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Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum - review

Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet

Andrew Blum

Viking, 304pp, £12.99

The internet is all around us: at our desks, in our hands, transmitting emails and messages and millions of pounds every second. But for something so ubiquitous, it is also surprisingly fragile: in 2011, a 75-year-old Georgian woman managed to cut most of Armenia off from the net when her spade went through a vital cable. It took five hours for it to be restored.

Two years earlier, a similar – though far lesser – tragedy happened to the Wired correspondent Andrew Blum when a squirrel chewed through his broadband cable, slowing his connection to a crawl. It prompted him to set out on a journey to find out where the inter­­net was: when you send an email, how does it get from you to the recipient? Where does your Facebook page live when you’re not looking at it?

Blum certainly can’t be accused of not putting in the legwork. He goes to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to see a huge printout of the in­ternet, in the form of a map of all of its cross-country and undersea cables; to Austin, Texas, for the improbably named Nanog (North American Network Operators’ Group) conference; and to Frankfurt and Amsterdam to see the huge internet exchanges where service providers plug into one other.

Even Britain gets included in this whistle-stop itinerary: “For the internet, as for so much else, London is the hinge between east and west, the place where the networks reaching across the Atlantic link up with those extending from Europe, from Africa and India.” The slightly less throbbing spot of Porthcurno, Cornwall, also merits a visit, as it’s where the transatlantic cables land in the UK.

Easily the most memorable scene in the book takes place at a data centre in the Dalles, Oregon. In 2004, a man representing a company with the “suspiciously generic name of Design LLC” turned up in town, “sloppily dressed and interested in such astronomical quantities of power that a nearby town had suspected him as a terrorist”.

Design LLC turned out to be Google and the Dalles was its chosen location for a data centre: the internet’s version of a storehouse or, perhaps more accurately, a vault. It is stuffed with expensive equipment and Google’s competitors are hungry for any scrap of information about its size, its capacity or its engineering, so Blum’s visit turns into an anodyne, PR-controlled nightmare. The people who want to make all information easily accessible are not so keen on their own secrets being brought out into the light and the company has even scrubbed the facility’s outline off Google Maps.

In the end, Blum has to content himself with a walk around the perimeter and a trip to the lunch room. (One of the few solid bits of information he can offer is that the organic salmon was delicious.)

As for the rest of the book, it is only a little unkind to say that most of what Blum discovers is cables. He sees cables that join to other cables in vast racks, making the US internet fractions of a second faster than it would otherwise be. He sees cables being joined together, ready to go under the sea. He sees cables packed into hoses under the streets of New York. The answer to what the internet is, then, is cables – and what’s inside them, which is pulses of light flashing a million times a second. Even Blum’s interviewees are occasionally baffled by his interest in looking at computing equipment: “It’s just boxes and lights, but if you want!” says one.

Occasionally we stray close to a good anecdote. The section on the military Arpanet, which pre-dates the internet, has some colourful characters and there is also the suggestion that one of the rooms full of routers was the scene of a risqué photo shoot by the porn star Danni Ashe, who was once crowned the “most downloaded woman” by Guinness World Records. (Blum conscientiously contacts Ashe, who can’t remember, but an engineer who was with her that day solemnly tells him it was a completely different, anonymous router room that featured in the background of the smut in question.)

But amid all this goggling over fibre optics, the big question raised by the book hangs nervously in the background, waiting its turn. It never comes. There’s a brief joke that a bomb at the Nanog conference would cripple the net and one of the engineers interviewed admits that he once cut off the whole of Australia because they didn’t pay their bill. (Beat that, 75-year-old Georgian lady!) But Blum doesn’t stop to consider this: if the internet has fragile but vital physical manifestations, are we doing enough to protect them? This planet has far more terrifying dangers than spades and squirrels and, as we put ever more of our lives into “the cloud”, are we sure it’s safe there?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran