FM reviews
First Monday


Blum Andrew Blum.
Tubes: A journey to the center of the Internet.
New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
cloth, 294 pp., ISBN 978–0–061–99493–7, US$26.99.



Andrew Blum’s exploration of the Internet begins with an all too familiar frustration from modern life: his home Internet goes down. After he fruitlessly examines the blinking modem and tangle of wires behind his couch — and after a technician fingers a squirrel gnawing on a cable behind his house as the culprit — Blum’s initial reaction is skeptical. His ability to access “the most powerful information network ever conceived” hinges on this single flaky wire? From that skepticism, however, emerges his question and his mission: “If I followed the wire, where would it lead? What would that place look like? Who would I find?”

Blum in many ways seems like the right man for the job. In addition to being a long–time contributor to Wired, he has also written on seemingly related topics such as architecture, design, and urban planning. After consulting with a company that endeavors to map the internet and providing a brief Internet history lesson, Blum sets out in earnest to explore the physical reality of this virtual world.

From major Internet exchanges and networking centers to undersea cables and shadowy data centers, his journey crisscrosses North America and Europe in search of how our modest home network connects to our ISP, and how our request for a Web site, photograph, or song is sent on to networks and data centers scattered in odd corners across the world. Blum skillfully balances technical detail and background information with an informal, easygoing writing style. While people with a particularly strong technology background may not find much here that they didn’t already know, more casual technology enthusiasts or outright novices will likely find Blum’s explanations of concepts like peering easy to understand. His various interviews and encounters with the unsung heroes of the Internet’s infrastructure (Internet exchange administrators, data center planners, cable layers) also helps humanize what could easily become a cold and overly technical subject.

While in some respects Blum’s repetitious descriptions of rooms filled with cables grows tiresome (one can sense Blum’s fatigue in describing them as well), the fact he encounters this same sight in so many different cities across the world tells a story all on its own. Today’s technology society is almost utterly reliant on these cables — be they behind our house, running into massive exchange points, or running under the oceans linking continent to continent. And, in Blum’s words, “Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.

For those with an interest in the internet and technology, Tubes is an approachable and insightful examination of the tangible who, what, and where underpinning today’s digital world. Together with Blum’s various references and notes, it could also serve as an approachable starting point for someone to begin a broader exploration of the Internet’s technology, history, or place in modern society. — Nick Steffel, IT Coordinator, MLIS Program, St. Catherine University. End of article

Creative Commons License
This review is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review of Tubes: A journey to the center of the Internet
by Nick Steffel.
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 11 - 5 November 2012

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.