Q&A with Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: Behind The Scenes At The Internet

It could be argued that the internet is now the world’s most cherished commodity. But what actually is it? Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: Behind The Scenes At The Internet, lifts the curtain on this magical necessity to reveal a very physical world of cables and warehouses

Umbrella: How did you discover the “tangible realities” of the internet?
Andrew Blum: I noticed that my internet wasn’t working properly so I invited a repairman around to diagnose the problem. He attached an electronic whistle that looked like a pen light to the end of the cable and began to trace its path. When we got outside, he noticed that a squirrel was scurrying across a wire towards to a grey box fixed to a pole. This Brooklyn squirrel was chewing on the rubber coating of the wires and disrupting my internet connection. The crude physicality of this situation astonished me. Sure, the squirrel outrage was annoying, but the sudden appearance of the internet’s texture was thrilling. This led me on a two year journey to discover its physical infrastructure, following that wire from my back yard.

U: If a squirrel can disrupt the internet connection to your house, how easy is it to bring the whole thing down?
AB: Difficult, because there are so many parts spread across the globe. However, in April 2011, a 75-year-old woman cut off Armenia’s ’net access by slicing through a buried cable with a garden spade. A little earlier, the Egyptian authorities simply switched off 70 per cent of the country’s  connections in an attempt to quell the revolution.

U: How did you approach exploring the real bits of the internet?
AB: I tried to only believe what I could see with my own eyes – which meant I put the most emphasis on actually visiting places, travelling to these buildings, getting inside, looking around, and speaking with the people who worked there. I looked at the internet as if it were a single piece of infrastructure – almost like a single fantastical, globally sprawling, building. I treated it as architecture, as a physical thing that embodied meaning.

U: Now that you’ve explored the ’net, how would you define it?
AB: Well, the preferred image of the internet is that it’s a sort of nebulous electronic solar system. The fact that it’s a physical thing has fallen out of fashion, and we’re more likely to think of it as an extension of our minds than a machine. But the internet is a network of networks.
It’s not a concept, it’s a bunch of tubes: hundreds of thousands of miles of fibre-optic cable, criss-crossing the globe, pulsing with trillions of photons of light, linking us via anonymous exchanges in secretive locations with vast-data warehouses.

U: What are the most important ‘physical’ parts of the internet?
AB: There are three major categories to the internet’s infrastructure: the internet exchange points where networks meet; the data centres where information is stored; and the undersea and terrestrial cables that connect us all. We need to recognise that the internet has parts, before we can understand its potential. The thing to remember is that the internet exists. It is made of places you can visit -– real buildings. I know because I’ve been there, I’ve felt the exhaust of London’s most important router and gripped the end of a cable that crosses the Atlantic.

U: Which buildings are the most important?
AB: There are about a dozen around the world where more networks meet than anywhere else. Two of these buildings in particular are Equinix’s Ashburn campus in Virginia and London’s Telehouse exchange.

U: So what do these buildings look like?
AB: Telehouse is a steely slab tower that sprouted from the wastelands of London’s Docklands area in the ’90s. They’re not top secret bunkers buried underground and you’d be surprised how easy it is to gain access to the majority of them. Almost every network engineer I contacted in London offered to show me around Telehouse. Inside, you’ll find aisles and aisles of high racks, stuffed with the same variety of equipment, and bundles of wires spilling from the ceilings – a popular joke amongst the engineers at Telehouse is that there’s a fortune made in copper mining there. It’s a surprisingly shoddy piece of internet but fantastically important part, too. It is what it is and almost impossible to change. It’s like complaining that the streets of London are too narrow.

U: Surely, the big data storage centres in America look a little different, more futuristic?
AB: The Equinix building in Ashburn – a small town that internet people like to think of as a giant city – started out as an unmarked complex that sat behind a hotel, no larger or any less nondescript than a small warehouse. But it soon grew and the empty space around the campus had been filled with what looked like massive aircraft carriers. These were data storage centres owned by a rival company. Getting into Ashburn requires more of an elaborate identification process. Some places are harder than others.

U: So where do companies like Facebook store their data?
AB: A company like Facebook, ebay or a large bank will have its own big data storage centre – perhaps renting space inside those aircraft carriers, or in a building all on its own, where electric power is cheap and there’s enough fibre in the ground to keep the company connected. Then a company will run a fibre-optic connection to a distribution depot and spray data out from a single cage – this is exactly what Facebook does.

U: These buildings must be uncomfortable places to work
AB: They can be noisy and rather humid. To minimize energy usage, the temperature in data centres are controlled with what amounts to a swamp cooler, rather than normal air conditioners. Cool outside air is let into the building through adjustable louvers near the roof; deionized water is sprayed into it; and fans push the conditioned air down onto the data floor.

U: Are there really tubes under the ocean, linking country to country?

AB: Yes. Specialised ships cross the oceans, lowering a skinny cable behind them along a precisely prescribed path. The fibre-optic technology within these cables is fantastically complex and dependent on the latest materials and computing technology. Yet the basic principle of the cables is shockingly simple: light goes in on one shore of the ocean and comes out on the other.

U: Will these physical cables and hubs ever become obsolete?
AB: Not any time soon. We’ll need a major leap in wireless technology before it can supplant the wires.

U: Is ‘the cloud’ just a fancy marketing term used to make it all seem simpler?
AB: I think it is, and  a dangerous one at that. The trouble is that ‘the cloud’ creates a fantasy that threatens the health and future of the real, physical network. To lose sight of those specifics is to lose control. Each time we move another piece of our digital lives into the cloud, we give up a little more responsibility for it. Google will sort and track your email (but won’t tell you where it’s kept). Apple will cache your music library. Facebook will store – apparently for free – your photographs. There are powerful conveniences in this, to be sure, but there are dangers, too. At the least, we risk an accidental violation of privacy.

U: What would you like to explore next?
AB: I’d love to explore the physicality of the weather and the realities that enable
us to predict and analyse it in detail.

Tubes is published by the Penguin Group, out now andrewblum.net penguin.com

This article originally appears in issue seven of Umbrella – see the magazine here

Q&A with Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: Behind The Scenes At The Internet Comments

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