Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Journey to centre of Internet rollicking, overwrought

  • Print

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

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Étienne Gaboury: Manitoba "shining light" of architecture

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A goose flys defensively to protect their young Wednesday near Kenaston Blvd and Waverley -See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 16 - May 23, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • A nesting goose sits on the roof of GoodLife Fitness at 143 Nature Way near Kenaston as the morning sun comes up Wednesday morning- See Bryksa’s Goose a Day Photo- Day 07- Web crop-May 09, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you think Judy Wasylycia-Leis will greatly benefit from the endorsement by Winnipeg's firefighters?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google