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Reviews

The physical Net

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Author(s): Meenakshi Mistry
Nov 30, 2012 | From the print edition

Book>> Tubes, A Journey to the Center of the Internet • by Andrew Blum • Penguin • Rs 499

bookIn the concluding chapter of the book under review author Andrew Blum visits Google’s data centre in Oregon in the US, where he gets a cold reception. Google employees refuse to show him around little more than the lunchroom. “The company’s primary colors and childlike playfulness no longer seemed friendly... They made me feel like a schoolkid. This was the company that arguably knows the most about us, but it was being the most secretive about itself,” Blum writes in Tubes, A Journey to the Center of the Internet.

The book is replete with such revelations. None of them is more striking than Blume’s description of the Internet as a series of tubes. It almost seems an affront to the commonly held idea of the Internet as an ethereal communication network that connects people across distances. “The Internet is many things, in many places. But one thing it most certainly is, nearly everywhere, is, in fact, a series of tubes. There are tubes beneath the ocean that connect London and New York. Tubes that connect Google and Facebook. There are buildings filled with tubes, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes. Everything you do online travels through a tube.”

For all their significance to modern day life, the physical paraphernalia that make up the Internet are dull objects: bundles of cables; deserted stations ringed in cyclone fencing beside lonely highways; featureless, windowless buildings in old warehouse districts and, above all, rooms filled with metal boxes, blinking lights and cool, dry processed air.

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Blum had not given the nuts and bolts of the Internet much thought until a squirrel chewed through the wires at his apartment snapping off the Wi-Fi.

Part history, part travelogue, Tubes is an excellent introduction to the workings of the virtual world. Blum sketches out the origins of the Internet as a collaboration between the US defence establishment and academia. The Internet can be thought of as three separate entities: data centres that store information, Internet exchange points where networks meet to exchange data with each other, and fiber-optic cables that connect all of the information travelling between cities and continents. Blum calls these fiber-optic cables, the “most poetic places of the Internet. They’re about the thickness of a garden hose, and they’re filled with a handful of strands of fiber-optic cable.” Enchanted by these cables, Blum spooks around in what he calls “signal-haunted buildings where glass fibers fill copper tubes built for the telegraph.” He learns that the Internet in many places has a smell, one he describes as “an odd but distinctive mix of industrial strength air-conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors.”

I was baffled a few years back to learn a septuagenarian Georgian had cut most of Armenia off from the Internet when her spade went through a vital cable. It had taken five hours to restore connectivity. It was astonishing to find one of the most sophisticated accoutrements of our times at the mercy of a mundane foible. After reading Blum’s Tubes, I realise how possible such accidents are.

Meenakshi Mistry is a social media consultant in Hyderabad

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