Book review: Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum

SO much does the internet dominate our lives that these days we no more think of how it actually works than we pause to consider how our central nervous system works and how our lungs get the message to take the next breath.

TUBES: Behind the Scenes at the Internet

By Andrew Blum

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Viking, 304pp, £12.99

Andrew Blum’s quixotic and engaging book is an attempt to explain the physical realities of the internet and to describe how this seemingly intangible thing is actually constructed.

Early on, he lays down this bedrock assertion: “I have confirmed with my own eyes that the internet is many things, in many places. But one thing it most certainly is, nearly everywhere, is, in fact, a series of tubes. There are tubes beneath the ocean that connect London and New York. Tubes that connect Google and Facebook. There are buildings filled with tubes, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes. Everything you do online travels through a tube. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibres. Inside those fibres is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.”

In Tubes Blum travels the globe, visiting vast data warehouses, which tend to be in the middle of nowhere, and giant internet exchanges where multiple networks meet, the largest of which are in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and London. He witnesses the laying of undersea cables, and he spooks around in what he calls “signal-haunted buildings where glass fibres fill copper tubes built for the telegraph”. He learns that the internet in many places has a smell, one he describes as “an odd but distinctive mix of industrial strength air-conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors”.

Blum is an unobtrusive writer, yet one with a knack for bundling packets of data into memorable observations. Dense layers of cables suggest to him a “data centre mille-feuille”. In an internet cafe near Palo Alto, California, ground zero for the US digital faithful, the patrons “reminded me of priests in Rome, fingering smartphones rather than rosary beads, but similarly sticking close, for reasons both practical and spiritual, to the centre of power”.

Watching a technician fuse together fibres in undersea cables that have been pulled to the surface, he writes: “The work became increasingly delicate: He worked first like a butcher, then a fisherman, then a sous-chef, now finally a jeweller, as he held each fibre between his pursed lips.”

Blum’s book flickers with the remnants of his own reading. He’s as familiar with Thoreau, Emerson and JG Ballard as he is with Walter Benjamin, the author of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. What truly animates Blum, however, and what makes Tubes more than an unusual sort of travel book, is his sense of moral curiosity that tips over into moral outrage.

“I’d feel better about outsour-
cing my life to machines if I could at least know where they were, who controls them, and who put them there,” he declares. He adds: “The great global scourges of modern life are always made worse by not knowing.”

In one of this book’s best scenes, Blum visits an important Google data centre in Oregon, a popular locale because of its cold and dry weather, limiting the need for air-conditioning to keep the machines cool. Google shows him little more than the lunchroom. The Orwell in him emerges. The company’s “primary colours and childlike playfulness no longer seemed friendly,” he says. “They made me feel like a schoolkid. This was the company that arguably knows the most about us, but it was being the most secretive about itself.”

What Blum calls “the condescending purr of ‘we’ll take care of that for you”’ puts him in mind of abattoirs. “If we’re entrusting so much of who we are to large companies, they should entrust us with a sense of where they’re keeping it all, and what it looks like.”

Contentious issues are considered, including security and terrorism. When Blum visits an important internet service provider in Milwaukee, an engineer says to him, “All this talk about Homeland Security, but look what someone could do in here with a chain saw.” That’s a bit of local paranoia; some of the situations discussed here are global in their dark import. In 2007, he notes, Scotland Yard broke up an al-Qaeda plot to destroy the London Internet Exchange from the inside.

This valuable book leaves you with unsettling visions, but there are comic ones too. At the London exchange Blum is forced to step into a small, cylindrical, high-tech glass space that verifies the identities of employees and visitors and checks for theft. Inside it the author lets out “a burst of uncontrolled laughter, a loud snorting guffaw.” He adds: “I couldn’t help it: I was inside a tube!”