Andrew Blum on what the Web really looks like, and how far that email you just sent really travels

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Andrew Blum's new book looks at the physical side of the Web (Lauren Kirchner)
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Discussion of Andrew Blum’s new book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, began last night at Greenlight Bookstore with a dramatic reading of the monologue that inspired the book’s title. The book’s editor Matt Weiland read, quoting the late senator Ted Stevens from 2006:

“The Internet is not something, you know, that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes….”

We all laughed at that little speech at the time, said Weiland. It seemed so elementary, so fundamentally uninformed. But Blum’s book actually shows that old Senator Stevens wasn’t that far off: “a series of tubes” is probably closer to the reality of the Internet’s infrastructure than whatever picture of it most of us have in our heads, if we try to picture it at all.

Weiland initiated an exercise to help demonstrate this very disconnect, between the virtual world where many of us spend most of our days and our understanding of its physical workings. He passed out crayons and paper, and while Blum—a correspondent for Wired and frequent contributor to the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Popular Science—read an excerpt of the book, the audience was asked to “try to draw the Internet.” Most drawings looked like spiderwebs, tangled coils, or pinwheels made up of screens and keys.

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Blum said that a Google image search for “The Internet” will tend to call up blobby illustrations that resemble the Milky Way or the blue-marble image of the Earth from space.

“It’s meant to mean that it’s something that we can’t fully understand, and we’re meant to be in awe of the totality of it,” said Blum of such renderings. He said his goal in writing this book was to break through that sense of awe, and to find the connection points between the intangible and the tangible.

Research for the book sent Blum to holes in the ground in Missouri, to the Google and Facebook headquarters out west, and to the huge fiber-optic cables flickering under Manhattan. He met undersea cable experts as well as the surprisingly small cohort of network engineers responsible for maintaining the physical connections between networks across the world. With the media’s obsession with software designers and tech start-ups, it’s not surprising that these engineers feel a bit underappreciated.

“They are far from mere mechanics, in the small sense of the word,” said Blum. “It’s their relationships, and their expertise, that makes all these places work.”

One moment in last night's discussion that helped illustrate the complexity of all these networks was when Weiland asked Blum to describe the path that an email would take, if he were to send one to Blum at that moment, from one mobile phone to another. Although they were standing three feet apart in a bookstore in Brooklyn, Blum described how the message would go from Weiland’s phone to a cell antenna half a block away, and then through a completely wired network: from AT&T’s network hub in New Jersey to servers in the Google-owned Port Authority building to Blum’s email server in another building in Manhattan, back to AT&T in New Jersey, then back to a cell tower in Brooklyn, and onto Blum’s cell phone. That trip would take just a few seconds.

The standing-room-only audience had a lot of questions, many of them about the politics of Internet regulation, security, and control. Blum answered the questions knowledgeably, while noting that his book is more about his journey of journalistic discovery than about those types of issues. The more informed we are about just what makes up this technology we increasingly depend on, he said, the better equipped we will be to make proper policy decisions.

“With a lot of the political discussion around [net neutrality], I was amazed again and again that it referred to the network as it was ten years ago—it didn’t refer to the network as I was hearing about it,” said Blum. “That gulf was what drove me to try to figure out what it was made of.”

Perhaps no public event with the Internet as its topic would be complete without a rant from a bearded man who has been intermittently talking to himself throughout the evening.

“Newspapers don’t report on this, but the Internet is under threat,” said one such man in the front of the room. “But only a few people understand it well enough.” Blum handled the interruption with grace and efficacy, and used it to reinforce his larger argument: that it’s important for us to understand where our Internet comes from.

“It’s like, in food terms, it’s ten years ago and we’re all eating iceberg lettuce, we don’t know what else there is,” said Blum. “Then suddenly, there’s an opening up of ways of thinking about where your Internet comes from….” He paused before wrapping up with the laugh line of the night: “To the obvious end point that we will have artisanal Internet here in Fort Greene.”