Poster...

Was this created by the use of dynamic code (like much work by John Maeda) or rather assembled digitally by hand?
ivan cook

Great post, and a topic I'm particularly interested in.

When discussing mapping of large data sets, it's certainly worth mentioning the work of Ben Fry. His research on Organic Information Design, and visually mapping the Human Genome, are both fascinating and beautiful.
Kevin Cannon

I'm guessing the poster was assembled by hand. I believe it was hand assembled only because of what looks like the intentional placement of words which are called out (the words that sit on top of the word 'design'). Their intentional placement is more evident if you see the poster in print. I can see how it may look like a generative piece in the online version.

Also, Ben Fry recently gave a talk at the FITC conference in Toronto. He spoke of design profession emerging that combines information design, visualization and interaction into one discipline he calls: Computational Information Design. Anyone heard of, or, have an opinion on such a thing?
Michael DelGaudio

Felix Turner's Related Tag Browser gives you access to every public flickr photo. I love with a wonderfully simple interface.

ThinkMap Visual Thesaurus places your word in the center of the display, connected to related words and meanings. You can then click on these words or meanings to explore further. There was a similar flash application for musical artists that I saw a while ago but I cannot find it now. But the idea was the same... type in an artist and 10 'related' or 'similar' artists names would show up, etc.

WordCount presents the 86,800 most frequently used English words, ranked in order of commonness. Each word is scaled to reflect its frequency relative to the words that precede and follow it, giving a visual barometer of relevance.

This tiny application lets you cluster your del.icio.us bookmarks into tag clouds.

Carnivore is a surveillance tool for data networks. At the heart of the project is CarnivorePE, a software application that listens to all Internet traffic (email, web surfing, etc.) on a specific local network. Next, CarnivorePE serves this data stream to interfaces called "clients." These clients are designed to animate, diagnose, or interpret the network traffic in various ways. Use CarnivorePE to run Carnivore clients from your own desktop, or use it to make your own clients.

TheyRule uses a bespoke database to map the connected ownership of power and wealth within multinational corporations.

Infosthetics explores the symbiotic relationship between creative design and the field of information visualization, in an emergent multidisciplinary field what could be coined as 'creative information visualization'.
JD Hooge


Cyberspace or the internet were not words/concepts that I think were ever mentioned while we were making the AIGA registration poster. We thought a lot about what happens at conferences, during sessions, between sessions and what it would look like if one could see in print, a thousand plus people all discussing "design"--the different voices, the varying volumes--ultimately the common processes among designers of all types, media and disciplines.

I had imagined that if every word were a sound (as they are, really) that "design" (the title for the conference in addition to the theme) would be the pattern that you would hear emerging, rather than just a "hazy constant din."

I guess what is interesting to me about this discussion is that social bookmarking has been something that we have been discussing for some time now but more in terms of a design challenge (more on that another day) and its potential for a better way to use the internet than anything else. But I would be hard pressed to say that had any influence on what we created.

Anyway, feel free to harass me about the poster and all the other stuff you will be bombarded with over the next couple of months when you all come up to Boston in September. (if you're buying, I can be incredibly fun to talk to)

rock on
Paddy McCobb

William Drenttel's article shows some examples of the enigmatic images that come from mapping cyberspace. We were wondering if this serendipitous beauty is to do with the way they represent the freshly discovered... But, on the other hand, is our attraction to surfing the internet itself because of its unmapped territories and the anonymity of those that journey within?

I was struck this morning to stumble across this site for Panopticon: "Panopticon Software, part of the Hamsard Group Limited, is a business intelligence company that specializes in the development of cutting-edge visualization tools based on patented technology for real-time decision making."

My only observation is that their "patent pending" Virtual Portfolio looks an aweful like Smart Money's Map of the Market.

I'll let them sort it out.

william Drenttel

Does the internet really invade a kind of space? Is it composed of or does it take up matter? The words on top of words on top of words, in all colours will, as you said, inevitebly become black, but is cyberspace black, or white?

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