Monday, May 23, 2016

Tubes: a journey to the center of the internet

by Andrew Blum

This book is so-so, but I did finish it. Kinda maybe would have been better as a long article in a magazine. Maybe it just needed a different author? I bet Alain de Botton would have been more evocative and stirring, more effectively philosophical. But it's not bad.

The idea is solid: to search out and describe the physical structure of the internet, which is ethereal and place-less in our imaginations. We have the abstract notion of "cyberspace," but especially with the advent of wi-fi and cellular data, we tend to forget that our e-mails (and porn, and all the rest) actually travel through very real fiber optic cables — beneath oceans, under city streets, across continents, alongside highways — and pass through routers and servers in huge buildings full of hardware and wires (generating a lot of heat and consuming loads of electricity). The internet is a real physical network, not a bunch of 1's and 0's flying through the air.

What's the purpose, on the other hand, of such a project? It's not really going to have any lasting effect on how people think about the internet. It's a bit of a lark, interesting but not impacting. (One could argue it's important for people to understand the reality and physicality of the internet, it's fragility and resilience, it's cost and what it consumes — but let's not kid ourselves that people are going to be moved by such pleas.)

Anyway, if the idea intrigues you, by all means go for it. The book is good enough that your interest will carry you through. If the idea doesn't tickle your fancy, though, the writing may not be enough to hold your attention.

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