Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Journey to centre of Internet rollicking, overwrought

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IF an anxious rabbit can coax Alice to Wonderland, then surely a buck-toothed Brooklyn squirrel can send a geek on a quest to the centre of the Internet.

That's what American journalist Andrew Blum, in his first crack at a whole book, would have us believe.

After a squirrel briefly disconnects Blum's virtual life by gnawing on a cable, the Wired magazine correspondent becomes obsessed with drawing back the curtain on the physical stuff that "is" the Internet.

This obsession produces an extended cultural essay that in patches reads like a rollicking travel journal and in chunks like an overwrought piece in the New York Times Magazine. Sometimes it races like 4G, other times it drags like dial-up.

Blum's "modest" aim in Tubes is to heal what he perceives as a gap between the virtual and the real Internet.

He writes of the revelatory shock he experienced when he first realized, thanks to the nibbling squirrel, that the "cloud" he'd been living in might actually be something more solid.

"But as if in a fairy tale, the squirrel cracked open the door to a previously invisible realm behind the screen, a world of wires and the spaces in between," he writes.

"The chewed cable suggested that there could be a way of stitching the Internet and the real world together again into a single place."

Blum's conclusion -- that we neither live in a physical nor virtual world, but in a human one -- packs as much of a wallop as a big yawn. But there are enough tasty bits in this tourist tract to give the patient reader a sense of the vast and intricate physical infrastructure that makes possible, and in some ways shapes, the online "global village."

By doggedly following the wires, Blum travels to Milwaukee to discover where a global map of the Internet is printed, to the University of California in Los Angeles to visit where the nascent Net took its baby steps, and to a convention in Houston of computer nerds, whose professional and personal relationships play a vital role in directing the flow of global communication.

He discovers the nodes -- or centres -- to the physical Net are often found tucked away in nondescript, unmarked buildings. It's these concrete shells that are filled with the meat of routers and tubes, making the physical exchanges necessary to create a network of networks.

Many of the most important Internet exchanges are where you'd expect them to be: Washington, San Francisco, New York and London. Many of the fibre-optic routes and connection points parallel those once used by telephone wires and undersea telegraph cables.

Other key sites, such as Amsterdam and Frankfurt, require lessons in history and geography in order to make sense. For example, we're told that development of Amsterdam as an e-hub has to do, in part, with its denizens trying to reestablish the city's identity as a centre of global trade and commerce.

Where the book falls flat is in its stated aim of bridging the Internet of wires, boxes and boring buildings with our virtual experiences.

By initially framing the issue in this way, as an inside-outside problem, Blum enjoys the jarring sensations and playful paradoxes such a world view brings.

But by making a largely empty feel-good gesture to a shared sense of humanity to resolve this divide, he fails to chew on the hard question of how our humanity both shapes and is shaped by the Internet.

Perhaps that is a nut that's just too hard to crack.


Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and a student of communication history.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 J7

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