A Journey to the Center of the Internet
By Andrew Blum
Ecco. 294 pp. $26.99
It’s easy to think of the Internet as an ethereal, otherworldly place. Even the way we talk about it speaks to its inherent everywhereness and nothingness — it’s all “wireless” this, “in the cloud” that. We used to reach the Web by sitting down at a large, slow-moving machine and waiting while screeching noises let us know our phone lines were being put to work. Now we carry the Internet around in our pockets, we have Wi-Fi on planes, and we can Instagram photos from the middle of nowhere.
As Andrew Blum writes in his new book, there’s a tangible, physical reality to the Internet, even if we tend to forget about it. And it’s more than just the phones we absentmindedly thumb or the routers we unplug and replug into our walls when our system is on the fritz. Blum investigates the physical architecture of the online world, exploring “corrugated steel buildings, yellow fiber-optic cables, and basement vaults.” These are the places where the data move, the cables that help information as it crisscrosses the globe and the avenues that act as network intersections.
“Tubes” is sprightly and easy to read, with a story that travels from an Internet exchange in Palo Alto, Calif., to a network hub in Frankfurt, Germany. Blum makes a nighttime excursion to watch workers install cables under New York City and goes to a Google data center in Oregon, where he tries his best to get the “Let’s make information readily accessible!” company to proffer actual information about said data center.
As we move into an ever-more-wireless world, it’s worth remembering that so much of this system relies on cables, networks, data centers, mainframes and physical effort. The trip to the Google data center reminds Blum that while all of our information appears to be freely floating in the clouds, it does have to be somewhere at all times.
The title of the book refers to a famous speech by the late senator Ted Stevens, who described the Internet as “a series of tubes.” This is more accurate than we would think, Blum writes. Visiting a rundown building in Milwaukee to glimpse the wires connecting libraries, schools and government offices, he is struck by the sight of “all those tubes” necessary to bring the Internet to life for so many people. The Internet is seemingly nowhere, but actually it has a strong and tangible presence.
— Mark Berman