Amherst Magazine

Behind the Glowing Screen

What is the Internet? Andrew Blum ’99—a journalist who writes about architecture and technology—stepped away from his computer and traveled cross-country and across the Atlantic “to understand what is behind the glowing screens.” Among the many places he visited were Facebook’s data center in Oregon and, in Lower Manhattan, a former Western Union building where the cables of different networks physically connect to one another. The result of these travels is his critically acclaimed book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. “I no longer saw the network as an amorphous blob,” he writes in the book’s epilogue, “but as specific paths overlaid on the more familiar geography of the earth.” One of his Amherst professors—Carol Clark, the William McCall Vickery 1957 Professor of the History of Art and American Studies—interviewed Blum about Tubes for the Amherst Reads book club. “The first step in asking more of our Internet connections,” he told her, “is knowing where they come from.”

Interview by Carol Clark

It’s interesting that a book about the Internet starts with a squirrel.  

The book begins in the back yard of our old apartment in Brooklyn, about three years ago. My Internet broke, and the cable guy came to fix it. He followed the wire from this jumble behind the couch into the basement of our brownstone building and then out to the yard. And there he saw a squirrel running along the wire. He said, “I think that’s your problem. I think a squirrel is chewing on your Internet.” This seemed preposterous, because the Internet is the instigator of revolutions, the transcendent set of communication protocols that has changed everything. But it turned out to also be something that a squirrel could chew on. I wondered: if I literally yanked the cable from the wall, how far could I follow it? That’s what set me off on my journey.

You followed that cable across the country, across the Atlantic, to various places. What were some of the most important places?

In some ways, the parts that are the most important are the Internet exchange points, where the networks of the Internet physically connect to each other: the refrigerator-sized router with blinking lights and yellow cables connecting to a cable strung through the ceiling to a cage and then to the router of another network. So a Comcast connects to a Google, or a Time Warner to a Facebook, or a bank to an international telecommunications carrier. The locations of these exchange points vary. One of the most important in the United States is in Ashburn, Va., near Dulles Airport, in the ultimate anonymous concrete building.

In contrast to this banal suburban place, another of these exchange points is at 60 Hudson St. in Lower Manhattan, in an amazing art deco place that was originally built for Western Union as the telegraph operations center and headquarters. In the ’90s, with the deregulation of telecommunications in the U.S., that building became important because of its proximity to AT&T in Lower Manhattan. Today the transatlantic cables all end up at 60 Hudson. Until recently, the Department of Corrections was there too, but they’ve been pushed out; it got too expensive, because the Internet companies wanted to be there.

I loved the contrast between the ostensible anonymity of these places—they could be anywhere—and the technical importance of them. I visited Facebook’s data center in Oregon, and even though I knew the importance of what was in that building—this was the place where birth announcements and job announcements and many more banal things were emanating from—it was very difficult to make the final leap between the blinking lights in front of my eyes and the data that I knew was behind them.

When I thought about the physical Internet, I imagined a cloud. But as you so clearly write, wireless Internet is dependent on wires. Would you talk about those wires?

The underwater cables are perhaps the most poetic pieces of the Internet. These are the medium for the vast majority of international communications. Very little data is transmitted by satellite; data mostly travels through pulses of light through garden-hose-thick cables at the bottom of the ocean—and not even very many of them. Depending on how you count, there are 10 or 12 across the Atlantic and even fewer across the Pacific. There’s a spot—an actual manhole—where these cables tie up. I visited the one in Halifax, in a beautiful Nova Scotia cove. Even when you see it, it looks like it’s Photoshopped on. It’s a manhole in the middle of nowhere.

Now you open a page on a screen and you know its routes. You know that the data takes a turn here or there. Does the Internet seem more embodied to you?

In some ways I’m more aware of its limitations. For the vast majority of the time I’m using the Internet, I’m not thinking about those things, but if something breaks, or if one link is faster than another, or if something downloads slowly when I expected it to go faster, I know it’s a central problem and not a problem on my block. The picture of the whole has become much clearer. Most of us don’t know where our Internet comes from. We don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about how the hipbone connects to the thighbone and what happens, other than paying our Comcast bill.

By looking at the physical connections that the wires make, and by visiting the places where they’re made, you are developing that vocabulary. Some people say it’s dangerous to talk about those places. Can you actually visit the Internet? Isn’t it secure?

If these are the choke points, the strategic places where the networks meet, shouldn’t we be quiet about where they are? The answer is that it’s not necessary, for a bunch of reasons. One is that the Internet is privately owned, and the places where these networks meet are privately owned buildings with businesses trying to get as many people into them as possible. Almost all the network engineers say the greater concern is that people—particularly in Washington—don’t understand the network well enough to legislate it properly. So the greater risk than somebody blowing up the building is someone not understanding it and legislating it away.

Would you talk about the title, Tubes?

The title is, first, something of a joke about former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who said in 2006 that the Internet is “a series of tubes.” At the time, that was hysterical, because everyone knew it was so much more than that. And yet, I can’t help genuinely defending him. He was right. What else can it be but a series of tubes? I was increasingly aware of this elaborate linguistic joke—that the entire thing comes back to, yes, metaphor but also to the dictionary definition of a tube: a hollow cylinder. A preposterous amount of stuff comes at us when we look at our screen, and the word tube describes both the physical thing and a mystery analogous to the infinity of all that’s on the Internet.

In the book, there are times when you long for home: You Skype with your wife [Davina Pardo ’99]. You learn what your baby’s been doing that day. As you figure out more about Internet connections, you feel the need to connect.

My daughter was born as I started the book, and the abilities of the network made its inabilities that much more vivid. My daughter was not talking on the phone, was not video chatting. The experience of being with her was one you could only have when you were present.

Let’s talk about this book as a liberal arts project. You were an English major at Amherst. Did you take any technology courses?

I was always interested in technology, and I always liked gadgets, but I never took any computer science classes. It always surprises me how much I’ve only really had one idea, and how much that idea has carried through to a lot of what I’ve done. My freshman seminar was “The Imagined Landscape,” which centered on the memorable idea that your imagination influences the way you perceive the landscape. If that was on the board the first day of freshman year, it’s in every other page of this book. That idea is very real to me, as is the relentless message of “look at things closely, describe what you see.” Don’t fit them into a theory, don’t understand them primarily or firstly in political terms; just start with a close look. In this case, it wasn’t looking closely at Fayerweather, which I remember doing in one of your classes. It was looking closely at an Internet router, but with the license and confidence to say something interesting about it.

This article is adapted from an interview for Amherst Reads, the college’s online book club. Tubes was the Amherst Reads featured selection for September 2012.

Illustration by Harry Campbell; photo by Adam Krause