Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Global Network of Light and Glass

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet is a book written by Andrew Blum about the fundamental truth (too little understood) that the internet is not a single, amorphous mass or ‘web’ or even ‘cloud’, as so many corporate marketing departments have been determined to tell us over the last few years, but a physical system of copper and fibre-optic cables, routers, severs, network exchanges and data centres – all with a distinct geographical progeny.

The title of the book stems from a speech delivered by American Senator Ted Stevens in 2006, who described the internet as “a series of tubes” and was greeted by ridicule and derision for his ‘naïve’ and ‘anachronistic’ understanding of mankind’s most modern communications technology. It is Blum’s contention that Stevens was (in essence) spot on in his choice of metaphor.

Blum delves briefly into the history of the ‘network of networks’, describing the innovative work of early packet switching pioneers at the American Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and UK National Physical Laboratory. One of the first visits on his whirlwind tour of internet landmarks is UCLA and the office of Leonard Kleinrock, who was part of the largely graduate team that operated the world’s first IP network node on the university grounds – the first message sent via the internet was delivered down the phone line to Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in October 1969 – as part of what was then known as the ARPANET. This important area of recent technological history is covered in even more detail in John Naughton’s ‘A Brief History of the Future’ and Katie Hafner’s ‘Where Wizards Stay Up Late’.

At the heart of Blum’s analysis is the contention that the internet is not nearly as vast or sprawling as we are generally encouraged to think – the cover of practically every book about the internet depicts it as lines of light or webs of tangled connections. The ‘centre’ of the internet (if it has one) can in fact be found in a dozen or so network exchange buildings – the places where one network plug into another network and interconnects.

Those buildings are themselves intimately linked to the geographical and political history of the world in which we live. 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan is one of the most important buildings in the global internet infrastructure because it was once the central nexus of Western Union’s telegraph communications infrastructure. The most active submarine cable systems in the world are those that run between London and New York – and London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam are home to the three largest internet exchanges (IX) in the world, all three being cities with important ties to the history of commerce and telecommunications.

The main criticism one might level at the book is its Western-centric point of view. The comparative importance of Far Eastern hubs such as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore is scarcely addressed and the author deliberately sidesteps (for obvious reasons) the thorny issues that surround China’s massive and expanding internet infrastructure. This oversight is still more striking when one considers that the top ten ‘best connected’ cities in the world in terms of bandwidth and connection speed are all now in Asia.

There is an important chapter towards the end of the book about the submarine cable systems that have started to land around the coast of the Africa – EASSy, SEACOM, Main One and WACS – connecting that vital and vibrant continent to the rest of the world. The book’s keen focus on the places where the physical meets what Blum calls the ‘logical’ universe of the computer means that little attention is paid to what these connections might mean for society, politics or economics. In Africa, for instance, it is worth noting that the introduction of new submarine cable systems has lead to explosion in mobile phone adoption, and, in Kenya in particular, an explosion in mobile banking. Fibre-optic cables have enabled network operators to replace the comparatively expensive and unreliable satellite systems that were previously relied upon – mobile phones are not nearly as ‘mobile’ as one might imagine – thereby enabling them to provide higher bandwidth, speedier and lower priced telecommunications services for millions of customers.

The book is breezily written and sure-eyed in its focus on the all too often overlooked physical and geographical realities of the internet. The book understandably steers clear of some of the more contentious issues about the comparative openness of certain networks, but does a sterling job of demystifying the thin fibres of light and glass that now encircle the globe.


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