The journalist Andrew Blum was covering architecture when he got the idea for Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. “I was writing mostly about architecture, about buildings, but somehow writing about architecture meant sitting in front of a screen all day, then getting up and walking over and immediately looking at the other screen in my pocket. That seemed like a very strange way of relating to the physical world I was writing about.”
Mr. Blum decided to reverse his research process. Instead of using the Internet to research architecture, he started using architecture to research the Internet. And by architecture, of course, we mean the tubes.
“I seem to have become a champion for Ted Stevens, may he rest in peace,” Mr. Blum said, referring to the late senator’s reductive comment that the Internet “is a series of tubes,” which earned him merciless mockery on the ‘nets. “The Internet is a lot of things but it is definitely a series of tubes.”
Mr. Blum went about visiting the places where the Internet really lives: at the Google-owned 111 8th Ave. in Chelsea, on the coast of Portugal as a new transatlantic undersea cable was being laid, and at Facebook’s data center in Oregon. He concentrated on hubs where networks connect with each other, and there are “surprisingly few of them.” There are three such hubs in New York, including 111 8th Ave., 32 Ave. of the Americas, and 60 Hudson St., which has more than 70 million feet of cable wires. “Inside they do look very similar,” he said, but “they each have their different character.”
The buildings at 32 Ave. of the Americas and 60 Hudson St. are “kind of a matched pair,” he said. “They’re both these art deco palaces.” Art deco palaces filled with cables and data center technicians, or Internet maintenance workers, who literally lay the cable along the ceiling and connect the cage of one company or network to another.
Mr. Blum will be speaking this weekend at the World Science Festival at the NYU Polytechnic Institute in Dumbo.
We asked for his two-sentence pitch. “You should know where your Internet comes from,” he said, speaking slowly as he thought—”because that way you’ll be ready when artisanal Internet comes to Brooklyn.”