[6 June 2012]
Does the Internet have a physical address? Can we find it on a map?
According to Andrew Blum, yes and yes.
In his book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Blum attempts to demystify the Internet and give it a sense of place. He states “The Internet is the single biggest technological construction of our daily existence. It is vivid and alive on the screens all around us, as boisterous as a bustling human city. Two billion people use the Internet, in some form, every day. Yet physically speaking, it is utterly disembodied, a featureless expanse: all ether, no net.”
So Blum asks “What if the Internet wasn’t an invisible elsewhere, but actually a somewhere?” and wonders, “Because this much I knew: the wire in [my] backyard led to another wire, and another behind that—beyond to a whole world of wires… If I followed the wire, where would it lead? What would that place look like? Who would I find? Why were they there?” And with that, Blum decides to “visit the Internet”.
Blum’s search takes him to various locations, including the Internet’s ‘birthplace’: UCLA, where “on the quiet Saturday afternoon of the Labor Day weekend in 1969, a small crowd of computer science graduates had gathered in the courtyard of Boelter Hall with a bottle of champagne” to celebrate their new “gadget”: a Honeywell DDP-516 minicomputer that weighed 900 pounds.
Some of Blum’s other destinations aren’t surprising, either—Palo Alto, home of PAIX, the Palo Alto Internet Exchange, or Google’s facility in Manhattan, for example. For those not familiar with Internet history, Ashburn, Virginia might be considered an unusual location, but as Blum notes, Ashburn, which houses a large Equinix campus, “is a small town that Internet people think of as a giant city. They toss around ‘Ashburn’ as if it were London or Tokyo, and often in the same sentence.”
Blum is a natural storyteller. Who would have thought, for example, that information about trans-Atlantic cable could be so interesting (or so pretty), but with Blum, it is. He states:
“It all struck me as wonderfully poetic, an ultimate enjoining of the unfathomable mysteries of the digital world with the even more unfathomable mysteries of the oceans. But with a funhouse twist: for all the expanse these cables spanned, they were skinny little buggers. There wasn’t all that much to them. The cables spanned oceans and then landed at incredibly specific points… I imagined them like elevators to the moon, diaphanous threads disappearing to infinity…”
And it’s not just the places that the Internet occupies, it’s the people that work ‘in the machine’, too. Blum meets a wide range of ‘regular folks’ such as Eddie Diaz, who works with Internet cable in New York City and Ken Patchett, who manages a data center, and notes “These guys aren’t Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. They didn’t invent anything, reshape any industries, or make a whole lot of money. They worked inside the global network and made it work.”
Not all of Blum’s adventures are successful, however. Blum includes a chapter on data centers—which he defines as the storehouses of the “digital soul” and attempts to visit Google’s data center at The Dalles. He notes “I was greeted by a small entourage…Things were awkward from the beginning. When I pulled out my tape recorder, the media person leaned in for a close look at it, checking to make sure it wasn’t a camera.” Blum asked questions; silences followed only to be filled with “scripted nonanswer[s]”. Another person asked Blum “Are we creating through this book a road map for terrorists? By identifying the ‘monuments,’ as you refer to them, if they are known and damaged and destroyed, it’s not just one building that goes down, it’s the entire country that goes down, and is that a wise thing to be broadcasting to the world?”
Rest assured, that’s not Blum’s intention—in his own words he loves the Internet. That said, he does occasionally make the Internet seem rather fragile—an opening anecdote suggests he lost his own personal Internet connection because of a chew-happy squirrel, one of his other stories talks about Australia going offline because of a billing issue, and yet another relates that an earthquake disturbed underwater cables and disconnected Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and most of South Asia “from the global Internet”.
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet is an interesting book—at times perhaps too interesting for its own good. Sometimes the stories are so engaging that the purpose of the book gets just a little lost. I’m so curious to see how, for example, Blum’s visit to Google’s data center ends (or rather his visit to Google where they won’t let him anywhere near the data center), that I forget I’m supposed to be learning about data centers. Which is why, even though I loved Blum’s writing, I can’t quite agree with the praise on the front of the book: “You’ll never open an email in quite the same way again”. Tubes takes a subject that most might not think of as fun and personal and makes it exactly that, but it might not change the way audiences think of the Internet as much as Blum had hoped.