Interview with Andrew Blum for Critics and Writers

Ever wonder what is beyond your computer? Andrew Blum journeys to the center of the Internet in his new book, Tubes to find learn more about the inner workings of the Internet.

Tubes has been described as a travel book of sorts: how did you decide which Internet landmarks to mark on your map?

I started by spending a lot of time on the phone with network engineers, engaged in a very qualitative process of where and what they thought the most important pieces of the Internet were. It became clear pretty quickly that a short number of places rose to the top of the heap, that the Internet was a lot more centralized than I had realized, and that the itinerary was actually quite straightforward. The challenge then was figuring out both which places told the best stories and which people in which places told the best stories. And, also, making sure who was opening the door the widest: where could I go visit that I could see everything, every nook and cranny, and really hear about the history—not just this sort of cursory walk through the building.

Did you have a favorite place that you visited?

One of the places I liked the most because it’s probably unexpectedly the most important Internet building in the country, if not the world, was Equinix’s facility in Ashburn, Virginia, near Dulles Airport. It’s kind of the ultimate example of a non-place becoming a really powerful place. It’s an unmarked, from the outside completely unremarkable-looking building in this suburban nowhere, but is, in fact, the crossroads for almost all data: it’s the most significant data crossroads in the country. If Tubes is really about trying to play with this idea of when it matters where something is and when it doesn’t matter at all, Equinix Ashburn was a place that exemplified that the best.

A lot of these centers seem to be built near old telegraph and telephone hubs. Are their locations chosen for the geography alone or are there some romantic and historic notions at work?

It’s usually when you think about why the Internet is where it is, there’s almost always some fact of geography, that there’s some history or topography that’s made this place important. For example, with Sixty Hudson Street in New York, it’s always been the elbow between lower Manattan, which has always been a very important place for communications, and the first way out of town, the Holland Tunnel. When you look at a map, it’s sort of obvious that that’s the pivotal point, that’s where things turn. In addition to that fact of geography, there’s almost always some charismatic salesperson who convinced the first two networks to come into this building, and because they were there, everybody else piled on as well. So, there’s both the geographic aspect of it and that human component.

While we’re talking about places and the actual physical aspects of everything, you’ve done a fair bit of writing about architecture for Wired. How have you found the different “homes” of the Internet?

They kind of ran the gamut. Some look like the back of a shopping mall, and could not be more anonymous—as architecture, that’s interesting. That said, I believe we apply meaning to places. So, they may not look interesting, but for me they were very interesting because of their significance in other ways. But then others were these amazing old art deco palaces, buildings like Sixty Hudson and Thirty-two Avenue of the Americas that really came from a different era of infrastructure architecture that really tried to celebrate their function in a different way. And then there was a third category of newer, more interesting buildings, like Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Oregon. That’s really quite a beautiful building that has a lot of rigor in the way that every inch of it was built with a lot of care, and the whole building shows that. That, I thought, was very beautiful, and also has this significance of the fact that in contains some of our most important things, as abstract as that may seem.

You spend a lot of time on the physical realities of the Internet in your book, getting rid of the vague idea of “the cloud.” Do you think that it’s problematic for people to give so much of themselves to something they don’t truly understand?

I totally do. I think that it’s quite clear that every time we put something in the cloud, we give up some responsibility for it, and we haven’t gotten in the habit of asking the people we give it to so much to tell about what they’re doing with it. Sometimes we pay them and we stop there, sometimes we don’t pay them and we don’t even ask why we’re not paying them. We assume that, “Oh, it’s paid for by advertising,” yet we rarely see those ads, and we never click on them. As more and more of our lives do move to the cloud, I think that the responsibility on our own part grows to learn more about what the cloud is and where our Internet comes from.

At the moment, the thing is, specifically with our Internet access, like with our cable connection or DSL connection at home, we’re still in a bit of a honeymoon period. We’re still not quite used to the fact that we’re depending on our Internet connection for so many things: we depend on it for work, we keep so much more of our data on it, we stream our music from it, we stream our movies from it. I think we’re coming to a point where the cable companies and the phone companies are going to start to exert more control over the way that those pipes are used, making it sort of an offer you can’t refuse to use their videos rather than Netflix or Amazon or whatever it is. And I think that as that shift begins to happen, we’re going to become more aware of this sort of politics of the pipes and not just how much it costs and how fast it is.

Have you changed your own approach to how you use the Internet or how you see it now that you’ve gotten in there and seen the inner works for yourself?

I think I share in the responsibility for what I put online in a lot of different ways, which is one way of saying I back up. When you begin to recognize that it’s a machine, you begin to recognize that those machines can fail—that’s the most straightforward thing. I’m also much more aware of the social contract of the services that I use. For example, I think it’s utterly insane that people use Gmail for their primary work email. Email’s my primary means of communication and I’m perfectly happy to pay forty dollars a year for my primary business communication, rather than use a free service, where it’s not clear what the recourse is or what the responsibility is on the part of the provider.

Since you mentioned Gmail, is that what frustrated you the most on your visit to Google, lack of information available?

Yeah, I found it sort of untenable that Google could be the company that knows the most about us, and yet could be so unwilling to share anything about itself. I’m not a very paranoid person at all, but I don’t like the idea of all of my correspondence being linked to all of my web searches when it’s explicitly stated that that information is valuable to Google. It’s not clear how that’s being used, except that they repeat again and again that it’s valuable and show that it’s valuable by giving me these services for free otherwise. You don’t have to be paranoid to think that that’s a little bit rich, that that sort of crosses a line of privacy and, as a journalist, professionalism.

There is certainly a sense of the idea of a man behind the curtain like Wizard of Oz here, that there’s a lot going on the people don’t know anything about. Were you nervous about looking behind the curtain of the Internet, or were you more curious to go in and figure it all out?

I was really curious. I mean, for me it really it was as much about how it works as where these places are. A lot of the pleasure of it was reminding myself that the world still physically existed. Even though there’s this virtual world that we believed was just this amorphous cloud, for lack of a better word, you could in fact actually go and see it and touch it and smell it.

I would assume that writing for a magazine, like you do for Wired, you have a lot of experience, but it is quite different from how you’d approach a book. How would you say that those two writing processes really differed for you?

I haven’t thought a huge amount about that recently. I’m certainly thinking about it now, but in the opposite way: I’m going from my book back to my magazine stuff. For me, the greatest pleasure in it was shifting from pleasing an editor and an editor’s editor to really following my own interests as much possible, and being able to write the stories as long or as short as I wanted to write them, and really being guided by the depth of my own curiosity, rather than being circumscribed by both the conventions and the limits of a magazine article. I think that’s why anyone writes a book, any non-fictionist or any magazine journalist writes a book, is because they have more to say and they believe in the way that they want to say it. But I think the other key part of that, the thing that allows that to work (when it does), is to have a really good question—a really straightforward question. That’s something that, for me, came most directly out of writing for magazines. In Tubes, the question was, “Where is the Internet?” And that was a question I never got tired of asking.

That’s a big question. Now that you’ve had the freedom to fully explore a that question, something that clearly interested you, do you have another project like that in the works?

That is a long story today. Yes, but that is a big question, too.

Fair enough. Lastly, what are you reading right now?

Actually, I’m reading two things, both of which are kind of relevant. I reading Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist?, which is really good. And I’m catching up—because I missed it a couple of years ago—with The Lost City of Z, the David Grann book.

Originally published on Critics & Writers.

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