I just finished an interesting book: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum. It is not a heady story about how we will all live in cyberspace someday. It is about the Internet as a place—its physical locations and the links between them.
Although the material is rolled thin in some places—this account had to be stretched to get to book length—Blum is an engaging writer, very good with metaphors. And metaphors are what we must use—most of us, anyway—to understand this second world composed of pulses of light, real yet invisible, on which civilization turns and will turn increasingly in the future. “Thin glass strands filled with pulses of light”—let them fail in their purpose and think what will stop.
Blum wrote the book after a squirrel chewed through the rubber coating on the wire that powered his home Internet connection and left him bereft for a day or so.
Light under the ocean
There was an earthquake in 2006 that severely damaged seven underwater fiber-optic cables in the Bashi Channel in the Luzon Strait, south of Taiwan. Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and a large part of South Asia did not have normal Internet service for 2 months. The rivers of light were not flowing right. Although redundancy is built into the links and the storage spaces, the Internet still occupies the same world that its human creators live in, the one with weather and war and squirrels with sharp teeth. It just doesn’t seem that way when it gives us the feeling that we can be everywhere without moving from our chairs.
We are all in central Oregon
The chapter titled “Where Data Sleeps” is about storage warehouses, particularly where Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook have them in central Oregon. Google is close-mouthed about its data center in a place called The Dalles, Oregon. Facebook, located about a hundred miles away in Prineville, was more hospitable to Blum when he visited. In these warehouses hundreds of thousands of hard drives spin, with our email and cat pictures, and personal data of all kinds.
If you want to be unnerved, observe how much personal information is available for free out there, including your phone number and directions to your house. You don’t need to blog or be on Facebook for this information to be there. Yes, you can remove it, one site at a time, but will this do much good? I can imagine a future where our public (Internet) lives are deliberately misdirected and our private lives are barricaded.
Cats on the Internet
One thing that sounds like a joke but that makes sense to me is all the cat pictures. We may be beings of light when we are on the Internet, but we live in the physical world with cats, and cats are cute. The Internet is in the same place as the cats. But that is not the way it feels.