Andrew Blum. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. New York: Harper Collins, 2012. 304 pages.
But most of us who use the Internet daily work work and play really don’t know very much about how it works. Is it really a series of tubes, as Alaska senator Ted Stevens once described it. That remark provoked a round of guffaws, but tech writer Andrew Blum shows us in TUBES that it’s not really that far off the mark.
Blum’s curiosity was fired by a squirrel, of all things. After the tiny critter chewed through the wire that connected his Brooklyn home to the Internet, Blum started thinking of the Internet not as an ethereal entity that lives “in the cloud,” but as a real physical artifact. He then set off on a journey to learn exactly where “the Internet” lived.
That might seem like a quixotic quest, but it’s one that’s worth making. After all, the Internet has to be somewhere, right?
Blum starts out by looking at “The Map” of the networks that, connected together, form the Internet (trust me, he makes it sound much more impressive than I just did) and filling in the reader on a little bit of ‘net history. From there, he takes the reader to several network hubs, data centers, and places where the Internet is at its most physical. Weaving in just enough historical, economic, and cultural context to ground his field work, Blum is able, in the course of 300 pages, to give even a novice reader a very good idea of just what goes into making the Internet work.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book were those that delved into the larger impact the Internet’s physical form has had, particularly on local economies. Places like Ashburn, Virginia and The Dalles, Oregon have been transformed since becoming hotspots for network hubs and data centers, respectively. It’s proof that even though we think of the Internet as something that’s simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, it really does exist somewhere.
In short, this is a great book for those who are curious about the Internet. Blum has the gift of being a tech writer who can introduce some at-times high-concept and abstract ideas in a way that makes sense to the non-techie reader but isn’t dumbed down. You’ll have a better idea of how the Internet works after reading this, and you’ll start asking yourself some questions you never suspected you would.