Most of us don’t stop to think about how information moves through the Internet. The Web’s complex physical infrastructure seems far removed from our day-to-day use of Facebook and Spotify. But for Ben Mendelsohn, a recent graduate of The New School Media Studies program, the physicality of the internet was too compelling to ignore. That’s why, for his thesis, he made Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a documentary that goes behind the scenes at 60 Hudson Street, a building in lower Manhattan that serves as a hub of Internet connectivity on the East Coast. Ben took time to explain to the News why the space behind cyberspace is so important.
New School News: It’s clear from the film that you’re fascinated by the duality of physical and virtual space. Why do you think it’s important that people understand this underlying infrastructure?
Ben Mendelsohn: For the same reasons that it’s important to know that our garbage doesn’t just disappear but must be transported by some physical means to some other place. Our water, our electricity, the fuel for our vehicles, the food in our grocery stores, these are massive networks and systems that we rely upon every day. Digital communications can have an anesthetizing, dematerializing effect that makes us forget these ecologies.
NSN: What brought you to The New School?
BM: When I was looking at graduate programs and weighing an MFA in film against more academic programs in the humanities, I saw that Media Studies at The New School made space for production as well as research. In my experience, the program definitely allows students to cultivate both impulses.
NSN: Tell us about your approach to making the documentary. How did you select your interview subjects?
BM: One of my goals was to integrate academic research with documentary filmmaking, and that meant interviewing some academics. As far as the interviews went, when it comes to cities and digital technology, Saskia Sassen is really the authority. Stephen Graham is a fascinating geographer who, along with Simon Marvin, wrote the book on urban telecommunications infrastructure. He provided tons of valuable insight. I learn so much from interviews, and that’s a huge part of what makes documentary so much fun.
NSN: You said that 60 Hudson Street is an outpost of many global empires., Which ones?
BM: What I meant is that powerful actors in a host of industries depend on the capabilities that this equipment provides. Time Warner and Verizon, the corporate giants of communications services, are in these interconnection facilities. Then there are the global financial firms that have pretty serious equipment needs, entertainment companies that transfer lots of video files back and forth, Web-hosting companies; these are the types of firms that need or want to be inside a concentrated interconnection facility.
NSN: How have the data needs of media conglomerates like Google, Facebook, and Apple changed the infrastructure landscape?
BM: Google, Facebook, and Apple are building massive, innovative data center facilities in more remote locations, places like central Washington state, central Oregon, and North Carolina. They choose places with cheap electricity and low disaster profiles and are wooed with tax incentives. I spoke to a few observers who think that these facilities will pull the center of gravity away from concentrated urban infrastructure and create more new interconnection points. But it’s important to recognize what is truly unique about 60 Hudson , it has the highest concentration of transatlantic undersea cables anywhere in North America. It is extremely unlikely that this will be replicated anywhere else.