We always think about the internet as this set of ideas
In an attempt to map the physical internet, writer and journalist Andrew Blum went on a two year journey following the fibre optic cables, internet exchange points, data centres and all manner of tangible entities that make up the internet, across the globe. This voyage itself found a physical manifestation in his book Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet.
Humans Invent spoke to Blum to learn more about the palpable world of the internet.
I was writing about architecture and infrastructure and, surprisingly, that entailed not going out into the world but sitting behind my desk looking at my screen and yet the world inside my screen had no physical presence of its own. Then one day my internet at home broke and the cable guy came to fix it.
He followed this wire from behind my couch round to the back of my building and then saw a squirrel running along the wire and said, ‘I think a squirrel is chewing on your internet’. This seemed impossible to believe because we always think about the internet as this set of ideas or this set of protocols, as a culture not as a physical thing but realizing it was something a squirrel could chew on I had this image of yanking the cable from the wall and following it and seeing how far I could go, who I would meet there and what I would find.
How does the internet work in a physical sense?
Physically speaking it’s light through a tube: fibre optic cables are illuminated with incredibly fast pulses of light that encode the information. One of the more remarkable things about it is that you don’t just have one signal through a single strand of fibre but many wavelengths or colours of light through a single strand. Essentially, a whole spectrum of flashing lights carrying terabytes of information in single strands of fibre.
Places that currently don’t have access to cable internet still have the option of satellite connections
The fibre optic cables came in with the broadband boom. There was a transition over the course of the 90s from copper cable to fibre optic cables. And you can see as the capacity grew that that transition, which started at the heart of the network, has reached out further and further towards us, to the point where many people now have fibre optic cables all the way to their home.
If an ocean cable breaks how do they mend it?
They need to go out in a ship and throw a grappling hook over the side, find the cable and pull it up off the ocean floor and then find the other side. The undersea cable might have 8 strands of fibre, so they need to fuse each of those 8 strands together, wrap it back up and throw it back in the water.
Do the cables stretch around the world?
There has been a pretty robust East-West network mainly in the northern hemisphere and then through the Suez canal over the last ten years or so. In the last three years Africa has gone from one to cable to, I think, 6. Different global telecoms are trying to build new cables to meet the demand and these, of course, are ocean cables.
The places that currently don’t have access to cable internet, still have the option of satellite connections. Satellites have recently been a technology of last resort, they’re more expensive, it is slower both in the amount of bandwidth they can carry and the time it takes to go 10,000 miles into space and back. However, there is actually a new generation of low-earth-orbit satellites that might change all that and make satellites a more reasonable proposition.
Will everything be on the Cloud in the future?
I think it will. It is very efficient to stream from the cloud: it allows our devices to be smaller and it is energy efficient as everything is concentrated in big factories. However, the more we transition to the Cloud the more we shouldn’t give up responsibility and awareness about where that stuff goes.