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Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet

Andrew Blum

“GOVERNMENTS of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” So begins John Perry Barlow, once a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and now a cyber-libertarian, in a tract he penned in 1996, entitled, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. It is a poetic summation of the common image of the internet as an ethereal, non-physical thing—an immanent Cloud that is at once everywhere and for ever on the far side of a screen.

For Andrew Blum, a writer for Wired, that illusion was shattered on the day a squirrel chewed through the wire connecting his house to the internet. That rude reminder of the net’s physicality sparked an interest in the infrastructure that makes the internet possible—the globe-spanning tangle of wires, cables, routers and data centres that most users take entirely for granted. His book is an engaging reminder that, cyber-Utopianism aside, the internet is as much a thing of flesh and steel as any industrial-age lumber mill or factory.

It is also an excellent introduction to the nuts and bolts of how exactly it all works. The term “internet” is a collective noun for thousands of smaller networks, run by corporations, governments, universities and private business, all stitched together to form one (mostly) seamless, global, “internetworked” whole. In theory, the internet is meant to be widely distributed and heavily resilient, with many possible routes between any two destinations. In practice, a combination of economics and geography means that much of its infrastructure is concentrated in a comparatively small number of places.

So when Mr Blum travels to the tiny Cornish village of Porthcurno, he is able to see the landing stations for many of the great transatlantic fibre-optic cables that carry traffic—in the form of beams of pulsating laser light—between Europe and the Americas. A couple of hundred miles up the road is the London Internet Exchange, a building in which individual networks can connect to each other and to the wider internet. London’s exchange is the world’s third-busiest, behind the ones in Frankfurt and Amsterdam. What happens in such places can affect millions of people: one veteran network engineer in an American exchange recalls “shut[ting] off Australia” when one of that country’s big networks was tardy with its bills.

Network engineering is not a glamorous profession, and the physical structures of the greatest network ever built lack the grandeur of a hydroelectric dam or a continent-spanning railway. But they do have their own style: featureless, virtually deserted buildings, full of marching rows of high-tech servers and routers fed by thick bundles of cable, their cooling fans forming a roaring chorus in the chilly gloom. That style is modulated by the local culture of wherever the building happens to be. Thus one American firm goes for a super high-tech, “cyberrific” look in an attempt to impress clients. Frankfurt’s internet exchange is a model of cool rationality, whereas London’s is grotty and coming apart at the seams.

And then there are the engineers themselves, a rootless but engaging brotherhood that travels the world from rack to rack, helping to keep the electronic show on the road, and whose interactions and dealmaking does a lot to shape the geography of the electronic spider’s web that now engulfs the planet.

Mr Blum’s book is an excellent guide for anyone interested in how the global modern electronic infrastructure works. And it is a timely antidote to oft-repeated abstractions about “cyberspace” or “cloud computing”. Such terms gloss over the fact that, just like the pipes that carry water, the tubes that carry bits are reliant on old-fashioned, low-tech spadework, human contact and the geographical reality in which all that exists.

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