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Andrew Blum

  1. 304 pĂĄginas
  2. English
  3. ePUB (apto para mĂłviles)
  4. Disponible en iOS y Android
eBook - ePub
Disponible hasta el 20 Jun |MĂĄs informaciĂłn


Andrew Blum

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"Andrew Blum plunges into the unseen but real ether of the Internet in a journey both compelling and profound
.You will never open an email in quite the same way again."
—Tom Vanderbilt, New York Times bestselling author of Traffic

When your Internet cable leaves your living room, where does it go?Almost everything about our day-to-day lives—and the broader scheme of human culture—can be found on the Internet. But what is it physically? And where is it really? Our mental map of the network is as blank as the map of the ocean that Columbus carried on his first Atlantic voyage. The Internet, its material nuts and bolts, is an unexplored territory. Until now.

In Tubes, journalist Andrew Blum goes inside the Internet's physical infrastructure and flips on the lights, revealing an utterly fresh look at the online world we think we know. It is a shockingly tactile realm of unmarked compounds, populated by a special caste of engineer who pieces together our networks by hand; where glass fibers pulse with light and creaky telegraph buildings, tortuously rewired, become communication hubs once again. From the room in Los Angeles where the Internet first flickered to life to the caverns beneath Manhattan where new fiber-optic cable is buried; from the coast of Portugal, where a ten-thousand-mile undersea cable just two thumbs wide connects Europe and Africa, to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, where Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have built monumental data centers—Blum chronicles the dramatic story of the Internet's development, explains how it all works, and takes the first-ever in-depth look inside its hidden monuments.

This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there.For all the talk of the "placelessness" of our digital age, the Internet is as fixed in real, physical spaces as the railroad or telephone. You can map it and touch it, and you can visit it. Is the Internet in fact "a series of tubes" as Ted Stevens, the late senator from Alaska, once famously described it? How can we know the Internet's possibilities if we don't know its parts?

Like Tracy Kidder's classic The Soul of a New Machine or Tom Vanderbilt's recent bestseller Traffic, Tubes combines on-the-ground reporting and lucid explanation into an engaging, mind-bending narrative to help us understand the physical world that underlies our digital lives.

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The Map

On the January day I arrived in Milwaukee, it was so cold that the streets themselves had blanched white. The city was born in 1846 out of three competing settlements at the edge of a broad harbor on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Four years after its founding, the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad linked the lake with the hinterland, and the rich wheat fields of the Midwest with the growing populations of the east. Before long, Milwaukeeans weren’t only moving materials but processing them, making beer from hops, leather from cows, and flour from wheat. With the growing success of this industry—and the help of an influx of German immigrants—those first processing plants encouraged the growth of a broad range of precision manufacturing. The heart of the activity was the Menomonee Valley, a miasmic swamp that was steadily filled in to accommodate what was soon a coal-choked industrial powerhouse. “Industrially, Milwaukee is known across the face of the earth,” the 1941 WPA Guide to Wisconsin rhapsodized. “Out of the city’s vast machine shops come products that range from turbines weighing 1,200,000 pounds to parts so minute as to be assembled only with the aid of magnifying glasses. Milwaukee steam shovels dug the Panama Canal; Milwaukee turbines harnessed Niagara Falls; Milwaukee tractors are in the fields of most of the world’s agricultural regions; herring-bone gears made in Milwaukee operate mines in Africa and Mexico, sugar mills in South America, and rolling mills in Japan, India, and Australia.” Milwaukee had become the center of a far-reaching industrial colossus—known everywhere as “the machine shop of the world.”
It didn’t last forever. After World War II, the fixed steel lines of the railroads gave way to the more flexible movement of rubber tires over new roads. The hard networks became softer. And the Menomonee Valley started a steady decline, paralleling that of the nation’s manufacturing more broadly. The United States became a country that produced ideas more than things. The “machine shop of the world” became the buckle of the Rust Belt. Milwaukee’s factories were left abandoned—and then, only more recently, turned into condominiums.
But Milwaukee’s industry didn’t disappear entirely. It quietly holds on today, having moved out of the city and into the suburbs, like so much of American urban life. Early one morning I followed its path, driving from a downtown hotel on a deserted street to a new industrial neighborhood in the northwest corner of the city. I passed a McDonald’s, a Denny’s, an Olive Garden, and an IHOP, then took a left at a Honda dealer. High-tension power lines loomed overhead, and I bumped across a railroad spur that led the dozen miles back to the Menomonee Valley. Along a series of smooth, wide suburban streets was a concentration of industry that would have made William Harley and Arthur Davidson proud. In one building, they made beer cans; another, ball bearings. There were factories for car keys, airplane parts, structural steel, resistors, carbon brushes, mascot costumes, and industrial signs—that said things like WHEEL CHOCKS REQUIRED FOR LOADING AND UNLOADING. My destination was the tidy tan building across the road, with the giant “KN” painted on the side.
Kubin-Nicholson got its start in 1926, silk-screening movie posters from a print shop on Milwaukee’s South First Street. In time, it branched out to signs for butchers, grocers, and department stores, before focusing on tobacco ads, printed in Milwaukee and pasted on billboards across the entire Midwest. Kubin-Nicholson was the “printers of the humongous.” Its current press—as big as a school bus—sat within a cavernous hall. Its installation had taken a team of German engineers four months, flying home every other weekend to see their families. It was a rare beast, with fewer than twenty like it across the United States. And, on that morning, a frustratingly silent one.
The black ink was on the fritz. A call had been placed to the tech support people in Europe, who were able to log into the machine remotely to try to diagnose the problem. I watched from inside a glass-walled customer lounge, as the pressman peered into its innards, a cordless phone wedged in the crook of his neck, a long screwdriver in his hand. Beside me was Markus Krisetya, who had flown in from Washington to supervise the job on the press that day. He wanted to make sure the ink was precisely calibrated, so that just the right quantity of each color was distributed across the poster-sized paper. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could be done over email. No digital scan would properly capture the nuance. FedEx would be far too slow for the back-and-forth, trial and error, required for the final settings. Krisetya accepted it as one of those things that still had to be done in person, a fact made even more surprising by what was being printed: a map of the Internet.
Krisetya was its cartographer. Each year, his colleagues at TeleGeography, a Washington, DC–based market research firm, polled telecommunications companies around the world for the latest information about the capacity of their data lines, their busiest routes, and their plans for expansion. TeleGeography’s cartographers don’t use any fancy algorithms or proprietary data analysis software. They worked an old-fashioned process of calling industry contacts and gaining their trust, then choosing just the right moment to make a few leaps of conjecture. Most of that effort goes toward a big annual report known as Global Internet Geography, or GIG, sold to the telecommunications industry for $5,495 a pop. But some of the key pieces of data are shunted into a series of maps of Krisetya’s creation. One diagrammed the Internet’s backbone architecture, the key links between cities. Another illustrated the quantities of network traffic, boiling trillions of moving bits down to a series of thick and thin lines. A third—the map on the press that morning in Milwaukee—showed the world’s undersea communications cables, the physical connections between continents. All were representations of the spaces in between, the strands of connection that we typically ignore. The countries and continents were afterthoughts; their action was in the emptiness of the oceans. Yet these maps were also representations of physical things: actual cables, filled with strands of glass, themselves filled with light—amazing human constructions, of the kind a Milwaukeean would be proud.
Krisetya paid homage with his own sense of craft. When each map design was complete, he electronically transferred the file here to Milwaukee, then followed it himself. He’d stay at whatever downtown business hotel had a special, then head out here first thing in the morning, bringing nothing but a small gym bag, and his eyes. He knew big machines like this one. After college in the United States, he returned to his native Indonesia to work as a database systems engineer, mostly for the mining industry. Young, slight, with an easy manner, happy to fit in anywhere, eager for adventure, he’d show up at a remote encampment deep in the jungles, ready to tinker with their mainframes. As a boy, he’d drawn fantastical maps of Dungeons & Dragons realms, cribbed from bootlegged photocopied versions of the rulebooks that had somehow made their way to his home city of Salatiga. “I loved drawing stories on paper, and referencing distance in that strange manner,” he told me, looking out at the silent press. “That’s what got my fascination with maps started.” It was only when he returned to the United States to study international relations in graduate school that his future wife, a geography student, encouraged him to take a cartography class taught by Mark Monmonier, author of the cult favorite How to Lie with Maps. The sly joke of the title is that maps never just show places; they express and reinforce interests. When TeleGeography offered Krisetya a job in 1999, he already knew the question: Maps project an image of the world—but what did that mean for the Internet?
With help from the tech support people in Germany, the pressman finally coaxed the giant machine to life, and its vibrations shook the door frames—un-cha, un-cha, un-cha. “I hear paper!” Krisetya cheered. A test print had been lain out on a large easel lit with klieg lights, like an operating table. Krisetya pulled off his thick-framed glasses and placed a magnifying loupe to his eye. I stood just over his shoulder, squinting at the bright lights, struggling to take in the world this map portrayed.
It was a Mercator projection, with the continents drawn in heavy black and the international boundaries etched, like afterthoughts, by thin scores. Rigid red and yellow lines striped the Atlantic and Pacific, jagged around the southern continents, and converged in key places: north and south of New York City, in the southwest of England, the straits near Taiwan, and the Red Sea—so tightly there that they formed a single thick mark. Each line represented a single cable, mere inches in diameter but thousands of miles in length. If you lifted one up from the ocean floor and sliced it crosswise, you’d find a hard plastic jacket surrounding an inner core of steel-encased strands of glass, each the width of a human hair and glowing faintly with red light. On the map it looked huge; on the ocean floor it would be a garden hose beneath the drifting sediment. It seemed to collapse the electronic global village upon the magnetic globe itself.
Krisetya examined every inch of the test print, pointing out imperfections. The pressman responded by moving levers up and down on a huge control panel, like the soundboard at a rock concert. Every few minutes, the giant press would spool up and spit out a few copies of the newest version. Krisetya would then go back over it again, inch by inch until finally, he put down his magnifier and nodded quietly. The pressman affixed a neon orange sticker to the map, and Krisetya signed it with a black marker, like an artist. This was the gold master, the definitive and original representation of the earth’s underwater telecommunications landscape, circa 2010.
The networked world claims to be frictionless—to allow for things to be anywhere. Transferring the map’s electronic file to Milwaukee was as effortless as sending an email. Yet the map itself wasn’t a JPEG, PDF, or scalable Google map, but something fixed and lasting—printed on a synthetic paper called Yupo, updated once a year, sold for $250, packaged in cardboard tubes, and shipped around the world. TeleGeography’s map of the physical infrastructure of the Internet was itself of the physical world. It may have represented the Internet, but inevitably it came from somewhere—specifically, North Eighty-Seventh Street in Milwaukee, a place that knew a little something about how the world was made.
To go in search of the physical Internet was to go in search of the gaps between the fluid and fixed. To ask, what could happen anywhere? And, what had to happen here? I didn’t know this at the time, but in one of many strange ironies involved in visiting the Internet, over the next year and a half I would see TeleGeography’s maps hanging on the walls of Internet buildings around the world—in Miami, Amsterdam, Lisbon, London, and elsewhere. Wedged into their plastic office-supply store frames, they were fixtures of those places, as much a part of the atmosphere as the brown cardboard shipping boxes piled up in the corners, or the surveillance cameras poking out from the walls. The maps were themselves like the dyes that trace fluid dynamics, their mere presence highlighting the currents and eddies of the physical Internet.
When the squirrel chewed through the wire in my backyard in Brooklyn, I had only the slightest inkling of how the Internet all fit together. I assumed my cable company must have a central hub somewhere—maybe out on Long Island, where its corporate headquarters was? But after that I could only imagine that the paths went everywhere, the bits scattering like Ping-Pong balls bouncing through dozens if not hundreds of tubes—more than could be counted, which was basically the same as saying none at all. I’d heard about an Internet “backbone,” but the details were sketchy, and if it were truly a big deal, I figured I would have heard more. At the least, it would have occasionally become clogged or broken, bought or sold. As for international links, the undersea cables seemed mythic, like something out of Jules Verne. The Internet—other than as it appeared on my ever-present screen—was more conceptual than actual. The only concrete piece I had a clear image of were those big data centers, photographs of which I’d seen in magazines. They always looked the same: linoleum floors, thick bundles of cables, and blinking lights. The power of the images came not from their individuality, but from their uniformity. They implied an infinity of other machines standing invisibly behind them. As I understood it (but mostly didn’t), those were the parts of the Internet. So what was I looking for?
I became an armchair traveler, querying network engineers with the same set of questions: How did the network fit together? What should I see? Where should I go? I started working up an itinerary, a list of cities and countries, of monuments and centers. But in the process I quickly stumbled on a more fundamental question about the network of networks: What was a network, anyway? I had one at home. Verizon had one too. So did banks, schools, and pretty much everyone else, some reaching across buildings, others across cities, and a few across the entire world. Sitting at my desk, I thought they all seemed to coexist, in relative peace and prosperity. Out there in the world, how did they all physically fit together?
Once I got my nerve up to ask the question at all, the whole thing started to make more sense. It turns out that the Internet has a kind of depth. Multiple networks run through the same wires, even though they are owned and operated by independent organizations—perhaps a university and a telephone carrier, say, or a telephone carrier contracted to a university. The networks carry networks. One company might own the actual fiber-optic cables, while another operates the light signals pulsing over that fiber, and a third owns (or more likely rents) the bandwidth encoded in that light. China Telecom, for example, operates a robust North American network—not as a result of driving bulldozers across the continent, but by leasing strands of existing fiber, or even just wavelengths of light within a shared fiber.
This geographic and physical overlapping was crucial to understanding where and what the Internet was. But it meant I had to get over the old, and really misleading, metaphor of the “information highway.” It wasn’t really that the network is a “highway” busy with “cars” carrying data. I had to acknowledge the extra layer of ownership in there: the network is more like the trucks on a highway than the highway itself. That allows for the likelihood that many individual networks—“autonomous systems,” in Internet parlance—run over the same wires, their information-laden electrons or photons jostling across the countryside, like packs of eighteen-wheelers on the highway.
In that case, the networks that compose the Internet could be imagined as existing in three overlapping realms: logically, meaning the magical and (for most of us) opaque way the electronic signals travel; physically, meaning the machines and wires those signals run through; and geographically, meaning the places those signals reach. The logical realm inevitably requires quite a lot of specialized knowledge to get at; most of us leave that to the coders and engineers. But the second two realms—the physical and geographic—are fully a part of our familiar world. They are accessible to the senses. But they are mostly hidden from view. In fact, trying to see them disturbed the way I imagined the interstices of the physical and electronic worlds.
It was striking to me that I had no trouble thinking of a physical network of something, like a railroad or a city; after all, it shares the physical world in which we exist as humans, and which we learned as children to navigate. Similarly, anyone who spends time using a computer is at least comfortable with the idea of the “logical” world, even if we don’t often call it that. We sign in to our home or office networks, to an email service, bank, or social network—logical networks all, which encompass our attention for hours on end. Yet we can’t for the life of us grasp that narrow seam between the physical and the logical.
Here was the rarely acknowledged chasm in our understanding of the world—a sort of twenty-first-century original sin. The Internet is everywhere; the Internet is nowhere. But indubitably, as invisible as the logical might seem, its physical counterpart is always there.
I wasn’t prepared for what that meant on the ground. Photographs of the Internet were always close-ups. There was no context, no neighborhood, no history. The places seemed interchangeable. I understood there were these layers, but it wasn’t clear to me how they would appear in front of my face. The logical distinctions were, by definition, invisible. So then what was I going to see? And what was I really looking for?
A few days before I left for Milwaukee, I was emailing with a network engineer who’d been helping me with the basics of how the Internet fit together. He was a Wisconsin native, as it turned out. “If you’re going to be in Milwaukee anyway, there is one spot you *must* hit,” he wrote. There was an old building downtown “chock full of Internet.” And he knew a guy who could show me around. “Have you seen Goonies?” he asked. “Bring your nice camera.” After approving the test prints at Kubin-Nicholson, Krisetya usually spent the afternoon at the art museum before catching a flight home. But he was eager to come along. So we headed downtown to meet a stranger in a sandwich shop who was supposed to show us Milwaukee’s Internet.
On his website, Jon Auer listed among his favorite books Router Security Strategies and How to Win Friends & Influence People. His Flickr page consisted mostly of photos of telecommunications equipment. In person, he had pink cheeks and metal-rimmed glasses, and on that frigid Wisconsin winter day he wore a hooded sweatshirt with no coat, and he carried a camouflage-patterned messenger bag. He fit the stereotype of a geek, but whatever social liability that might once have been, it had transformed into unadorned passion—and yielded a good job, running the network of a company that provides Internet access to towns across southeastern Wisconsin, mostly places too distant or too sleepy to attract the interest of the big telephone and cable operators. At lunch, he spoke almost in a whisper, conveying the impression that what we were about to do was slightly illicit, but not to worry. This was his turf, his backwoods. He had all the keys—and where he didn’t, he knew the combination to the locks. He wrapped up his sandwich and led us out the back door of the shop, directly into the lobby of the building that turned out to be the center of Milwaukee’s Internet.
Built in 1901 by a prominent Milwaukee businessman and once home to the Milwaukee Athletic Club, this building’s days as a prestigious address were clearly long over. If in recent years the city had succeeded in revitalizing its downtown, that liveliness did not extend to this sad place. A sleepy-eyed guard sat listlessly behind a worn-out desk in the empty lobby. Auer nodded in her direction and led us down a narrow tiled passageway to the basement. Fluorescent lights buzzed dimly. There were dusty stacks of file boxes and precarious heaps of abandoned office furniture. The ceiling was totally obscured by a tangle of pipes and wires, twisted around one another like mangrove roots. They came in all sizes: wide steel conduits the diameter of dinner plates, orange plastic ducts like vacuum cleaner hoses, and the occasional single dangling black thread—the hackwork of a rushed network engineer. Auer shook his head at it, disapprovingly. I was struck with a more mundane thought: look at all those tubes! Inside of them were fiber-optic cables, glass strands with information encoded in pulses of light. In one direction, they went through the foundation wall and underneath the street, heading toward the highway—mostly to Chicago, Auer said. In the other direction, they crossed the basement ceiling to an old utility chase and upstairs to the offices-turned-equipment rooms of the dozen or so Internet companies that had colonized the building, feeding first off this fiber, and then off one another, one attracting the next, steadily displacing the cut-rate law firms and yellowed dentists’ offices. Some were Internet service providers,...


  1. Dedication
  2. Epigraph
  3. Contents
  4. Prologue
  5. 1 / The Map
  6. 2 / A Network of Networks
  7. 3 / Only Connect
  8. 4 / The Whole Internet
  9. 5 / Cities of Light
  10. 6 / The Longest Tubes
  11. 7 / Where Data Sleeps
  12. Epilogue
  13. Acknowledgments
  14. Notes
  15. Index
  16. About the Author
  17. Credits
  18. Copyright
  19. About the Publisher
Estilos de citas para Tubes

APA 6 Citation

Blum, A. (2012). Tubes ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)

Chicago Citation

Blum, Andrew. (2012) 2012. Tubes. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins.

Harvard Citation

Blum, A. (2012) Tubes. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Blum, Andrew. Tubes. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.