Timothy Edward Downs maps the Underground Internet… “pretty much anything that isn’t mainstream but is legal”

By Neil Randall / Illustration by Timothy Edward Downs, PC Computing’s Map to the Underground Internet [and on verso:] Road Map to the UNDERGROUND INTERNET Featuring: Computers Entertainment & Humor Lifestyles Underground And More!!! [New York: Ziff-Davis, 1996].
Two-sided poster printed in color halftone, 24 ¾”h x 37 3/8”w at sheet edge. Folds as issued, else excellent.

A rare and striking 1996 map of the “Underground Internet, where you’ll find some of the scariest, funniest, and most thought-provoking sites in cyberspace.”

PC Computing and Timothy Edward Downs
Back in the early nineties PC Magazine, PC World and PC Computing were in a three-way race for subscribers and newsstand sales. PC Computing viewed itself as the edgiest of the three—in retrospect, not dissimilar to Wired—and it ventured well beyond dry technical matter to include thought pieces, feature Penn Gillette as the back-page columnist, and generally “talk about what was really cool culturally.” (Timothy Edward Downs, YouTube interview) In 1994 it tried a new marketing tactic, with its designers producing a groundbreaking series of posters providing a graphic introduction to the rapidly-developing world of the Internet. The posters were “folded just like road maps, like you would get from AAA” (Downs) and shrink wrapped along with each copy of the magazine.  Ultimately “about 13” such posters were produced over the next two years.

“This was a serial kind of a project, so every month with your new issue you’d get a different way of slicing and dicing places on the Internet…. and you could take this map, open it up, and start going to each of those sites…” (Downs)

Artist Timothy Edward Downs was, and is, a graphic designer, photographer and information technology expert, best known for his illustrated guide How Computers Work, now in its 10th edition. By his own account, he developed an interest in art and electronics at the age of 10.  His distinctive, innovative approach to technical illustration later developed out of his frustration with the genre:

“Technical illustration… was all so boring…. at the end I never liked any of the things I did because they were all too perfect. All the angles were right, the perspective was perfect, everything was shaded in a way that was realistic but still very dry and very non-human, and ultimately you were showing what it was but you weren’t saying how it worked….


“As I was starting to draw and starting to work in the industry, I realized that I could draw technical things in a very accurate way, but it didn’t have life, and it didn’t excite, and ultimately it didn’t feel like it was alive and moving…. I wanted to invite people into the information as opposed to just showing them what all the things did.” (Downs)

Downs’ Map to the Underground Internet
Offered here is Downs’ 1996 Road Map to the Underground Internet, conceptually and stylistically akin to his Road Map of the Internet and Road Map to the World Wide Web, published by PC Computing in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Inspired by subway maps and the innovative posters of A.M. Cassandre, Downs applied a spatial hub-and-spoke metaphor to organize content available on the Internet. As the 1994 map explained, “Points of interest along the information highway are organized around major subject categories. Radiating from each category are descriptions of key sites and their addresses.”

Unlike the earlier maps, however, this map focuses on “pretty much anything that isn’t mainstream but is legal”, “the stuff that comes out at night, then gives way in the morning”… i.e., the stuff that people looked at when their boss or their spouse weren’t watching. The content is organized in five categories: Computers, Entertainment & Humor, Lifestyles, Just Plain Weird, and Underground, each listing dozens of sites and their URLS, with capsule summaries of content and occasionally some editorializing.

The content ranges from serious (“Underground Railroad” and “Media Watchdog”), to diverting (“Virtual Slot Machine” and “Computer Karaoke”), useful (“Safer Sex”), and really weird (“The Surrealist Compliment Generator”, “Jihad to Destroy Barney [the Dinosaur]”   and “Ze Zveedish Chef Page, Bork, Bork, Bork”). Though a number of the sites are about sex, what’s oddly missing is pornography, the first sector where Internet content providers made serious money.

Though presumably printed in large numbers, the map was ephemeral and must have had a low survival rate. This is the first example I have seen on the market, and I am not aware of any institutional holdings.

In all, a rare and unusual image of the internet in its earliest days of development.

Not in OCLC, as of June 2022. Much background from “Timothy Edward Downs – Mapping the Internet” at YouTube.