Cloud Cartography: On Tubes by Andrew Blum

A review of Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet (Ecco, 2012), by Andrew Blum

When U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, speaking in opposition to net neutrality in June 2006, infamously described the Internet as “a series of tubes,” he was ridiculed for being out of touch with technology. The phrase was quickly absorbed into the lexicon, becoming tongue-in-cheek shorthand for describing an increasingly ethereal network that we’ve grown to rely on economically, emotionally, and intellectually, one that we continue to describe in vague terms, the most current being “the cloud.” The thing is, as Andrew Blum attests in his new book, Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet, the Internet really is a series of tubes. Blum, a student of human geography, correspondent for Wired magazine, and now cartographer of the Internet, writes:

I have confirmed with my own eyes that 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.

With this as a starting point, Tubes sets out to map the physical presence of the Internet, to trace the pathways of the multitude of data – emails, Skype calls, Facebook posts, cat videos – uploaded and accessed every day.

Blum’s fascination with understanding the physical reality of the Internet originated in what for many North Americans is a catastrophe: his Wi-Fi stopped working. A squirrel chewed through one of the cables that brought the Internet into his Brooklyn apartment, darkening the blinking green lights on his router. The physicality of the problem – a broken cable – started a train of thought that led him on a global search for the physical manifestations of that near-mystical thing that is the Internet. But this book is not simply a physical mapping of the wires and fibre optic cables (the “tubes”) that make up the networks; it’s an exploration of the human geography of how this network was conceived, born, and grown into the essential tool of humankind that it is today.

As one may expect, finding the Internet’s physical presence is somewhat anti-climactic. About halfway through the book Blum writes: “I had learned what the Internet looked like, generally speaking: a self-storage warehouse. An unusually pretty one, though.” This description holds for all the other components as well – the data storage centres, the many miles of cables, the Internet exchanges – with the exception of the locations where the new technology overlaps with old, the art deco AT&T and Western Union buildings in New York City, or the super-modern glass and concrete corporate utopia of the Docklands in London, for example. The book is less about understanding the individual parts and more about comprehending the scale of the physical infrastructure that composes the “thing” we imagine when we talk about the Internet. This thing, Blum maintains, is profoundly human. In his search for its physical character he returns to one basic point, that the Internet is ultimately a social exercise: “[T]he Internet is public because it is handmade,” he writes. “New links don’t just happen according to some automated algorithm, they need to be created: negotiated by two network engineers, then activated along a distinct physical path.”

So why is it important to think about the Internet this way, to understand the physical and social interactions that make up the technology that so many people use on a daily basis? Can’t we just continue to think of the Internet as a cloud up there somewhere and just download the new Yeasayer album already? In a piece he wrote for Wired UK, Blum describes the “infrastructural lobotomy” that shifted our understanding of the Internet from a physical presence to an idea, and obscured the specifics of the Internet – how and where data is collected, stored, and accessed. When we lose sight of the specifics, we also lose control of our information, risking, at the very least, a violation of privacy; at worst we must begin to come to terms with fact that our thoughts and relationships are not fully our own. In Blum’s view, this re-configuration of the Internet is what makes access to the network a universal human right.

Consider what happens when control is exerted for political or economic gain, when a government cuts off its citizens’ access to certain parts of the Internet (I’m looking at you, China and Zimbabwe) or bandwidth is capped because of inadequate infrastructure or poor network regulation (see much of the developing world). Possibilities are constrained, economic gaps widen, intellectual debate is stifled, and the gap between haves and have-nots gets even bigger. In his global travels, Blum identifies several physical gaps in Internet infrastructure. Small towns in the U.S. are (physically) bypassed by massive channels of data. Underwater cabling is vulnerable to natural disaster. In 2006 an earthquake south of Taiwan caused an underwater landslide that severed seven of the nine cables passing through the Luzon Straight, cutting off Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and most of South Asia from the global Internet. Up until very recently only a single underwater cable connected South Africa to the rest of the Internet world.

This last bit of information gave me serious pause. Having spent a fair amount of time in South Africa over the past two years, one of my biggest complaints about the country was the unreliable, expensive, and slow Internet. Before I leave Canada, and the moment I hit Heathrow or Frankfurt on my way back, I update my computer, download all my books, magazines, and music, and revel in how quickly everything loads. But beyond my entitled expectations, the lack of reliable broadband only contributes to keeping the continent unstable. Blum certainly hints at this discrepancy when describing the two future cables (one running up the east coast, the other up the west) both being installed by Tata Communications (a division of the Indian industrial conglomerate), but his moral outrage is aimed at intellectual property, rather than at the digital divide. He’s most annoyed by Google’s obfuscating behaviour when he attempts to visit their data centre and, instead of getting a tour, is escorted through the parking lot by a PR-spouting guide, and shown the lunchroom. Blum writes: “I’d feel better outsourcing my life to machines if I could at least know where they were, who controls them, and who put them there. The great global scourges of modern life are always made worse by not knowing.”

I, too, would feel better knowing who owns my information. But more important is to understand that if, as Blum posits, the idea of the Internet is a universal human right, we have a responsibility to make good use of this resource, this wealth of fibre optics and light. In examining the built environment that comprises the backbone of the Internet, overlaid on some of the familiar communications pathways and geography of the earth, we can better understand the flow of information through these tubes, and work towards spanning the gaps.

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