Every once in awhile I feel like learning something, not just reading for the pure unadulterated enjoyment or escapism of it. After barely keeping up with my friends’ conversation about net neutrality, I decided the subject had to be the Internet. Surprisingly, there’s very few well-known books on the topic, so I settled on the (Internet-recommended) Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum.
Hilarious title aside, journalist Blum starts off just as clueless as I was. After his Internet connection is disturbed by a pesky neighborhood squirrel, he begins to think about where all those cables head off to – is there an Internet home base or it is just all blank space? Blum discovers the Internet comes and goes from multiple places, from underneath Manhattan where a new fiber optic cable is buried to the coast of Portugal where an undersea cable carries the Internet between Europe and Africa to the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest where Facebook, Microsoft, and Google all hide their massive data centers. Despite our conception of the Internet’s placelessness, it in fact lives everywhere.
A large chunk of the book is dedicated to a history of the Internet, how it evolved into the beast it is today and the people and places who birthed it. Blum meets a bevy of fascinating individuals, including the geeky network engineers who guard its monuments and act as caretakers for its services. Among the most cool to me were the Internet mappers, who trace the cables that carry signals around the world, and the folks who actually lay the cables along the ocean-floor, one instance of which Blum witnesses.
While fascinating and informative, this wasn’t among the most readable nonfiction that I’ve read. As someone who express open ignorance of technology, I admittedly found explanations of certain issues hard to understand (e.g. optical switching, TCP/IP), though Blum tries his best with highly descriptive prose. I admire his philosophical wonder at all he sees, but ultimately the Internet remains shrouded in mystery for me.