We veer a bit off topic today (but only a bit) to acquaint readers with a wonderful new (2012) book that takes a deep but utterly readable and fascinating dive into the physical world of the Internet. If you ever wondered when that internet cable leaves the back of your PC or router, Where does it go?… then this is a great book for you.
Increasingly, modern life is revolving around the internet. I always liken it to what, in the 21st century, the electric grid was to the 20th: ubiquitous and necessary. Increasingly, in ways good and bad, large and the small, the Internet is fast becoming the central nervous system of our planet. So where exactly is it?
Andrew Blum’s book “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet” sets out to explain it all. Starting with his observation a few winters ago in Brooklyn, NY of “a dusty clump beside my living room couch” — a black cable modem and its five green lights — Blum ultimately travels the world, exploring the history and inner workings of the physical internet: the wires and the routers and the deep sea cables, as well as the people and the places and the stories that make up the foundations of the world wide web.
His travels and tale take him from New York to London, from San Francisco to Tyson’s Corner, from a largely unknown suburb of Washington D.C. called Ashburn, Virginia to the coasts of Africa.
Yet, as fascinating as the infrastructure, from the cables that run under New York City to those that span the Atlantic, and those aforementioned African coasts, it’s the human side of the net that sounds the loudest chord. As Blum notes early in his book, “What surprised me was how personal [the] process was.” Often, engineers were friends on Facebook and bought each other beers, even as they planned the peer connectivity that comprises so much of the web. As Blum writes, “the Internet is built on connections between networks agreed on with a handshake and consummated with the plugging in of a yellow fiber-optic cable… in an exponentially repeating pattern.”
Often, he later notes, the biggest threat to the Internet is “an errant construction backhoe” or in one recent well-publicized case,“ a 75 year old grandmother in the country of Georgia slicing through a buried fiber-optic cable with a shovel, knocking Armenia offline for twelve hours.”
Later, Blum describes his visit to the place where the Internet’s transatlantic cable reaches the U.K., in a tiny port town called Porthcurno that had already been “the communications center of a humming empire for two generations,” thanks to its history as a port of entry for the prior generation of telegraph cables. Here, Global Crossing quietly housed a key connection point in the World Wide Web – the place where the fiber-optic ocean bed cable raised its end to meet with Europe (and capable of sending pulses of light encoded info-bits across in a mere two milliseconds).
Inside the building, the manager points and says to Blum, “That’s the cable going to the U.S.” The cable was a one-way flow of light current to a companion machine on the other end of the cable in Long Island, NY. Each pushed electrons, aided by repeaters every 50 miles and adjusted to the same voltage, across the ocean floor, “so that the flows met in the middle of the ocean and used the earth itself as a ground.” “We’re negative current, they’re positive” said the station manager.
As Blum points out, in that moment, “the physical Internet couldn’t get much more literal.”
Pick up a copy of Blum’s tale of his fascinating journey to the heart of the Internet. It’s available online and in bookstores, published by HarperCollins. It’s a great read!