When journalist Andrew Blum’s Internet connection went down, the cable man kindly informed him, after following the tangle of wires from the living room outside, that a squirrel was chewing on his internet. “This seems astounding,” Blum told a crowd at TED Global. “The Internet is a transcendent idea. It’s a set of protocols that has changed everything—from shopping to dating to revolutions. It was unequivocally not something a squirrel could chew on.” But there it was. The connection to the ethereal and weightless place was servered by the gnashing of a woodland creature. Blum’s book Tubes: A Journey to The Center of The Internet (Ecco 2012) follows the cable away from his house and into the world in hope of finding the physical place the Internet resides.
The title of Blum’s book Tubes is a play on Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens comment that the Internet is like a “series of tubes.” And while the senator received quite a bit of flak for his comment, the reality of the physical Internet isn’t too far off. Data switches that connect one major router to another exist in buildings designed specifically to tether the far reaches of the Internet together with yellow fiber. Massive undersea cables follow traditional shipping routes to make the Internet an instantaneous global affair.
The reality of these multi-thousand mile tubes, where pulses of light disappear at one end and reform on the other side, is a completely physical one. The process of laying the cables is taxing and slow—the combined effort of labor teams on the ground, engineerings, divers, and a crew on a ship. In the instant one of these lines is severed, the data has to be rerouted around the world while a ship heads out to fish the cable from the ocean floor and fuse it back together.
The cables and switches serves as not just the support for the Internet framework but are the Internet itself. Their infrastructure allows for and is the conduit for the protocols of interconnectivity that dominate and consume modern life.