How the internet works: Mapping the tubes | The Economist

Contrary to expectations, the internet has a heart of cable and steel

Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet. By Andrew Blum. Ecco; 304 pages; $26.99. Viking; £12.99. Buy from Amazon.com

“GOVERNMENTS of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” So begins John Perry Barlow, once a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and now a cyber-libertarian, in a tract he penned in 1996, entitled, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. It is a poetic summation of the common image of the internet as an ethereal, non-physical thing—an immanent Cloud that is at once everywhere and for ever on the far side of a screen.

 

For Andrew Blum, a writer for Wired, that illusion was shattered on the day a squirrel chewed through the wire connecting his house to the internet. That rude reminder of the net’s physicality sparked an interest in the infrastructure that makes the internet possible—the globe-spanning tangle of wires, cables, routers and data centres that most users take entirely for granted. His book is an engaging reminder that, cyber-Utopianism aside, the internet is as much a thing of flesh and steel as any industrial-age lumber mill or factory.

 

It is also an excellent introduction to the nuts and bolts of how exactly it all works. The term “internet” is a collective noun for thousands of smaller networks, run by corporations, governments, universities and private business, all stitched together to form one (mostly) seamless, global, “internetworked” whole. In theory, the internet is meant to be widely distributed and heavily resilient, with many possible routes between any two destinations. In practice, a combination of economics and geography means that much of its infrastructure is concentrated in a comparatively small number of places.

 

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