Vivid Hues

What does it mean to think of the internet as a color?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Green was the first symbolic color for all things digital, as dramatized by The Matrix in 1999. We meet the main character, Neo, in a world where whites appear minty and blacks are forest green; when he steps into “reality,” the white balance adjusts to a more recognizable palette, marking a transition from his digitally constructed existence. It’s possible that this distinctive green tint was used to cover up mistakes filming against a green screen, but the film’s titles and promotional posters also use this color heavily. As two cinematographers have pointed out, the iconic green tint and rain of code (made up of sushi recipes) is a reference to early computers; more specifically, the P1 phosphor in monochrome displays. This neon green was not determined by any art director, but by the physical exposure of cathodoluminescent substances to electron beams. It is familiar to those who grew up accessing the early internet through the terminal.

When the most recent film came out in December 2021, some noted that, as @RBGibson put it on on Twitter, young viewers would have no “first-hand experience of why the falling text in The Matrix is green.” To think of the internet as “green” today seems preposterous — the word’s symbolic meaning, with its connotations of sustainability, belies the amount of carbon consumed in our internet use. With more than four billion people on the world wide web, it is estimated that the global greenhouse emissions used to keep us online are similar to that of the entire airline industry. Green may have once made sense as a symbol for the internet, but both society and the franchise have moved on. Today, multiple colors have been proposed for symbolizing the internet, including Pantone’s 2022 “Color of the Year”: Very Peri, a deep lilac which purportedly represents the metaverse and rise of NFTs.

We perceive the internet — as well as its contents, uses, and effects — differently depending on when we started using it

Since long before the capitalist branding of color, we’ve been assigning specific shades to concepts that are not sensorially perceivable. As Kassia St Clair explained in her book The Secret Lives of Colour, purple has been associated with the ruling classes from ancient Byzantine to modern Japan; red denotes danger, beguiling us or urging caution. So why is it that Web3 already has a cute sweater color, but the internet as a whole doesn’t? Assigning a globally understood color to something so intangible poses an interesting problem. We perceive the internet — as well as its contents, uses, and effects — differently depending on when we started using it.

When computers progressed beyond monochrome in the ’80s, Yves Klein blue became synonymous with hyperlinks and a connected world. My first computer was a Macintosh with an inbuilt RGB monitor, and I had a promotional T-shirt (which I stole from my dad) that read “Discover the internet on a Mac,” featuring brightly colored photos. With exponentially improving monitors, and processors that could handle jpegs, the internet also started to depict itself. Ask any search engine what the “internet” looks like, and it will retrieve dozens of computer-generated illustrations depicting cerulean globes with glowing cyan meridian lines. The first popular browser, Mosaic, had a logo which showed planet Earth in lapis lazuli, and then Netscape came along with a teal horizon line at the edge of a curved globe. Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox continued the trend of symbolizing the internet as blue and spherical. Different blue hues also dominate the logos of many of the prevailing Web 2.0 brands: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Skype, and WordPress to name a few. While Google’s logo is famously colorful, in 1998 the “G” was changed to blue from the original green. Even when the corporate internet is disembodied, Alexa speaks with an ultraviolet light.

Florian Krammer writes that blue is used to imply “cultural coolness and cleanness,” on the Kelvin color temperature scale. Others have theorized that it imbues a sense of trust. But a much simpler explanation is that people who design logos just like the color. I’ve worked as a creative director on many branding projects over the years, and psychology rarely comes up in conversation. Rather, personal preferences end up being the biggest factor in branding decisions. Blue is the world’s favorite color, and if it’s popular for everyone, it’s going to be popular for designers and CEOs, too. In 2010 Mark Zuckerberg revealed that he is partially colorblind, and the reason that Facebook is blue is simply because it’s the color he can see “all of.” But to recognize the internet as blue is to see it merely as a portal for brands. This ignores expressions of individualism online, and the anticapitalist aesthetics of post-internet art and meme culture. Plus, there’s nothing in the infrastructure or protocols of the internet that points to blue as the internet’s color.

The internet’s symbolic color enables us to have more meaningful conversations about its impact

To return to a more scientific approach, we might look at how the internet modulates, which is at a frequency of 1550. That is, within the near infrared spectrum, and the complete opposite end of the color spectrum from ultraviolet. In 2018, artist Evan Roth embarked on a project to show the physical infrastructure that is used to connect the world to the web. The resulting work, Red Lines, is a series of 82 meditative films shot in infrared. Each one depicts the internet cable coming into the region where the individual artwork’s file is hosted. To produce these films, Roth took the infrared blocker out of a digital camera so that it would see beyond the narrow spectrum that human eyes can perceive.

There is a double meaning to the redness in the work. I heard Roth speak about the project at the Photographers Gallery in London, where he explained that the title referenced the “red line”: a telegram network designed to connect Britain with all the colonies in her Empire, without ever touching foreign soil. Today’s fiber optic cables often follow these historic pathways. The implication of this title is that the violence of the British Empire lives on in online culture. There is an inherent violence to redness, of course, being the color of blood.

I have one of these artworks displayed on a busted Chromebook in my London flat. It features an 18-minute video of Takapuna beach in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland), the city where I grew up. This artwork is meaningful to me because it creates a physical connection between my home and my birthplace, but the color is unfamiliar. As humans, we don’t sense the infrared spectrum.

Why does giving the internet a color even matter? We can only engage in meaningful conversations about the world we live in when we have mutually understood signs for the concepts around us. At least, this was what philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce explained with his theory of signs (and since Peirce had a tendency to overcomplicate in his writing, I will try to oversimplify). The theory follows that there are three ways to reference things: an icon creates an accurate likeness of an object; an index points at what it represents; and a symbol is culturally understood as a stand-in for the object itself.

These are not mutually exclusive groupings, and our concept of color can fit into all of these categories. As an example, think of red in relation to stopping traffic. If you were to draw a stop sign, you would use a red pencil to accurately create an icon. The physical act of pushing your foot down on the brake produces an index, as the tail light emits a red glow; and symbolically, a traffic signal turning red tells us to stop, without any word or image required. Even those who don’t see color understand these connotations.

Researchers believe that our sense of color can have deep links with semantic associations. For example, you can understand pink to mean “femininity,” even if you reject the idea that babies born with certain body parts should be dressed in certain clothes. These associations can be invented by marketing departments, paint manufacturers, and pop culture, but once ingrained they communicate the same meaning to everyone. The study of semiotics tells us that abstract concepts can and should be visualized, if we are to interrogate them. Although the internet is amorphous, many things to many people, agreeing on its symbolic color enables us to have more meaningful conversations about its impact. Red can only save human lives if we all agree that it means stop.

There are compelling arguments that the internet is red, green or blue; however none of these colors represent how I see it. I have grapheme-color synesthesia, which means that my brain colors in words, numbers and letters when I hear or think about them. I first learned this term when I was six years old, and my mother wrote out my names in what I insisted were the wrong colors. Having synesthesia means that I have always perceived the word “internet” in a cold white.

I believe that this color is an accurate representation for the internet as it is. Anyone who designed their own MySpace page will be aware that hexadecimal code creates over 16 million shades, from #000000 (black) to #FFFFFF (white), varied by the amount of red, green, and blue respectively. #FFFFFF contains the full spectrum of the early internet’s green phosphor, the corporate blue of Web 2.0, and the infra-redness by which it modulates. White is a color that contains the nuance of how individuals use and perceive the internet; it’s a catch-all, but it comes with problems.

The world’s injustices, further institutionalized with new technology, are what we ignore when we accept visualizations of the internet as a clean blue globe

Thanks to Google, the most visited homepage in the world, white is very prominent in web design. This trend was created by Marissa Mayer, who once said that the Google homepage mirrored her own home, where the oversaturation of Dale Chihuly’s glass blown sculptures stood out against white walls. Here white is not the feature, but the backdrop. It would be easy to assume that white is a default in UX design, as it is for a bleached sheet of paper. But in the late ’90s, when I first started making websites, if you didn’t specify a background color the browser would display it as light grey; on CRT monitors, grey pixels were less power intensive. It’s very hard to see the internet when we are so engrossed in the content it produces, but if you look up from your screen and down a dark train carriage, you’ll see the internet reflected on the faces of other people — and the color is white.

In Western pop psychology, white represents “purity,” and this is tied to racist associations with skin tone, as well as sexist imperatives of virginity. Perhaps the most convincing argument that white is the color of the internet as we know it is the culture of white supremacy that formed and still dominates it. The internet’s infrastructure, in tracing the British Empire’s telegraph network, has colonial origins, reinforced by the first programming languages, which were written in the English language. In 2014, a U.S. Government report found that the tech industry employed a higher percentage of whites, and smaller percentage of women, than the private sector overall. Dr. Safiya U. Noble has written extensively about the racism inherent in search algorithms, and it persists in the AI used to power facial recognition software.

The world’s injustices seem to be amplified and further institutionalized with new technology. It is exactly this disharmony that we ignore when we accept computer-generated visualizations of the internet as a clean blue globe; a symbol which was created and first adopted by an overwhelmingly white tech industry. Whiteness is overrepresented in both the demographics of tech companies and the UX of the internet: Perhaps you’ve felt the sharp whiteness of the internet as a strain behind your eyes, after staring at a screen for too long.

With the advent of LCD screens came the permanent backlight, meaning that whenever our devices are on, there is white light flooding through them. Because the power usage is the same, regardless of the colors being displayed, there’s less of a justification for considering the environmental impact of web design. If we are to become more conscientious about how our internet use affects the climate, we will need to move on from backlit monitors, and UX will return to a dark mode. By seeing the internet as white, perhaps we can appreciate the color our phones return to when we’re not using them.

Anna Rose Kerr is currently a postgraduate student of art history at Birkbeck, University of London, researching how we see the internet, and how it sees us. Their work as a creative director and artist has been featured by the New York Times and Time magazine.