The antics of pesky animals should come as no surprise to Centre County. They inspire us to put up boundaries, watch our roadways and be mindful of our trash. It is hard to believe that anyone would find inspiration at the wrong end of a squirrel-chewed internet cable, or that the same individual would travel the world in search of the origins of their unblinking router. Even fewer would write a travelogue about it.
Yet, that is exactly what Andrew Blum did to write “Tubes — A Journey to the Center of the Internet.”
“Tubes” is for readers who have ever questioned the origins of their internet service. It is a journey through the physical aspects of the internet — starting with processors that organize the information, moving to wires that stream it, to the routers that divert it and eventually to the data centers that will store it. Blum travels the world in search of the devices that create and maintain the internet.
The question Blum proposes is deceptively simple. If the Internet is anywhere and everywhere, then where exactly is it? Can an interconnection of networks be pinpointed to a tangible location?
To answer this, he follows the devices that connect us across the globe. Forced by geography, these places often are unexpected in locale, and therefore humbling to the reader. Cables are found under the streets, in the ground and thousands of feet under the sea. Individual parts are housed in surprising locaions including parking garages and refurbished communications hubs. Instead of the “Information Superhighway,” Blum explains the internet as “more like the trucks on the highway than the highway itself.” One “truck,” or “company,” owns the fiber optic cables while another owns or rents the bandwidth. These companies compete, but they also have to work together.
Blum’s strength is his ability to humanize these locations with the people and stories behind the places. He unveils connections as intricate as the internet itself, from the power couples and friendly duos to the battling billionaires and academia we know and love. Peering coordinators from Cisco and Google are the best of friends, while company heads from Amsterdam and Germany are bitter business enemies. Even the technologically illiterate can appreciate the stories behind those who keep the internet alive.
The success of this book is its ability to reach the technologically brilliant and those who still need the occasional help opening an email. Those who are less tech savvy may find some of the lingo a bit dry. However, metaphors and analogies are used as needed to explain the core concepts.
Most importantly, Blum’s stories highlight the importance of saving these historical landmarks before they fall victim to time and circumstance. With each office Blum visits, he sees a map that is slowly growing each day, sparked from the recesses of the very minds that keep the internet functioning. This map is only now beginning to be explored.