After spending far too much time on the internet, I’ve fallen into something of a dangerous trap: I’ve mistaken the internet for something entirely virtual, instead of something with a physical presents. This is a trap that has been corrected by Andrew Blum’s engrossing and edifying book, Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet ($19).
What is the internet? Most answers to that question are rife with marketing nonsense, touchy-feely talk of universal villages, and insane CES keynotes; there are considerably fewer out there that are both accurate and understandable to the layman. Tubes provides a better answer. By tracking his own connection, from his router, to the neighbourhood hub, to the fibre under New York’s streets, and by exploring the early history of the internet, Blum draws a clear diagram of the internet as a network of networks.
Where is the internet? If there’s a map for the layman, Blum is the man to draw it. He journeys through the physical places of the internet—the network hubs, the undersea fibre cable landfalls, the exchanges, and the data centres of industry titans like Google and Facebook.
The inescapable conclusion of these many journeys is surprising: geography matters. Take a look at a data map. Networked data shares the same hubs as networked people. Hierarchies, in contrast to the perceived levelling of the internet, form because they’re efficient. Undersea cables connect the same ports that shipping channels do, but need to avoid places where they’ll be threatened by ship’s anchors. Like most protective vaults and unlike the rest of the internet’s infrastructure, data centres need isolation and secrecy.
The layman might not need to know much about the architecture of the internet, but it seems a bit silly to use something every day and not know at least a broad outline of what’s going on under the hood. Tubes provides that. To persist in only imagining the internet as a virtual place is dishonest; Tubes quite clearly demonstrates that it is a physical one too.