Andrew Blum's lessons from <i>‘Tubes’ </i>

10 October 2012 | Guest


My book, ‘Tubes: A journey to the centre of the internet’ is the account of my exploration of the physical infrastructure of the internet.

It is a travel book, if of an unusual sort; it chronicles my visits to data centres, internet exchange points, undersea cable landing stations, and roadside fibre-optic regeneration huts, among other places.

The subject matter holds a special appeal to telecoms professionals. After all, it’s about them – or, should I say, it’s about you.

But in fact it was written for a lay audience: people interested in knowing more about what the internet is made of, how it works, and who built it.

I’ve spent much of the last several months speaking publicly about the book, predominantly to non-technical audiences. I’ve listened carefully to their questions, and tried to be alert to the bobbing heads of approval.

The moments were often surprising. By and large, even people not professionally involved with networks on a daily basis were well aware of the importance of this infrastructure to their daily lives – while unaware of how it operated or who owned it.

In that light, it seemed worthwhile to reflect back to the telecoms community a few things I’ve heard from the less connected:

1) The cloud isn’t really a cloud – they know that now. Tell them more. Anytime we move something to the cloud, whether music, photos or critical business information, we give up some responsibility for it. But the more complete that move becomes, and the more essential its contents, the greater people’s desire for due diligence. Satisfy that by sharing. The effort of explanation pays off – look, for example, at Apple’s mini-documentaries, explaining the latest technology of each new device.

2) Numbers help. We live in a world of data at our fingertips: when the next train arrives, what percentage of flights are on time, how many views every silly dog video has. Many people have an intuitive sense of their bandwidth and jitter; they know when things aren’t working as they should. But other than third-party bandwidth tests, which are often internet backwaters, our networks voluntarily offer few metrics. Good networks have nothing to hide. If there were a local internet weather report, people would leap at it.

3) Everyone loves technology. The culture is obsessed with new gadgets. Contemporary architecture models itself after science fiction. Hollywood continues to drool over any spy with a fancy kit. But the networks that increasingly define our lives remain stubbornly invisible, veiled under a longstanding culture of secrecy and discretion. I saw enormous pent up curiosity about the invisible networks that surround us. Telecommunications is cool now. Share what you do.

Andrew Blum is author of ‘Tubes: A journey to the centre of the internet’.
He can be contacted on:
ab@andrewblum.net