Visiting The Internet


Journalist Andrew Blum has spent the past few years unraveling the networks of wires that create the global Internet. His research is now collected in the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet and a recent TED talk. Over at TED’s blog, Blum shows how a cable comes ashore for the West African Cable System, south of Lisbon. From Geoff Manaugh’s review of the book:

In one particularly memorable description, Blum quips that he “had begun to notice that the Internet had a smell, an odd but distinctive mix of industrial-strength air conditioners and the ozone released by capacitors,” as if even the most amorphous realms of data have their own peculiar body odor. This body—the “tubes” of the internet—leads Blum from underground London to the middle of nowhere in central Oregon, from downtown Milwaukee to locked rooms in Amsterdam, on the trail of the “pulses of light” that give the internet physical and geographic form.

A couple of accidents earlier this year severed undersea cables and slowed down Internet connections for six African countries by 20% until the cables could be repaired. But Clay Dillow insists the tubes are our best bet:

Fiber optic communication, for all of its shortcomings, is actually pretty amazing, and it’s getting better by the year. Accidents do happen. In 2006 earthquakes in the Luzon Strait near Taiwan severed seven of nine cables and wrought havoc on communications networks for weeks, and twice in 2008 cables in the Mediterranean were damaged, disrupting communications in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent (and that’s just two recent examples–there are many, many more). But there’s really no technology that can touch our current fiber optics technology. The solution to problems like those East Africa is currently experiencing is not less fiber optic cable, but more.