Squirrel in Brooklyn backyard leads writer to center of web

August 22, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Andrew Blum travels the globe to find heart of internet: ‘Tubes’

When Andrew Blum lost his internet connection a few years ago, a repairman tracked the wires connected to his moden and found that a squirrel in the Brooklyn backyard had chewed through a vital connection. Once repaired, the wires again connected Blum to the world wide web. But the incident opened Blum’s eyes to the fact that a seemingly unlimited internet — connections of clouds, databases and literally billions of devices — needed a physical base that itself had to reach around the globe. In other words, “tubes”.

HarperCollins publishing company recently released Andrew Blum’s book “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet” and sent the Eagle the following Q&A.

What big companies did Blum visit?

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Among many other places, “Tubes” takes us inside the giant data centers of the world’s first and second most visited web sites: Facebook and Google. With Facebook, Blum got an extensive behind the scenes tour of their brand new giant campus in Prineville, Oregon — a key item on their IPO spending spree. (And where Apple will soon build across the street). At Google, however, Blum encountered the opposite attitude. As he describes in the book, Google offered a tour of the parking lot and an elaborate lunch — a striking example of the secrecy (you might say hypocrisy) of the company that intends to “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — except when it’s about them.

What do you mean he went to visit the Internet? We’ve heard about data centers — what else is there?

The cloud isn’t a cloud at all! The Internet is a network of networks, and those networks have to connect to each other somewhere — most prominently in hardly a dozen buildings around the world, in places like Northern Virginia, Lower Manhattan, Palo Alto and London’s Docklands. As well, very little inside the Internet is “wireless.” Almost all international communication is via undersea cables — and there are only a handful of them across both the Atlantic and Pacific. The Internet is incredibly concentrated. There isn’t nearly as much of it as you’d think.

Why don’t we know about these places? Are they secret?

“Tubes” is the first ever book-length exploration of the Internet’s physical infrastructure. With a background in both architecture and technology, Blum has found a huge story that’s slipped through the cracks of the technology and business press. He spent two years visiting them, in an unprecedented effort to know — to see and to smell — the real, physical Internet. They aren’t secret at all, only entirely overlooked.

Is “Tubes” dangerous? Are these places properly hidden and protected? Is Blum responsible in what he reveals? 

The Internet has many layers of redundancy and self-protection built into it at every level. Security is tight at many of these locations and their locations are prominently available online — if you know where to look. However, for all the growing talk of threats in cyberspace, there has been no public dialogue about protecting cyberspace’s physical places– and many remain hiding in plain sight.

 What does “Tubes” tell us how the Internet is regulated  whether via anti-piracy legislation like SOPA and PIPA, or “net-neutrality”? 

“Tubes” isn’t a book about telecom policy, but one of Blum’s startling discoveries was the incredible disconnect between the people who make the Internet work, and the people who theorize and legislate it. That includes not only congress, but also the pundits and industry experts. The Stop Online Piracy Act, or “SOPA,” for example, was utterly irrelevant to the guys who actually run the Internet. If implemented, it would have broken the Internet so completely that it wasn’t even worth them talking about it; it had no connection to reality. The network engineers who run the Internet are a closed community that have learned to stay out of policy debates and the press. Blum went behind their closed doors, and discovered an everyday reality that will change the policy conversation.
Why did Blum want to visit these places? How much do they really have to do with the way we use the Internet everyday? 

“Tubes” arose out of a rising frustration at looking at the world through a screen. If everything was becoming digital, then what was the digital world made of — physically? “Tubes” is an unusual book about the Internet, in that it’s entirely about real places on the map, filled with original reporting from around the world. “Tubes” is about what the Internet looks like and how it works, but it’s also about the way we live today — about what “a sense of place” means in a digital world.

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