Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

by Andrew Blum (Echo)

Remember the tubes thing? When Alaska senator Ted Stevens described the Internet as being like a “series of tubes,” and everyone laughed at how clueless and old-media he sounded? That joke was everywhere for awhile. On the day I met a tech-savvy young librarian who is now a friend of mine, she and I were standing in the kitchen at a friend’s party when someone complimented her t-shirt. On it was a diagram of the female reproductive system, emblazoned with the phrase “The Internet: A Series of Tubes.” We all chuckled knowingly.

And yet, as Andrew Blum reports in his new book about the Internet, his metaphor was pretty apt — even literal. After losing his own web connection at home one day because a squirrel had chewed through a cable outside his window, Blum realized that, beyond a general, mostly fanciful idea about “the cloud,” he really had no idea what made up the Internet and where those physical components existed. In this, the journalist’s spirited first book, he has endeavored to find the Internet. And among many other discoveries he learns that “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.”

Though it often leads him to draw enraptured conclusions like that one, this kind of hard evidence of the Internet is what Blum is after, “something real amid the merely virtual—something realer than pixels and bits.” And the realness is there to be found: in nondescript buildings in Amsterdam, beside a windswept potato field in Cornwall, England, and inside a giant, humming facility in poky little Ashburn, Virginia, to name a few. 

Simply put, the Internet is a network of computer networks, and in order for them to communicate they must physically connect to each other somewhere. For much of his book, Blum learns where those connections are made and goes and looks at them. One early visit was to Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA professor who became a founder of the Internet when, in the late ‘60s, he helped create an early and experimental computer network. Kleinrock shows him the machine that did it, the “interface message processor” (IMP) that looked like “a file cabinet dressed up as R2-D2” and smelled like an air conditioner. Beginning with Kleinrock’s rather stirring story — Blum credits those web pioneers with establishing the Internet from the beginning as a network that was open and decentralized by design — he gives us a brief history lesson. But soon he returns to his real preoccupation: finding what’s here now.

Imagining the idea of here when it comes to the Internet is a bit tricky, of course, but as a journalist who often writes about architecture Blum has a special interest in the idea of physical place, and a pleasing habit of drawing parallels between physical spaces and conceptual ones. Often, the two overlap. 

One important place of internetworking is the building in Ashburn, which whirs with electricity and giant fans and is filled to the gills with the blinking routers that make the all-important connections. Places like this one give the so-called cloud some substance; though the machinery is impressive, these big ugly buildings are nothing we haven’t seen before. Still, we feel Blum’s excitement at each new discovery. With all their loving detail, his accounts of places like these read like the description of a sitting room you’d find in a Regency novel.

In a way it’s incredible that no one has written a book like this yet. But the truth is that most of us understand very little of what goes on inside our personal computers, and we’ve been content to think of the way they connect to each other in almost magical terms and leave it at that.

“It’s an interesting and sociological commentary that people are not curious about it,” Kleinrock says. “It’s like oxygen. People don’t ask where oxygen comes from.”

Furthermore, as Blum finds out, there are people who would prefer to keep us in the dark about it. His visit to Google’s data center — one of the places where the information we put on the Web is stored, like the emails in our gmail accounts and our countless downloads — is awkward and the conversations scripted, a closed door. 

Compared to the data people, though, the tubes folks are open and chatty; Blum meets one networking engineer after another who is happy to take him, after a retina scan or two, into the bowels of these Internet buildings. Eventually he gets to watch some cable being put down in the ocean off the coast of Portugal, with the purpose of connecting to Africa, and we feel two opposing things at once: a thrill at the thought of a magically shrinking globe, and the clunking realization that all this wizardry works on sheer mechanics, like a plug in a socket. Again and again we share Blum’s surprise and pleasure in learning that, rather than being “everywhere,” the Internet has hook-ups in very specific places. Indeed, in his attempt to peek behind the curtain Blum sometimes gets bogged down in the physical details, the plod from one place to another, and one wonders why he waits until the book’s end to get to the good Google gossip.

Readers will appreciate the book’s clear explanations of complicated processes, though some will enjoy it simply for Blum’s sense of wonderment; if sheer magnitude is your thing you won’t be let down. At one point Blum marvels at the amount of information traveling through the networking cables as he stands in a room looking at them, each one “represent[ing] up to ten gigabits of traffic per second — enough to transmit ten thousand family pictures per second.” 

But as he does by conjuring those snapshots that fill Facebook to bursting, Blum keeps circling back to the same basic idea, as touching as it is true: that the Internet, wherever it exists physically, is an extension of the human networks that were forged a long time ago.

Even the visionary Kleinrock was unable to see what the Internet would come to mean. “I thought it was going to be computers talking to computers or people talking to computers. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about you and me talking.”

— Katie Haegele