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Tubes: Discussion


When your Internet cable leaves your living room, where does it go? Almost everything about our day-to-day lives—and the broader scheme of human culture—can be found on the Internet. But what is it physically? And where is it really? Our mental map of the network is as blank as the map of the ocean that Columbus carried on his first Atlantic voyage. The Internet, its material nuts and bolts, is an unexplored territory. Until now.

In Tubes, journalist Andrew Blum goes inside the Internet's physical infrastructure and flips on the lights, revealing an utterly fresh look at the online world we think we know. It is a shockingly tactile realm of unmarked compounds, populated by a special caste of engineer who pieces together our networks by hand; where glass fibers pulse with light and creaky telegraph buildings, tortuously rewired, become communication hubs once again. From the room in Los Angeles where the Internet first flickered to life to the caverns beneath Manhattan where new fiber-optic cable is buried; from the coast of Portugal, where a ten-thousand-mile undersea cable just two thumbs wide connects Europe and Africa, to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, where Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have built monumental data centers—Blum chronicles the dramatic story of the Internet's development, explains how it all works, and takes the first-ever in-depth look inside its hidden monuments.

This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there. For all the talk of the "placelessness" of our digital age, the Internet is as fixed in real, physical spaces as the railroad or telephone. You can map it and touch it, and you can visit it. Is the Internet in fact "a series of tubes" as Ted Stevens, the late senator from Alaska, once famously described it? How can we know the Internet's possibilities if we don't know its parts?

Like Tracy Kidder's classic The Soul of a New Machine or Tom Vanderbilt's recent bestseller Traffic, Tubes combines on-the-ground reporting and lucid explanation into an engaging, mind-bending narrative to help us understand the physical world


When I was at Amherst in the ancient world (late 60s) I worked my way through school programming the IBM mainframes in the Converse basement. I've retained my interest in computers ever since, and in early retirement have a software startup. So I approached this book with an afficionado's interest, but wary at the notion that a book about the physical structure of the internet could really be readable.

This book is a triumph of exceptional writing. I had difficulty getting through a single page without thinking "I could never write a sentence like that, about this." Blum is not only a gifted writer: it is a joy to observe his almost childlike curiosity (that is a compliment): the questions he asks himself as he pursues the internet from its orgins are all insightful, crative and often playful.

The blurb on the front cover says, in effect, "you'll never feel the same about email after reading this book."  That is an understatement. The book is so well written and so intriguing that it gives one a deep appreciation for the miracle of technology -- more precisely, of the technologies - that have transformed the world in our lifetime.

I was back in Amherst for a reunion this past May. I walked past the back of Johnson Chapel and reminisced with a classmate about how we used to stand in line outside the telephone booth ensconced just inside the entry, and how we had our pockets filled with quarters to plug in as we called our girlfriends, our parents, our friends. And as I walked past Converse I remembered the refrigerator sized computers and the hard drives I used to program -- with hard disc drives 2 feet wide and 8 inches deep. But this time I had an iPhone in my pocket to call anyone, including my children now livinig in Paris. And I took a photo of my dog running in the quad and sent it to the breeder from whom I bought her. I I typed a few emails to friends and clients. Andrew Blum's excellent book explains the staggering distance from the Johnson Chapel phone booth to the miracle in my pocket called an iPhone. That's quite an impressive accomplishment and Amherst should be proud -- as should he.

One other thing -- you can feel and almost touch the liberal arts trainign that Blum received at Amherst. His metaphors, his literary allusions -- all betray an educated man with a sensibility that tranforms the mundane and technical into living color.

Congratulations to the author (and apologies for my typos).