A few years back, a squirrel chewed through the cables connecting author Andrew Blum's house to the Internet, shutting off Blum's access to the web. That woke him up to the physicality of the Internet. As he puts it, "... As if in a fairy tale, the squirrel cracked open the door to a previously invisible realm behind the screen, a world of wires and the spaces in between."
Blum explained to Think Out Loud's Dave Miller that like many others, he thought of the Internet as something that exists in the ether — an idea reinforced by terms like "the cloud" and "wireless." He decided to take a pilgrimage to the physical places of the Internet, "yanking the wire from the wall [to] see how far it will go."
Blum writes about his search in his new book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.
"[The Internet] is always considered impossible to conceive," said Blum, "because the wisdom is that it is broken up into bits and passes through so many different places that you can't count them, which is basically like saying it passes through no places at all. But that's preposterous. It has to pass through physical places to get from here to there."
Since Blum didn't know the actual geography of the Internet, he set out to "map" it. He traveled from his house in Brooklyn, New York to Internet exchanges in suburban Virginia. He visited one of the first nodes of ARPANET, the government funded project that became the backbone of the early Internet, in a non-descript conference room at UCLA in California. From there, he went to see an ocean cable being laid off the coast of Portugal and toured Google's data servers in The Dalles, Oregon and the new Facebook data center in Pendleton, Oregon.
Along the way, he discovered, despite Ted Stevens being roundly mocked for saying so, that the Internet really is a series of tubes. "When you try to follow the cable out from your own home to wherever it goes you often find these metal conduits that are filled with glass fibers and those fibers are filled with light and that light is us."
Blum pointed out the disconnect between the amount of information about ourselves that we are feeding into the system and how little most of us understand about how the Internet works.
Contrary to the popular conception of the Internet as a decentralized public network, Blum says it is actually a collection of private networks, owned by a few large companies like Comcast, Google, Facebook and Time-Warner. And instead of a decentralized web, most of the major connecting points of these networks — the places where the tubes actually connect — happen in a handful of "hubs" scattered around the world.
Blum said we may not know what we're missing when it comes to how we get our Internet service, which he described as "the equivalent of iceberg lettuce." Since most of us get our Internet service from one of these big companies, Blum explained, we have very few choices and almost no transparency into how those companies behave.
"Because we know so little about the Internet's parts and pieces, we can't even begin to have a conversation about how those parts and pieces might be different, about how where we get our Internet might change."
Listen to Andrew Blum read from Tubes:
Google Map: Facebook's Hubs
Though it's difficult to find a way to map the whole Internet, this map of Facebook's global Internet exchanges gives a pretty good sense of the Internet's biggest hubs.
Listen to the full conversation with Andrew Blum on Think Out Loud.
This article includes contributions from Think Out Loud's Dave Blanchard.
- Tubes: Where is the Internet? Think Out Loud