This psychedelic data viz shows the wild evolution of the internet

Barrot Lyon's Opte Project has a new visualization that uses network data to show how the internet has radically transformed since 1997.

Anyone familiar with the phrase "dial-up" can tell you the internet has come a long way since the 90s, when "the web" was a place you could only visit with one very large (probably grey) box.


But what if you could actually see the internet's unfettered growth instead of just guessing.


In this abstract visualization, Barrett Lyon, a designer and founder of the Opte Project, uses real IP data to show visually how the internet has grown from 1997 until now. Using colors and nerve-like lines, the Opte Project gives a visual representation of how the internet is comprised from small regional networks to major backbone infrastructure.

Opte Project

"The Internet is one of humanity's most important creations. This video takes you through a journey of incredible engineering. Starting from the first routing table captures (provided by the University of Oregon's RouteViews project) in 1997, we walk through the first Internet's astonishing growth to 2021."

Barrett Lyon

Each color in the web represents a different network, with blue representing North America, green representing Europe, red for Asia, orange for Africa, and white representing "backbone" networks that connect them together.

Not everything in Lyon's colorful graphic inspires wonder. There's also what he refers to as the "darker side" such as China's network infrastructure which filters all information through two central points. This design is what allows the government to control which information gets distributed and which does not.

The graphic also captured Iran's internet shutdown in 2019, during which the government disconnected the entire country's internet access amid nationwide protests. Below is Lyon's visual representation of that event.

This isn't Lyon's first go at creating a map of the internet. A first iteration created in 2003 was eventually curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and used what are known as "traceroutes" to glean the data used in rendering the map.

Lyon's first map of the internet in 2003.

In the latest approach, however, Lyon used Border Gateway Protocol, a system that helps guide connections across networks. As noted by Wired, this data source is less prone to being spoofed and as a result helps formulate more accurate maps compared to traceroutes.

According to Lyon, the goal of the Opte Project is twofold. One one hand, it stands as an educational tool that helps explain network infrastructure visually, giving it an advantage where simple non-visual explanations may fall short.

On the other side, Lyon says he hopes it will help guide discussions about the future of the internet and maybe even help build something better.

"Now I hope this map will be a teaching tool on why we need to build a new Internet with new core principles built into it. The Internet is woven into society, and by changing the Internet, it's possible to change the world."

Barrett Lyon


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