Q&A: What does the Internet smell like?

Journalist Andrew Blum visited the places around the world where you can see, touch and smell cyberspace. He spoke with us about his "journey to the center of the Internet."
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer

When his Internet conked out thanks to a squirrel-chewed wire, architecture journalist Andrew Blum began to wonder how far that wire actually stretched, and to where.

He set out to visit the Internet — not a Google hit list of new cable providers or a Wikipedia entry on squirrel control, but the actual, physical places around the world where you can see, touch and smell cyberspace. That mission brought him to locales both far-flung and familiar, from a beach in Portugal to downtown Manhattan to Google and Facebook's mammoth data centers in the Oregon woods.

"When we think about how many paths the Internet moves through, it's more than we can count," Blum recently told me. "As a result, we believe it moves through no paths at all. But if you slow it down and narrow your frame of view, taking one individual path at a time, it becomes much easier to trace the Internet across the world."

The author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Blum told us about his quest to find the center of cyberspace. He also answered that age-old question: What does the Internet smell like?

One of the big things I took from Tubes is that as magical and placeless as the Internet seems, it turns out that [the late] Senator Ted Stevens wasn't so far off when he described it as "a series of tubes." Why do you think he got so much flack for saying that?

I think the Internet as a dominant presence in our lives snuck up on us. It wasn't as if we were all online all the time all of a sudden. It was more of this 10-year process from about 1999 to 2009 when we were spending more and more time online. [Stevens] caught that toward the end when a lot of us were spending our entire days online and therefore had moved on. The Internet wasn't a physical thing, it was a way of being in the world. It had become an extension of our own minds. Calling it a series of tubes was exactly what we'd all gotten over.

But it turns out it is a series of tubes, at least to an extent.

It's an amazing delusion that it seemed preposterous to think that it was a series of tubes. Although in fairness, 'tubes' is definitely a silly word. Conduits, pipes — there are more precise, technical words.

What do those conduits look like?

In their most tube-like state, which is often in data centers or Internet exchange points, they look like shiny metal pipes, sometimes neatly arranged, sometimes chaotically covering a ceiling. But always these cylindrical things that cross the building and tangle up with each other and seem very busy going from one place to another. It's like bird watching — you quickly learn to tell the differences between types of Internet cables.

What else is the physical Internet made of?

On a larger scale, I think of three different types of places. First, the Internet exchange points, which are the places where the networks of the Internet connect to each other — the big buildings or campuses. There only about a dozen in the world and they're by far the most important places.

Then I think of data centers, which I like to use more specifically to mean only the place where data is stored. Data centers are usually in two types of places: They're either near us and near the Internet exchange points or they're off in the boonies where they can run most efficiently and where power is cheapest.

The third piece of the Internet is the lines in between: the fiber-optic cables between cities, the undersea cables that sit at the bottom of the ocean and connect continents, and the capillaries that connect all of our homes to the Internet.

Speaking of those undersea cables, you discuss the Internet's underwater presence in Tubes. Tell me about what's down there.

I didn't go underwater, but I watched one land on a beach in Portugal — a new WACS [West African Cable System] cable that stretches from Lisbon down the west coast of Africa to about 10 different countries. They are essentially the thickness of a garden hose and they're very heavy because they're wrapped in steel webbing to protect the fibers inside. Then they're covered in a rubbery coating that keeps the saltwater out. Inside there are hair-thin strands of fiber — of which there are usually six or eight—and a copper tube that transmits the power to the underwater amplifiers, which regenerate the signal across the ocean. The amplifiers are like stretched-out garbage cans — they're these big cylinders that sit on the ocean floor.

You also talk about the Internet having a smell.

The Internet smells a bit like burnt toast with another overtone of burning plastic — like a new car smell, almost — with a lot of ozone, like when you stand in front of an air conditioner. It's a really specific mix. I went to visit a guy a few weeks ago who runs Portland's major piece of the Internet. I walked in and there was that same smell. I hadn't been to the Internet in over a year, but it's immediately recognizable that this is what the Internet smells like. It's pretty much the same smell everywhere.

Your subtitle for Tubes is A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Where is the center of the Internet?

There isn't one center, but there are surprisingly few centers. For me, those centers are the dozen or so buildings around the world where more networks connect to each other than everywhere else. The most important buildings house the network connections of essentially 10 times more networks than the second tier of buildings. That's the closest thing the Internet has to a center.

Is there a country or region that has a bigger proportion of those centers?

They're inherently regionally distributed, though they also follow the international trade patterns. Most are in the places you'd expect: New York, London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Singapore. The outliers are the ones that speak to the unusual nature of the Internet. One of the major outliers is Ashburn, Va., which is where five data centers operated by a company called Equinix are located. More networks connect there than anywhere else in the U.S., so Internet people talk about Ashburn as if it were London or Tokyo.

How does a place like Ashburn become a center of the Internet?

There are always two major factors with these centers. There's always some fact of geography, some pre-existing condition that makes them a hub of some sort. Ashburn is important partly because it comes out of the military-industrial technology complex in suburban Virginia outside of Washington. Along with geography, there's always some charismatic salesperson — someone who convinced the first two networks to connect in one of these buildings and then because those two networks connected, everybody else piled on.

Do you have concerns after visiting some of these places that we're not guarding cyberspace's physical places more closely?

I don't worry too much about the safety of the physical infrastructure of the internet. I think the threat of cyber attacks is scary and real, but I think that physically, the biggest of the buildings are very well protected and they're quitelarge. The sheer fact that there are so many networks connecting to each other inside these buildings offers the right kind of redundancy compared to replicating these major hubs in multiple places.

After all the Internet-centered places you've visited and people you've talked with, do you have any predictions for what might happen next?

I think we're going to keep demanding more bandwidth, at least until we have enough at home to support two-way high-definition video chatting. I think we do want the Jetsons video wall, and we'll keep demanding that until we get it.

Also, because of the competition between video content providers and the cable companies, which are also video content providers, and because we keep trying to squeeze more and more through the network, I hope that there will begin to be more competition among [Internet Service Providers] and more differentiation about not only the services they offer but the politics of that service. It's almost like a Whole Foods versus a traditional supermarket. We'll start to see ISPs that are offering premium things that are based not only on the quality of the service but also on the politics and morale of the service.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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