Clay Conduits and the Handmade Internet

When the technician who had come out to restore Internet access to Wired Magazine writer Andrew Blum’s house announced that the problem was caused by a squirrel chewing a wire, it suddenly struck Blum that despite all the talk of Cloud Computing and Virtual Reality, the Internet is, of course, in fact a physical entity. He decided to find that physical entity and set out on an odyssey that led him around the world. The result is his fascinating book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.

In New York, he discovers that the Internet is carried in old clay conduits once used for telegraph wires beneath Church Street. Now there is a major Internet hub using these conduits at 60 Hudson Street, with over four hundred networks, a half dozen connected directly to transatlantic undersea cables. I was so excited to learn this that I marked the page so I could go back to it. It’s fun to think about. Perhaps, as you read this blog on your computer or phone, it is coming to you via those clay pipes. This is not far fetched, for the New York hub is one of the busiest in the world. Data travels great distances before actually reaching us and not necessarily on the most direct path.

Blum seeks out the other major hubs and discovers that, ironically, they are located near seaports, important in another era and now important in ours. He learns that the Internet is, in his words, “handmade” as he watches engineers in mysterious, usually nondescript buildings, the hubs, climb ladders, reach across ceilings, descend into basements to connect yet one more wire amongst a vast snarl of wires. He talks his way into seeing where the Internet comes up out of the ocean via transatlantic cables to enter a building on Land’s End in the far west of England. He attends an odd convention of key Internet people. He learns that a surprisingly very small number of key people are in charge.

Tubes is fun and, with so much of our lives online, important. Blum is an excellent guide as he brings us along on his journey. He is entertaining and informative.

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