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"Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet" by Andrew Blum

An okay take going back to the place where the internet was born.

The book cover was eye-catching, and being that this is "a journey to the center of the internet," I'd thought I'd join on in as well.

In the Prologue, author Blum is sitting by his router questioning further, almost like a philosopher questioning about life and the point of being here, where the Internet started and where is it usually connected to and connected with. To anyone who's running a business online must, at one point or another, have pondered this as well.

Chapter 1 covers Blum traveling to Milwaukee noted as the city of industries. There he met with map-makers—cartographers—who create large maps of the internetworks. Like maps usually depict, in this case the Internet, he was presented with which cities and areas with high internet traffic compared to those that aren't excessively information exchanging.

Over to Chapter 2, my favorite chapter, is where Blum discusses the origin of the internet and where and when it started. He traveled to California, at UCLA, to meet with Leonard Kleinrock whom he considers a father of the internet. Kleinrock then unveils his machine used in the olden days, named the DDP-516, which was military-secured. You then find that Kleinrock kept a log of attempting to send a message via IMP—interface message processor. On the paper, he wrote:

Talked to SRI host to host (Blum, ed 2012, p.48)

This became the Internet's first breath, as Blum states.

The third chapter, the longest chapter in the book, Blum goes to Silicon Valley and Palo Alto where the big network providers, along with top businesses, are currently headquartered. He visits for an in-person look at "black boxes with yellow fiber-optic cables" running their networks along with other networks, with the smell of computer exhaust from those bulky, loud machines. That trip also included visiting Ashburn, Virginia, another place of internet interest seeing more boxes with flashing lights. Along this chapter, Blum discusses the internet and how slowly it became mainstream to the public back in the 1990s. This was an interesting read being that the first time I used the internet, with a wimpy 56K connection, was as early as 1999-2000. There was also a time when China's internet was disrupted and found sites like YouTube running smoothly as a result. China confessed to excessive spamming.

Fourth chapter was Blum's participation at NANOG: North American Network Operators' Group and the essence of peering, in which without it, the internet would be clogged especially with the amount of bandwidth space required to hold up and load videos online. You can feel the loud, social atmosphere in this chapter.

Fifth chapter covers the fixtures and setups underground: those streets barricaded because of road work, but instead of applying a new layer of asphalt, it's the wires and tubes under the streets being worked on. He also landed in Portugal to see more of the tubes and boxes connected from the US, and met someone interesting:

"Rui Carrilho, the station manager, was a compact guy in his forties. He wore a bright blue polo shirt, jeans, and leather oxfords, as if dressed for a Sunday stroll with his wife. He was not happy to see me." (Blum, ed 2012, p.218)

I thought that was hysterical.

The final chapter covers the author's visit in Oregon, especially at Google and Facebook. On the way, he talks about where all our data are stored and how. What stunned me is, of all the other networking companies who kindly showed him the boxes and wires, his visit with Google and their data center was kept private. The more questions he asked, the tighter the employees' lips were. He left unhappy with his questions gone unanswered (I'd be upset too if my non-private/non-personal questions weren't answered).

"Facebook played fast and loose with our privacy while Google vehemently protected it. At the least, [Ken] Patchett was happy to show off Facebook's data center." (Blum, ed. 2012, p.258)

If Facebook's privacy can become a nationwide/worldwide issue, will questions be raised about Google's management of our data? Doubt it.

With Blum's trip around the country to find the boxes and tubes, along with a trip to western Europe, I found his explanations of various cities and companies well written. Only problem with this is it became a mixture of subjects where I easily became lost in. I've read biographies, histories, computer science and traveling all in one. As fascinating as that is, it's easily to lose track: is this history, a biography of one of the network launchers making the internet what it is today, geographical history or a travel guide to visit the companies eager to show visitors their tubes? My brain got tied up; it felt very much like reading someone's blog, and/or watching their vlog—video blog—about their trips, where they are and what they want to show.

Nevertheless, I thought the information and details were very well presented, got something out of it and Blum truly knows his stuff. I'd love to visit the large box at UCLA, where Kleinrock showed Blum the machines built for the military to protect the likelihood of nuclear attack. Other than that, a friendly read.

After finishing the book, my mind is flooded with thin-glass optical cables with flashing lights sending out and exchanging data everywhere. It's cool knowing the origins and the birth of the Internet, where to visit and how workers go about fixing and connecting up new tubes for new, opening businesses. Since I described the book having elements of a travel blog, at least it gave me a sense on where to land in next time I do some traveling, let alone visiting the entire city itself. There's a lot of information packed with general computer geek talk which I'm sure even a lay person will be able to understand (given that it's best knowing the computer vocabulary now that we all communicate online).

I'm certain those working in the networking field might not find much out of this book. However, those who are curious, and/or those who are straight-up computer geeks, will find this an okay read. Overall for me, as much I learned about cables, the rise and fall of some key networking companies, the data centers at Google and Facebook and the first breath of the Internet itself, the other information, not related to the topic, distracted me from it. This means the book would've been much shorter but regardless of book length, I'd rather have the information directly without all the other fluff (but that's just me). Other than that, I enjoyed what I learned and have now not looked at the internet the same way.

"What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn't a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet's physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lower case i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are." (Blum, ed.2012, p.268)





  • Great take knowing when the internet was first devised.
  • One of the few books during its time to question operations at Facebook.
  • Nicely-written part on cable management and insulation when building internet wires undersea.
  • The writing and information shared gradually gets messy mid-part of the book.
  • Could've been a much shorter book.
65% (D)
Fan Rating
Title Tubes

A Journey to the Center of the Internet
Author(s) Andrew Blum (www.andrewblum.net)
Description 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 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 paths, 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 Internet's possibilities if we don't know its paths?

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.
Dedication "For Davina and Phoebe"
ISBN 978-0-06-199493-7
Book Dimensions Width: 6.5″ (6 ½″)
Height: 8.31″ (9 5/16″)
Depth: 1.13″ (1 1/8″)
Page Count 306
Contents Prologue, seven (7) chapters, Epilogue, Acknowledgements, Notes, Index
Book Design Leah Carlson-Stanisic
Jacket Design Allison Saltzman
(Front): LatitudeStock, Gallo Images, Getty Images, (Back): James Steidl, SuperFusion, SuperStock
Author Photograph © by Davina Pardo
Published May 29, 2012
Publisher ECCO: An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers (www.eccobooks.com)
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Blum
Printed in United States of America
Book Format Hardcover, Kindle, Audible (Unabridged)
Quoted Reviews "Every website, every email, every instant message travels through real junctions in a real network of real cables. It's all too awesome to behold. Andrew Blum's fascinating book demystifies the earthly geography of this most ethereal terra incognita." — Joshua Foer, bestselling author of Moonwalking with Einstein

"Like some heroic cartographer from a Borges story, Andrew Blum plunges into the unseen but real ether of the Internet in a journey both compelling and profound. For the first time, Tubes brings the 'network of networks' into stirring, and surprising, relief. You will never open an email in quite the same way again." — Tom Vanderbilt, bestselling author of Traffic

"With infectious wonder, Andrew Blum introduces us to the Internet's geeky wizards and takes us on an amiably guided tour of the world they've created: a world of wires and routers through which most of us daily wander, blinkered by our shimmering screens, but which few of us have ever really seen—or heard, or for that matter, smelled. (Yes, the Internet has a smell, Blum is here to report.) Though less ethereal and a bit dingier, the Internet that Blum's beautiful lucid prose makes real turns out to be, if anything, a more marvelous place than the cloudy dreamland we'd imagined." — Donovan Hohn, author of Mody-Duck

"We think of the Internet as a kind of ether, a magical way of transporting words and images from anywhere to anywhere else. But there is a a vast physical infrastructure behind all that magic, and in Tubes, Andrew Blum, one of our best writers on the built environment, discovers it and turns it into a compelling story of an altogether new realm where the virtual world meets the physical." — Paul Goldberger, author of Why Architecture Matters
Best Seller's List --
Other Andrew Blum writes about architecture, infrastructure, and technology for many publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Slate, and Popular Science. He is a correspondent for Wired, a contributing editor to Metropolis, and lives in his hometown of New York City.
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