June 7, 2012
Staff Picks: Tubes
"They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet.
And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on.
It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand,
those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in,
it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube , enormous amounts of material."
—The late Senator Ted Stevens, of Alaska
Senator Stevens caught a lot of flack for that comment, made in an attempt to argue against an amendment on net neutrality. And while I still find his, or any, argument against net neutrality somewhat wrongheaded, Wired correspondent Andrew Blum reports in his new book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, that Stevens probably didn't deserve the amount of tech condescension he received. Blum describes why in the prologue:
I've just started this book, but so far the journey is fascinating (not only, yet not hurt by, the fact that he begins in Milwaukee at Kubin-Nicholson print shop). Part technological exploration and part travelogue, Blum takes the reader on a physical tour of the internet, transferring our understanding of it from "a landscape of the mind" to a real geography. It's an important understanding to have, I think, as it reconnects the digital world ever more to the physical—something I think we forget when we're able to push a button on a screen and have a box arrive at our doorstep the next day. Just as it's important to know where the food that ends up on our plate comes from, I think it's just as important to know how information ends up on our computer screens, and where it comes from. Blum explains his journey there:I have now spent the better part of two years on the trail of the Internets physical infrastructure, following [the wire from my 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 to 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 glass fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.
The Internet has a seemingly infinite number of edges, but a shockingly small number of centers. At its surface, this book recounts my journey to those centers, to the Internet's most important places. I visited giant data warehouses, but many other types of places as well: the labyrinthine digital agoras where networks meet, the undersea cables that connect continents, and the signal-haunted buildings where glass fibers fill copper tubes built for the telegraph. Unless you're one of the small tribe of network engineers who often served as my guides, this is certainly not the Internet you know. But it is most certainly the Internet you use. If you have received an email or loaded a web page already today—indeed, if you are receiving an email or loading a web page (or a book) right now—I can guarantee that you are touching these very real places. I can admit that the Internet is a strange landscape, but I insist that it is a landscape nonetheless—a "netscape," I'd call it, if that word weren't already taken. For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelesssness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.I love this book so far, and if you're interested in taking a really unique tour of the world of technology, and a tour of that technology as it exists throughout the physical world, I think you will, too.