Illustrating the Internet: A Q&A with the artist who drew a ‘more human’ map of the Web


(Internetopia/Benjamin Redford)

The Internet is an inherently visual place — but it’s impossible to visualize it.

There are tens of billions of Web pages, with more sprouting by the second. There are over 200 submarine cables, shuttling Web traffic around the globe. So when 26-year-old Benjamin Redford set out to illustrate the Web, he decided to take a less literal route — illustrating not the physical or structural layout of the Internet, but the assorted cats, quirks and in-jokes that form its cultural fabric.

The result was “Internetopia,” a 6½-foot-by-5-foot pen-and-ink drawing funded and designed by the crowd. Redford solicited donations for the project on Kickstarter last December, promising one cube in the final poster for each dollar donated. More than 220 people contributed, requesting everything from chihuahuas, noodles and dinosaurs to a “woman using the internet to find freedom from the restrictions of her community’s lifestyle.” In short, it’s an eclectic and wide-ranging collection — much like the Internet itself.

Redford and I chatted a bit this week about his work, and his vision of the Web, by e-mail. This conversation has been lightly edited for style, space and flow.

How’d you even come up with this idea — why illustrate the Internet?

I love science-fiction — that’s kind of where the idea came from. I’m a big fan of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Phillip K. Dick so I find the idea of cyberspace pretty fascinating. However, I always thought it was pretty weird that all the rhetoric around ‘cyber’ or ‘net’ was so clean and perfect. I guess that’s why I found the idea of cyberpunk so attractive. It was little bit more gritty, a little bit more “human” and messy. Internetopia was about trying to visualize that idea by using people’s suggestions from all over the Web.


(Internetopia)

What was your process like, in terms of actually drawing but also in terms of dreaming up how to represent the requests?

There were three steps to the process. First, in blue draft pencil, I’d map out how many cubes the person had pledged for, in the rough shape of what they had asked for. If it was a “sitting cat,” for example, I’d draw a rough pyramid shape with more cubes where the cat’s tail and behind was, and less where the head was.

I’d then sketch out the details and composition of the cat in a 0.3mm mechanical pencil. This is where the character of the request would really take shape, and I’d fill out as much of the cubes as possible with little details. The final layer was on a huge piece of tracing paper laid over the original sketch. I inked onto this with a 0.1mm technical pen and added in any little details and shading I may have missed on the sketch.

In terms of dreaming up how to represent the requests, it just sort of “arrives.” I was always that kid drawing ridiculous stuff from his head, and this was just like outsourcing that part of my process to a bunch of different people around the world. That bit I really enjoyed because you start to really think about what made people choose that particular thing. Although the crazy ones are fun, I usually found the really simple requests more intriguing.

Why were the simple ones more intriguing?

I think the simplicity thing is interesting because it became a bit of a competition, for who could come up with the weirdest/most random request. In a way, this made them all feel quite similarly “weird.” So when you get a super simple one it throws you off a bit.

Did you have any other favorites?

Favorites change fairly regularly, but I’ve always been a big fan of drawing buildings. I studied my first year of architecture, so probably I was influenced by architectural-style drawings and cityscapes. I suppose Internetopia is a funny way of landscaping.


(Internetopia/Benjamin Redford)

Is the finished product really representative of the Internet, do you think? Is that even possible?

Not really, no. I mean, I aimed to do that but always knew that was pretty much impossible. In the end, I think it represents something completely different. In some ways I guess it is representative of the internet, or at least a very small, highly imaginative collective consciousness at a very specific moment in time.

Any plans for more work in this vein?

Ah that would be telling! You’ll have to sign up for our e-mail to find out — it’s all a bit secret at the moment but should be fun.


(Internetopia/Benjamin Redford)

Finally, and maybe most importantly — did R. Kelly really order a print?!

YES. 100 percent. Well, someone called R. Kelly from the U.S. ordered a print. That’s good enough for me. If you see him, ask him for me would you? It’s been keeping me up at night.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · June 10