A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Journalist Andrew Blum explains what and where the Internet is physically. His book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet tells the story of the Internet's physical infrastructure and chronicles the its development, explains how it works, and takes an in-depth look inside its hidden monuments.


Andrew Blum

Comments [16]

Mike Robbins from New York City

ANdrew Blum on the internet was a grand interview and interviewee. The questions were the ones I wanted and the answers were crisp, authoritative and understandable. One of Lopate's best. A contrast to the sad one several weeks ago with an "expert" from Consumer Reports on credit scores That one was completeley incomprehensible. The questions were good but the answers were herky-jerky and incoherent. Have that subject again with a decent guest.

May. 30 2012 06:19 PM

Steve from Rockville Centre, NY:

The Internet can be viewed as much as a set of relationships as a set of wires and routers so in a sense there is more than one big picture. A key ingredient in making the whole thing work is that there is no one "big brother" entity running the it all. The separate participants coordinate partly by voluntarily complying with standards developed by global non-profit organizations out of trust and mutual self-interest. Different organizations work on different aspects.

ISOC ( is an umbrella organization involved mainly with groups that develop and maintain standards for IP, routing, etc. However, it also takes an interest in the future direction of The Internet, etc.
(ISOC may have closest thing to the "big picture" view you're looking for.)

ICANN ( deals with names and addresses.

W3C ( works on web standards.

The physical infrastructure aspect gets more complicated as there are many types of media and as spectrum is limited and wires and radio towers need physical locations governments get involved.

Standards for wired and wireless ethernet which may be among the more familiar types of physical connections are maintained by the IEEE (

For info on standards for mobile data networks you can check out:

In the USA spectrum is allocated by the FCC. (

The World Summit on the Information Society is a periodic conference rather than a standards body, but may be interesting from a big picture perspective. It's for identifying issues and bring them to the attention of the relevant standards bodies. They've tended to focus on digital divide issues.

May. 30 2012 04:38 PM

Possibly true Ed... and I'll admit there may have been some humor in that. But it seems to me that many of the folks making fun of him were not making fun of that. They seemed to be missing the point entirely.

Also, there have been some over-reactions to the tendencies of network operators to over-price network service. There are folks who like to think of bandwidth as an entirely free good, dismiss questions of infrastructure cost, latency issues, etc, entirely, and would like to label any form of network management as evil in a "four legs good, two legs bad" kind of way. I suspect that dismissing a metaphorical description of network congestion because the terminology was insufficiently technical sounding was very a convenient exercise in confirmation bias for folks with such views.

May. 30 2012 03:18 PM
Edward from NJ

The really funny thing about the Ted Stephens soundbyte -- even if his metaphor is, in fact, relatively accurate -- is that it's not entirely clear he realizes that it's a metaphor.

May. 30 2012 02:48 PM

Thank you to Edward from NJ for the comment re "tubes" and "pipes".

Senator Stevens was certainly not a network expert, and did seem to have some vocabulary problems. He said "tubes" instead of "pipes", and "messages" instead of "packets". However, he seemed to have the metaphor basically right. Strictly speaking, network connections do not get "clogged". They can, however, become "saturated". Whether or not wide-spread port saturation was likely to create large scale problems was debatable, but it seemed to me that for a newcomer to the subject matter Senator Stevens articulated one concern (which was only one aspect of a larger issue) fairly well, and in terms other lay folks could easily understand. It also seemed to me at the time that some folks who were making grand sport of his peccadillos were actually putting on flamboyant displays of their own ignorance.

May. 30 2012 02:03 PM
Tony Aromando from Bronx

Packets have a TTL, Time To Live. If a packet can not be resolved to an address it will "die" after so many passes through the same routers. This also prevents endless loops.

May. 30 2012 12:39 PM


May. 30 2012 12:36 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

DARPA created the network in the late 1960s, but Al Gore's bill in congress opened up the internet to commerce and the rest of us. And the creation of the World Wide Network graphical hypertext (http) interface software by a scientist working at CERN in Switzerland made it easy for the rest of us to use.

May. 30 2012 12:34 PM
MikeInBrklyn from Brooklyn

The equivalent of a dead end would be an address in the routing table that cannot be resolved. The equivalent of providing the post office the right zipcode but a not existent address.

May. 30 2012 12:33 PM
Guy from Nolita

Ask the guest about the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web. Hint, DARPA did not invent the Web, a CERN software engineer did. The Web is the system of URLs and software overlays which make the physical Internet easy for us to use. Otherwise, we would be staring at a blinking cursor !

May. 30 2012 12:32 PM
Edward from NJ

Based on context, it was pretty clear that Ted Stevens meant "tubes" as a synonym for "pipes", not vacuum tubes. He was essentially correct in his metaphor. If he had used the word "pipes", he would have been using the same term many technology professionals actually use. For instance, it's common to describe a high-bandwidth connection as a "fat pipe".

May. 30 2012 12:30 PM
John A.

Al Gore created the internet for civilians:
HPCA 1991
Adopted 09-Dec-1991 as Public Law No: 102-194

May. 30 2012 12:25 PM

The Senator from Alaska may have been referring to the "Internet" as "tubes" as in the London "tubes", their subways - not as a "vacuum tube".

Do you have any problem with that, admittedly imperfect, metaphor.

May. 30 2012 12:16 PM
John A.

If any node can route any packet, then isn't that a great incentive and opportunity for underhanded parties to attempt to read anything I send unencrypted?

May. 30 2012 12:05 PM
Faith Holland from East Village

Really excited about this interview! I've been thinking about this sort of problem, but from an abstract/imaginative angle, like RIP Geocities: or Analog Internet:

May. 30 2012 12:03 PM
Steve from Rockville Centre, NY

Who is minding the internet? In other words, what company or organization is making sure that we don't run out of bandwidth or have bottlenecks? Does anybody keep an eye on the big picture?

May. 30 2012 11:35 AM

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