Book Review: Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum
The book is a travel guide through the development of the physical structures that are the internet, the politics, the technical roadblocks, and the conceptual leaps that were needed to make it what it is today.
Published by Viking 2012ISBN 978 0 670 91898 0 Review by Jean Kropper
In 2009, a squirrel chewed through a wire in Andrew Blum’s back yard, slowing his broadband to a trickle and propelling him to begin a quest to find out what the internet actually is. We all are familiar with our own use of this network of information, this connection of people and databases. However, going beyond the concept of the internet, what is it in a physical sense? What didn’t exist in 1972 that is in existence now? He recounts the compelling story.
The internet is a bunch of tubes, hundreds of thousands of miles of fibre optic cables, criss-crossing the globe. All are pulsing with trillions of photos of light, linking us via electronic exchanges in anonymous looking buildings with vast data warehouses. It is fascinating to read the steps that led to building what we have now, what it looks like on the ground and how the parts of it work. The book is a travel guide through both the development of the physical structures that are the internet, the politics, the technical roadblocks, and the conceptual leaps that were needed to make it what it is today.
As a university student I had five summer jobs near Boston, Massachusetts (USA) doing electrical assembly work and building modems, when we didn't really know what modems were. The internet then was for communication for universities and people in defense. This book tells the tale of its development.
Think back to 1994 when few businesses had a website and there was no real organized way to find them. There was no Google, no Yahoo, no Ask Jeeves. How did these directories come about? Who made them? Then there are the many characters Andrew Blum meets along the way, such as Jay Adelson, the founder of Equinix. In 1996, “in order to be proficient in internet technology at the time, you kind of had to be weird.” Welcome to the early geek world.
We see the places: “The Equinix data center is designed to look the way a data center should look, only more so: like something out of Matrix. Andrew visited many of the massive network hubs housed in anonymous looking buildings designed to make them safely forgettable. What an interesting journey.
Joshua Foer, commenting on the book, reminds us “Every website, every email, every instant message travels through real junctions in a real network of cables. It is all too awesome to behold.” The book describes earthly reality of hubs in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Miami and strangely, Ashburn, Virginia. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters, the description of hidden in plain sight facilities and the understanding of the steps in how it came about. Having grown up in a family of engineers, where “how does it work?” was a familiar question, this book answers that with a satisfying story.