|Review: Tubes – Behind the scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum|
Monday, 23 July 2012 13:04
When you pick up a book about the physical presence and workings of the Internet, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re in for a snooze-worthy, highly technical read. But you’d be wrong!
The Internet is the single largest piece of technology the world has ever known, but few of us who use it knows how it truly works, where it exists (not just on your computer, tablet or mobile screen), or what its physical components actually look like beyond our own routers, dongles and ADSL lines. Like oxygen, which is crucial to our survival, we simply don’t question it or give it much thought. Not until we lose it.
A few years ago, the Internet connection at Andrew Blum’s home in Brooklyn, New York, trickled to a virtual standstill. This inconvenience sparked his curiosity, so when the repairman arrived the following day, Blum followed him around as they tried finding the cause of the problem. When he was told that the possible culprit might have been a squirrel that gnawed through the fibre lines running through his neighbourhood, he was inspired – almost like a modern day, male incarnation of Alice in Wonderland – to follow the rabbit (or, in this case, the squirrel) to the heart of the Internet.
Blum details that journey in a 290-page book called Tubes – Behind the scenes at the Internet, in which he sets off to trace the physical cables (or titular “tubes”), to visit the various network exchanges around the world, and to meet the brilliant engineers responsible for keeping our YouTube videos playing and our e-mails zipping across the globe. While Blum might not have fallen down the rabbit hole a la Alice during his own expedition, he did get to peek into a few Manhattan manholes in the process!
An experienced journalist who has written for the likes of Wired magazine and the New York Times, Blum is an incredibly gifted storyteller. He has that enviable ability to write engagingly and to explain complex processes and ideas in such a way that any technophobic layperson can follow along without suffering any (or too much) intellectual strain, while still managing to hold the attention of more technically-minded readers as well.
The book turned out to be entirely different than I initially thought it would be. From the teaser in the front, which hints at how a 75-year old grandmother working in her garden once knocked an entire country offline, I was expecting it to be more of a rundown of random trivia facts. While it brims with plenty of those, I was pleasantly surprised to instead, discover more of a chronological travelogue of Blum’s visits to many of the places that are so crucial to keeping us online.
Tubes is filled with humour, fascinating anecdotes and even contains the occasional literary reference. At one point, a visit to a facility in Silicon Valley moves him to recall the bare common described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Nature. “On a journey to the centre of the Internet, my bare common turned out to be a router lab,” Blum writes. Then it leads him to a rather poetic insight: “And what I saw was not the essence of the Internet, but its quintessence – not the tubes, but the light.”
The Internet may have shrunk the world into a global village, but a few paragraphs after his Emerson reference, while on a cramped long-haul flight back to New York, Blum has another, rather wry, flash of insight: “The bandwidth might expand, but California and New York and London do not get any closer together…”
Blum should take consolation in the fact that all those uncomfortable cross-country and –continental flights he had undertaken as part of his journey were not in vain. In the resulting book, he succeeds in creating understanding about concepts that otherwise may have remained elusive and out of reach to many of us.
Tubes has just been published in South Africa by Penguin/Viking and is available from all good book stores as a trade paperback for a recommended retail price of R195. An eBook version (in Adobe DRM ePub format) is available from online retailer Kalahari for R158.95.
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