Where the Internet Lives: Andrew Blum's Tubes Puts the Web in its Place

By Colleen Lynch June 19, 2012

We use the Internet every day; it has become a fully functioning part of our lives, spread into our social and business circles to the point of near-dependency. If the Internet broke today, what would we do? How would we find out why it broke or when it would be fixed? How would we look up directions to the nearest Starbucks to use Wi-Fi – before we realized, of course, the Internet wouldn’t work there either?

How long would we last?

Andrew Blum’s new novel, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” will ease your fears, as it offers a unique and much-needed understanding of the Internet as the physical place that it is. Blum was confronted with the terror of these questions when a squirrel bit into his Internet wire, forcing him to call to get it fixed.

Wait a minute, he thought, a squirrel could impact the Internet? What wire did it bite into? Where did that wire come from or connect to? What was it made of? The questions suddenly sparked by the incident were endless, and Blum set out to get himself some answers.

The result is Tubes, a book-length explanation of the Internet, how it works, what it is physically made of, and where it lives.

Throughout the novel, Blum visits many of what he discovers are the most important places of the Internet: Ashburn (Virginia), Milwaukee, Silicon Valley, Washington D.C., New York City, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, London, Tokyo, and Seoul. These are where the tubes that lead to your house are from, and where they connect to one another to access, direct and provide Internet all over the world.

From undersea cables to massive data centers, Blum visits them all and meets the people who work daily at these facilities and places to make sure the Internet runs smoothly. Blum’s journey is easy to get into, as it reads like a feature article on the topic yet extended to book length. The language used also helps break down technological concepts into more understandable terms, and as always, Blum is sure to include strong descriptions. He notes the colors of wires or tubes running along the ceiling of old university or office buildings and re-purposed parking garages – yellow, orange, and black.

Blum describes how they hang down like spider-legs, how in reality the Internet is made up of thousands of tubes, and many times they are so packed together they resemble balls of yarn. He introduces you to the pirate-esque installation team for the transatlantic cables, such as “Luis, with a yellow mustache, and his foreman, Antonio, who looked a bit like Tom Cruise, [who] had the determination and emotional intensity of a preschooler.”

Blum not only puts the Internet into a place one can imagine, but he brings to life the people involved in the process, all the infinite parts of it – from the complex to the simple, from the grand to the minute – he reverses the facelessness of the Internet, or at least fills out some of the many faces which comprise it.  

For a full understanding of the Internet on every level, this book is a must-read. Though Blum includes maybe one-too-many classic literature references and repeatedly asks the same or similar questions throughout, his work is commendable. It brings a reality to the cloud in defining it not exactly as a cloud—as Blum puts it, the Internet is “a human world,” and this book does a good job of bringing about that humanity.  

Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

TechZone360 Contributor

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