Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shelf Life [adult]

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, by Andrew Blum @SPL: 384.309 Blu

Andrew Blum’s mission to discover the physical structure of the Internet started the most innocuous way possible. Having lost Internet access in his home a couple years ago, he followed the technician around while he did his work. It turned out a squirrel had chewed the cable. This set off a number of questions for Blum.

The Internet, after all, seems so ethereal. There used to be heavy, beige desktop PCs wired to screaming modems to occasionally remind us of the physicality of the medium. Now most of us connect wirelessly everywhere we go on devices so small and so constantly with us, they’re practically appendages. The Internet is everywhere. The Internet is nowhere.

The Internet is us. At least, until squirrels happen. Then, suddenly, we’re plopped back into being ingloriously disconnected meatbags suffering phantom buzz, pining for our Twitter feed. Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t think so, though, and judging by this book, neither would Andrew Blum.

The more he chases the physical Internet to its prime locations, the more he discovers these locations mean something important – like who gets access, how, and how quickly. Net neutrality, it turns out, isn’t just a question of policy and regulation. So much of how the Internet works is determined at the physical level. Length and quality of cable, proximity to the major connection points, and even simple industry social networking determine the paths information takes on its way through the tubes.

He makes some surprising discoveries along the way, too – one social networking giant was extremely open and happy to show him around their data centre. Conversely, a behemoth of search takes its data centres off its own maps and self-identifies on-land as Voldemort Industries – ostensibly to frighten off curious Muggles? I’m not even kidding.

Written in plain, often humorous language, Tubes is highly recommended to any readers interested in issues of net neutrality and media theory, or even anyone with a simple Interest in why the Internet works how it does.

This review appeared in The Stratford Gazette on August 30th, 2012. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

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