Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet




“Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got… an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.
[…] They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.”

Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), June 28, 2006

Where would you go if you wanted to visit the internet? That’s what Andrew Blum wanted to know and ‘Tubes’ is what resulted.


When your Internet cable leaves your living room, where does it go? Almost everything about our day-to-day lives – and the broader scheme of human culture – can be found on the Internet. But what is it physically? And where is it really? Our mental map of the network is as blank as the map of the ocean that Columbus carried on his first Atlantic voyage. The Internet, its material nuts and bolts, is an unexplored territory. Until now.
In Tubes, journalist Andrew Blum goes inside the Internet’s physical infrastructure and flips on the lights, revealing an utterly fresh look at the online world we think we know. It is a shockingly tactile realm of unmarked compounds, populated by a special caste of engineer who pieces together our networks by hand; where glass fibers pulse with light and creaky telegraph buildings, tortuously rewired, become communication hubs once again. From the room in Los Angeles where the Internet first flickered to life to the caverns beneath Manhattan where new fiber-optic cable is buried; from the coast of Portugal, where a 10,000 mile undersea cable just two thumbs wide connects Europe and Africa to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, where Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have built monumental data centers, Blum chronicles the dramatic story of the Internet’s development, explains how it all works, and takes the first-ever in-depth look inside its hidden monuments.
This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there. For all the talk of the “placelessness” of our digital age, the Internet is as fixed in real, physical spaces as the railroad or telephone. You can map it and touch it, and you can visit it. Is the Internet in fact “a series of tubes” as Ted Stevens, the late senator from Alaska, once famously described it? How can we know the Internet’s possibilities if we don’t know its parts?
Like Tracy Kidder’s classic The Soul of a New Machine or Tom Vanderbilt’s recent best seller Traffic, Tubes combines on-the-ground reporting and lucid explanation into an engaging, mind-bending narrative to help us understand the physical world that underlies our digital lives.
©2012 Andrew Blum (P)2012 HarperCollins Publishers


The exact thing that inspired Andrew Blum to write ‘Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet’ is the same thing that inspired me to finally read it. He was having trouble with his internet connectivity and when the technician came to see the trouble, he began to wonder where all of his cable led. After that, a book idea was born as Blum decided he would go and visit the Internet the same way families go to Disneyland in the summer.
Blum’s journey took him to a lot of places and brought him into contact with a lot of interesting people. He spent some time with one of the fathers of the Internet from the days when it was a department of defense project. He met people whose job it was to actually map out the Internet. He even spent time with some of the people who laid Internet cable under the streets and under the sea.
It is his descriptions of those meetings and his accounts of how the physical Internet works that carries the book. The truth is that ‘Tubes’ is a fitting name for this book. If you read this book, you are going to read a lot about cables, wires and tubes. When it comes down to it, routing centers in America aren’t that different from routing centers in Europe. Cables and connecting those cables together is what makes the physical Internet work.
There was a lot of interesting stuff to be found in the book once you got past all of the cables. Well, actually my favorite part of the book were the chapters where he discussed how they get those Internet cables under the street or under the sea. We don’t always think about the fact that there are under sea cables that connect the world, but when I started to think about it, I was intensely interested in how those cables got there and what happened if there was a problem.
Another part of the book that I found interesting was the question of whether or not this book would lead to terrorist plots against some of these Internet connectivity points. The question was a valid one and still can’t be ignored. If you were a terrorist who wanted to disrupt as much of American and world society as you could, why not target the Internet?
Ultimately, the book is interesting because of the fact that we don’t often think of the Internet as a physical place. When we upload something to the Cloud, we don’t ask ourselves which server at which data center this can actually be found on. The Internet is one of our more mysterious forms of modern technology. I can touch a device that will allow me access to the Internet but that is not the same thing as touching the Internet itself. Blum comes as close to touching the center of the Internet as any of us ever will.


Andrew Blum is a journalist, author and speaker. ‘Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet’ was released in 2012 and got a lot of positive attention.
Blum’s next book, due out in 2016, relates to the global machinery of weather observation. I look forward to reading that as well.


The fact that Blum is the narrator of this audiobook is understandable. This is his own personal journey sparked by a moment in his daily life. Blum does a serviceable job as narrator. He is perfectly pleasant to listen to at all times.
However, there is no real standout part of his performance for either good or bad. The narration is appropriate for the subject matter but I’m not sure you’ll remember much about the performance 12 hours after you finish the book.


There is a music cue that opens and closes out the book. There are no other sound effects to be found on the track. Chapter stops are in the appropriate place, at the beginning of each book chapter, but there are a couple of longer book chapters that feature a chapter stop in the middle.


When you consider how much of ‘Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet’ involves a man going to look at a building full of cable, it is a credit to Blum that the story is able to remain interesting.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about how the Internet works. The Internet brings email to your inbox, photos to your Facebook profile, Skype calls to your ears and blog posts to your screens. It does that and so much more. This book tackles the how of the matter.
I would also recommend it to anyone who likes travel logs, as Blum is an engaging storyteller.


Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet Andrew Blum Andrew Blum Harper Audio Science & Technology 05/29/2012 7 hours, 25 minutes 7/10


A copy of ‘Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet’ was purchased from Audible for review.