'Tubes' - a tactile tour of the internet

A terrific book about how the planet is wired for multimedia and data, the locations, sights and smells of global to local internet infrastructure
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor


It's sometimes amazing to me how few people truly understand the physical underpinnings of the internet - how and why they experience sound and vision on their digital devices. I read Wired magazine correspondent Andrew Blum's book 'Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet' on various plane journeys over the last few weeks (our connectedness seems to initiate more travel rather than less) and found it very enjoyable.  

Essentially Blum's book is a wide eyed digital tourist trip around internet landmarks - the physical soil and wires - experiencing the tactile qualities of a 'series of tubes' to quote the analogy United States Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) used, to much ribbing and hilarity, to describe the Internet while opposing network neutrality back in 2006.

As Blum documents early on the bundles of fiber optic cables which connect one node of the internet to the next are indeed encased in tubes as Blum writes early on:

“...There are tubes beneath the ocean that connect London and New York. Tubes that connect Google and Facebook. There are buildings filled with tubes, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes. Everything you do online travels through a tube.”

The latest version of the submarine cable map was released last week by Telegeography and puts in sharp focus the miles high view of the core infrastructure of the planet: the undersea connective fibers that connect continents. Back on the ground those cables come ashore at places like Sennen Cove at the tip of Cornwall in England at what used to be Skewjack surf village, where I holidayed as a teen in the last century, and is now a major telecommunications center.

There's a terrific piece in Wired magazine from the last century that goes superbly well with Blum's book: 'Mother Earth Mother Board  The hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, chronicling the laying of the longest wire on Earth' by scifi novelist Neal Stephenson which was written during the glory days of that magazine in 1996. the print version has wonderful period graphic design and photographs but the archived text chronicles the Victorian cable laying past and the 'tubes' of fiber optics Blum discusses being laid down at the dawn of broadband.

Once the undersea 'submarine cable' sections of the internet hit land, the complexity of routing explodes from key nodes, and Blum's book does a terrific job of taking the reader on a journey around the key intent physical location centers. For every purpose award winning architectural building, like Sennen Cove or Canary Wharf in London's financial district, there are dozens of nondescript old industrial buildings essentially gerry rigged to accommodate vast amounts of cabling rout the internet. 

Servers from rival companies have historically been connected together in data centers at key nodes of the internet in a form of collaboration that is at the heart of broadband's success: 'for the good of the internet' is a  common phrase amongst network engineers who rely on each other in their cooperative endeavors to make the internet as efficient as possible for everyone.

Blum visits old industrial buildings on run down city blocks stuffed with technologies, and vast data centers in the middle of nowhere that utilize hydroelectric power to on ramp giant global companies like Google, Apple to the web, describing the sites and smells of these locations - and the immense secrecy surrounding many of them.

The internet continues to evolve at a terrific pace, with most of the infrastructure build out invisible to the end user (except for the physical locations you may see as you drive or walk around). In our digital video age, huge companies are currently moving servers next to the service providers’ networking gear on internet nodes near you to save lots of money, and speed up service to local consumers. This is about the fastest route from the location of the data you are requesting to your digital device and is arguably at the heart of network neutrality, something Blum neglects in his book. 

Overall though I highly recommend this book. Blum visits some highly important historical locations where the internet was literally first turned on, and which astoundingly are not designated as international landmarks yet, and provides a useful tactile sense of how this post got from my keyboard to your eyeballs in a way that is easy to read, informative and entertaining. 


Image: Detail of 2012 Submarine cable map by TeleGeography


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