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 10,000 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 best seller 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.
©2012 Andrew Blum (P)2012 HarperCollins Publishers
The author has turned what is the most important, complex and useful structure of our times, the internet, into a boring and dull book. He is a shining example of my most authors should not read their own material. He reads in a monotone with no vocal variety to make his subject marginally interesting. If you are prone to sleep while driving do not listen to this book in the car. You may get in an accident.
Make no mistake the material could make a fascinating book, just not this one. The author tells of the first communication between two people over the fledgling internet. It should have all the drama of the first words between Bell and Watson but unfortunately it does not. This is described in the same dull manner that the author describes the journey to the various iconic internet places and buildings. The train, countryside, streets, signs and other tiny, inconsequential details are minutely described.
The book, actually, could be mislabeled. For those interested in narrative travelogues it could be a very good listen, but then they probably are not looking for a technical book about the workings of the internet. And those looking for a nuts and bolts book on how the parts of something as vast as the internet fits together into its whole are not looking for a travelogue description of it. That is the problem with this book. It is trying to appeal to two very different audiences and winds up appealing to none.
The material structure of the internet is a fascinating topic on many levels, from the environmental to the sociological, architectural, and philosophical. The sheer impact on world commodities and labor, the acceleration of disposable parts, and the massive amounts of energy drawn by server farms... all these belie such ethereal metaphors as "the cloud," our popular sense of speed and lightness. (I read somewhere, not in this book, that China is building half a dozen new nuclear power plants mainly to cool server farms.) In addition, the physicality of the internet begs analysis in many venerable philosophical traditions, from a Marxist framing of "superstructure and base" to the ancient questions of mind-body paradox (of which the net seems a vast embodiment). Unfortunately, the author barely touches on these issues. His approach is first-person narrative journalism and the romantically descriptive travelogue, closer in tone to Isabella Bird than critical theory. He visits several historically important sites in the development of the net, describes in colorful detail people he meets and places he sees, then describes his descriptions, no possible metaphor spared. To be fair, he is a good writer, intelligent observer, and does a very good job of reading his own book. On his own terms, he produces a good piece of narrative writing. There are a few good details, like the fact that Google data centers are blurred out on Google maps--shades of Foucault's panopticon! But the level of visual description is swooningly pre-photographic, perhaps a writer's reaction to digital hegemony, but perversely unsuitable to the subject. Those who like descriptive travelogues may enjoy the book. If so, I hope they will write in with more positive reviews. It is hard work to write a book, and some people are bound to like this one. I found it over-described and woefully under-theorized, and it left me still looking for a good book on the obscure materiality of the internet.
If it had contained more substantive information about the Internet and whole, whole lot less introspective rumination by the author about how he felt about novels he has read and what the weather was like on the day he took a train which passed through New Jersey ("a clear gray sky"???).
It would had done so if I actually knew what genre this book fit into. "Wandering Self-absorbed Introspective Nothingness"?
Never, never, never.
It really makes me feel bad to have to write a review like this, but this book should never have been written, published, or read aloud. I literally feel cheated.
You will learn alot but not be buried with technology.
The pacing of the book, the pleasure of traveling the world with the author and narrator
Left like I was in the places he described.
The book addresses the technical aspects of the internet without alienating those of us who don't have advanced degrees in computer science. It's a nice mix of technical and human interest, too. Maybe geeks are actually pretty normal people?!
The author does a nice job of employing descriptive language as he describes the interiors of the few buildings in the world (data exchanges) that really are the hubs of the internet. The public will never be permitted in there, but after hearing this book, I had a pretty good picture in my mind of what they're like.
Author narrated books can be hit or miss. I think that Mr. Blum is an excellent writer and a good reader. Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the subject matter.
This book was interesting to a degree but it failed to deliver the real meat of the story of the Internet and it got a little dull in certain parts of the book.
"Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet" is packed with fascinating information related in an accessible way. I enjoyed the presentation and learned a lot.
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