Andrew Blum writes about architecture, infrastructure, and technology for many publications, including Wired, Popular Science, Newsweek, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Metropolis. Andrew has degrees in literature from Amherst College and in human geography from the University of Toronto, and lives in his hometown of New York City. He has recently completed an international book tour for his new book, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” which will be translated into eight languages.
1. What surprised you the most when you were researching your book: “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet”?
Undoubtedly it was how small the Internet seemed to be. Conventional wisdom imagines the Internet as an endless expanse, but I discovered very quickly that in fact there was a very short list of places that were far more important than all the others. The Internet has only a handful of centers.
2. What role do you see cable having in the future as the world’s communications needs continue to evolve?
I don’t foresee any huge shift away from cables. We demand too much of our networks, and fiber-optic technology continues to far outpace radio. We need those tubes on the bottom of the ocean!
3. What in your view has been the most significant development in round-the-world, global connectivity over the past 6 – 12 months?
Certainly from a journalistic standpoint, the biggest story in the physical infrastructure of the Internet has been all the new undersea cables to Africa. But the interest isn’t only the big ships and the engineering marvel of it all, but also the huge question mark about how these newly connected countries will evolve, both economically and socially, with this new abundance of bandwidth. It’s difficult to predict.
4. Where and what do you see as the next communications revolution?
One thing I’m very bullish on is home Telepresence systems: true, two-way video walls, right out of the Jetsons. In my own experience with high-end corporate Telepresence systems, the technology is incredibly satisfying, and really different in kind (not just degree) from Skype on a laptop or table. But a lot has to fall into place before it catches on: we’ll need better, cheaper and more flexible cameras; a lot more bandwidth at home; and a cultural shift away from low-bandwidth/high-presence technologies like text-messaging and instant messaging.
5. Are you surprised by the attention Tubes received; what do you attribute it to?
I am. The Internet touches so many aspects of our lives, and yet if you stop and think about it, it’s shocking how little most of us know about what it’s made of and how it works. My biggest challenge with “Tubes” was convincing people that they could know that it isn’t just a black box. And I think people have received that message.
6. What do you do in your spare time when you are not interviewing technologists, visiting data centers, and chasing cable landing ships around the globe?
Does “falling asleep while reading” count as a hobby? I have a new baby and a three year old, so I hope so!
7. Do you turn off your smartphone or mobile device at the end of the day / while on vacation?
On a daily basis I do not, although I do put my phone away for a couple hours around dinner. But vacations, on the other hand, are now nearly defined as time offline. We seek out places with less access, and the days get longer.
8. What technology could you not live without and why?
My glasses. Vision correction always strikes me as the unsung hero of modern life. If I lived four hundred years ago, I’d be blind and toothless.
Andrew Blum photo by Davina Pardo
Extracts from the book “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet” by Andrew Blum. Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Blum. Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins in the US and Viking/Penguin in the UK and globally.
“Undersea cables are the ultimate totems of our physical connections. If the Internet is a global phenomenon, it’s because there are tubes underneath the ocean. They are the fundamental medium of the global village.”
Pages 194 – 195
“In 2004, Tata paid $130 million for the Tyco Global Network, which included almost forty thousand miles of fiber-optic cable spanning three continents, including major undersea links across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The system was a beast”
“The piece of the network known as TGN-Pacific, for example, consisted of a fourteen thousand mile loop from Los Angeles to Japan and back to Oregon – two full crossings of the mighty Pacific. Finished in 2002, it had eight fibre pairs, double the number of its competitors. From an engineering standpoint, the Tyco Global Network – rechristened the Tata Global Network – was grand and beautiful.”
“You get a number of benefits from being global,” [Tata Communications] said. “We’re connected to thirty-five of the biggest Internet exchanges around the world, so you can get to DE-CIX o AMS-IX or London, whether it’s the last mile, or the last three thousand kilometers. And we get to talk about our global restoration, our round-the world capability.” In other words, Tata Communications could promise that if its path from Tokyo to California were somehow obstructed – by an earthquake, say – they’d happily send your bits around the other way. It reminded me of Singapore Airlines’ two daily flights from New York to Singapore: one goes east and one goes west. But only with the Internet do we treat the scale of the planet so casually – and only then because we have physical links like these. For Tata Communications, it was all an effort towards connecting the unconnected places…”