Title: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, by Andrew Blum
Motivation: Suggested by Amazon, presumably on the basis of Turing’s Cathedral.
Completed: July 14, 2012 (#50)
Recommendation: A premise that sounds so promising, yet undermined by the essential dullness of Internet infrastructure. The Trans-Continental Railroad it is not.
Mr. Blum, confronted by a squirrel chewing through the cable that pipes the Internet to his Brooklyn home, decides to map the physical infrastructure of the Internet. From a PC on the fritz to the unlikely cyber-metropolis of Ashland, VA and beyond, Mr. Blum focuses on the physical locations and premises that make up the backbone of the Internet.
Ultimately, he determines that Sen. Ted Stevens’s famous 2006 gaffe—likening the Internet to “a series of tubes” on the floor of the Senate—is essentially an accurate description of the Internet:
Yet I have now spent the better part of two years on the trail of the Internet’s physical infrastructure, following that wire from the backyard. I have confirmed with my own eyes that the Internet is many things, in many places. But one thing it most certainly is, nearly everywhere, is, in fact, a series of tubes. 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. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.
A promising premise, and Mr. Blum delivers admirably. Alas, the Internet is ultimately a series of tubes, with some whirring fans and blinking lights in between. A history of sewers or of the Hoover Dam would likely be more entertaining, although Tubes is not a bad place to start as an introduction to how the Internet works.