A gaffe, the Washington press corps likes to say, is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. A particularly stubborn and troublesome breed of gaffe, we might add, is one uttered about the Internet, which inadvertently reveals how little even plugged-in flaks, hacks, and pundits understand about the technology underlying their news cycles.
“Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet’’ is Andrew Blum’s travelogue through the physical reality of cyberspace. Across continents and oceans, Blum, a writer for Wired magazine, describes the brick-mortar-and-metal “exchanges” and “silos” that house our virtual lives. At UCLA, he visits computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock, one of the more plausible “fathers of the Internet,” and the actual IMP (interface message processor) he installed in 1969. Along the way, Blum takes no small pleasure in redeeming the ultimate e-gaffes. It turns out the High Performance Computing and Communications Act, sponsored by US Senator Al Gore in 1991, really did shape Internet infrastructure as we know it today, even if “[i]nvent is undoubtedly the wrong word.”
Clever, enterprising, and a tad facile, “Tubes’’ takes its title from an even more notorious — and decidedly unredeemed — moment of senatorial buffoonery: the late Ted Stevens’s 2006 assertion that the Internet is “a series of tubes,” liable to be clogged “by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.”
Stevens’s tubes quickly became comic fodder for techies and politicos both. And, it turns out, unfairly so. “[O]ne thing [the Internet] most certainly is, nearly everywhere, is, in fact, a series of tubes. . . . Everything you do online travels through a tube,’’ reports Blum. “Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.”
In Blum’s telling, he came to this revelation after a repairman’s diagnosis that the flaky Web connection in his Brooklyn, N.Y., house was caused by rodents nibbling on the overhead wires. Blum is struck by the lack of magic, by the crude materiality of it all.
Ultimately, he discovers that if you follow those wires through walls and past squirrels, you do not actually disappear into a swarming hive or planet-encircling cloud. Instead, you are likely to end up at specific locations: 60 Hudson St. on the West Side of Manhattan; 529 Bryant St. in Palo Alto, Calif.; the fifth floor of 8100 Boone Boulevard in Tysons Corner, Va.
In these buildings, “Tubes’’ uncovers an Internet that resembles nothing so much as a fantastic steam-punk version of itself. At a handful of central Internet exchanges, technicians roam acres of router racks, literally stringing cables between banks and Internet service providers, governments and Facebook and porn sites. These “cross-connects” are negotiated ad hoc, and Blum sets his most bravura scene at a meeting of the North American Network Operators’ Group.
There, in an Austin, Texas, Hilton, he finds people “networking” in the metaphorical, flesh-and-blood sense: human beings selling each other on the benefits of physically hooking up their networks, or “peering.”
Indeed, “Tubes’’ works best as a rumination on the limits of metaphor. We call it the Web because Internet pioneers imagined a decentralized series of links between computer networks. This basically ad hoc, bottom-up ethos remains, but the old-fashioned constraints of geography — of human embodiment — have stretched the actual fiber optic connections into more traditional shapes: the hubs-and-spokes of an airline, the switchboards of a telephone network.
For Blum, remembering this physical Internet is revelatory, a sort of memento mori for the 21st century. His is a book unafraid to invoke Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and original sin. In place of the Internet as amorphous tangle of nodes outside space or time, “Tubes’’ presents it as “physical reality,” the “hard bottom” of Walden Pond. I’m not so sure.
After all, why stop at the glass and rubber? To get at the actual reality carried along Stevens’s pipes is to question the binary 1’s and 0’s, the photons, the quarks. If the disembodied social network is just a useful fiction — a way of understanding the Internet, not the Internet itself — then so surely are fiber optic lines on a world map. This may be the true, unsatisfying physics of our digital selves: metaphor within metaphor, all the way down.Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.