Andrew Blum: What is the Internet, really?

Andrew Blum: What is the Internet, really?

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast I’ve always written primarily about architecture, about buildings, and writing about architecture is based on certain assumptions. An architect designs a building, and it becomes a place, or many architects design many buildings, and it becomes a city, and regardless of this complicated mix of forces of politics and culture and economics that shapes these places, at the end of the day, you can go and you can visit them. You can walk around them. You can smell them. You can get a feel for them. You can experience their sense of place. But what was striking to me over the last several years was that less and less was I going out into the world, and more and more, I was sitting in front of my computer screen. And especially since about 2007, when I got an iPhone, I was not only sitting in front of my screen all day, but I was also getting up at the end of the day and looking at this little screen that I carried in my pocket. And what was surprising to me was how quickly my relationship to the physical world had changed. In this very short period of time, you know, whether you call it the last 15 years or so of being online, or the last, you know, four or five years of being online all the time, our relationship to our surroundings had changed in that our attention is constantly divided. You know, we’re both looking inside the screens and we’re looking out in the world around us. And what was even more striking to me, and what I really got hung up on, was that the world inside the screen seemed to have no physical reality of its own. If you went and looked for images of the Internet, this was all that you found, this famous image by Opte of the Internet as the kind of Milky Way, this infinite expanse where we don’t seem to be anywhere on it. We can never seem to grasp it in its totality. It’s always reminded me of the Apollo image of the Earth, the blue marble picture, and it’s similarly meant to suggest, I think, that we can’t really understand it as a whole. We’re always sort of small in the face of its expanse. So if there was this world and this screen, and if there was the physical world around me, I couldn’t ever get them together in the same place. And then this happened. My Internet broke one day, as it occasionally does, and the cable guy came to fix it, and he started with the dusty clump of cables behind the couch, and he followed it to the front of my building and into the basement and out to the back yard, and there was this big jumble of cables against the wall. And then he saw a squirrel running along the wire, and he said, “There’s your problem. A squirrel is chewing on your Internet.” (Laughter) And this seemed astounding. The Internet is a transcendent idea. It’s a set of protocols that has changed everything from shopping to dating to revolutions. It was unequivocally not something a squirrel could chew on. (Laughter) But that in fact seemed to be the case. A squirrel had in fact chewed on my Internet. (Laughter) And then I got this image in my head of what would happen if you yanked the wire from the wall and if you started to follow it. Where would it go? Was the Internet actually a place that you could visit? Could I go there? Who would I meet? You know, was there something actually out there? And the answer, by all accounts, was no. This was the Internet, this black box with a red light on it, as represented in the sitcom “The IT Crowd.” Normally it lives on the top of Big Ben, because that’s where you get the best reception, but they had negotiated that their colleague could borrow it for the afternoon to use in an office presentation. The elders of the Internet were willing to part with it for a short while, and she looks at it and she says, “This is the Internet? The whole Internet? Is it heavy?” They say, “Of course not, the Internet doesn’t weigh anything.” And I was embarrassed. I was looking for this thing that only fools seem to look for. The Internet was that amorphous blob, or it was a silly black box with a blinking red light on it. It wasn’t a real world out there. But, in fact, it is. There is a real world of the Internet out there, and that’s what I spent about two years visiting, these places of the Internet. I was in large data centers that use as much power as the cities in which they sit, and I visited places like this, 60 Hudson Street in New York, which is one of the buildings in the world, one of a very short list of buildings, about a dozen buildings, where more networks of the Internet connect to each other than anywhere else. And that connection is an unequivocally physical process. It’s about the router of one network, a Facebook or a Google or a B.T. or a Comcast or a Time Warner, whatever it is, connecting with usually a yellow fiber optic cable up into the ceiling and down into the router of another network, and that’s unequivocally physical, and it’s surprisingly intimate. A building like 60 Hudson, and a dozen or so others, has 10 times more networks connecting within it than the next tier of buildings. There’s a very short list of these places. And 60 Hudson in particular is interesting because it’s home to about a half a dozen very important networks, which are the networks which serve the undersea cables that travel underneath the ocean that connect Europe and America and connect all of us. And it’s those cables in particular that I want to focus on. If the Internet is a global phenomenon, if we live in a global village, it’s because there are cables underneath the ocean, cables like this. And in this dimension, they are incredibly small. You can you hold them in your hand. They’re like a garden hose. But in the other dimension they are incredibly expansive, as expansive as you can imagine. They stretch across the ocean. They’re three or five or eight thousand miles in length, and if the material science and the computational technology is incredibly complicated, the basic physical process is shockingly simple. Light goes in on one end of the ocean and comes out on the other, and it usually comes from a building called a landing station that’s often tucked away inconspicuously in a little seaside neighborhood, and there are amplifiers that sit on the ocean floor that look kind of like bluefin tuna, and every 50 miles they amplify the signal, and since the rate of transmission is incredibly fast, the basic unit is a 10-gigabit-per-second wavelength of light, maybe a thousand times your own connection, or capable of carrying 10,000 video streams, but not only that, but you’ll put not just one wavelength of light through one of the fibers, but you’ll put maybe 50 or 60 or 70 different wavelengths or colors of light through a single fiber, and then you’ll have maybe eight fibers in a cable, four going in each direction. And they’re tiny. They’re the thickness of a hair. And then they connect to the continent somewhere. They connect in a manhole like this. Literally, this is where the 5,000-mile cable plugs in. This is in Halifax, a cable that stretches from Halifax to Ireland. And the landscape is changing. Three years ago, when I started thinking about this, there was one cable down the Western coast of Africa, represented in this map by Steve Song as that thin black line. Now there are six cables and more coming, three down each coast. Because once a country gets plugged in by one cable, they realize that it’s not enough. If they’re going to build an industry around it, they need to know that their connection isn’t tenuous but permanent, because if a cable breaks, you have to send a ship out into the water, throw a grappling hook over the side, pick it up, find the other end, and then fuse the two ends back together and then dump it over. It’s an intensely, intensely physical process. So this is my friend Simon Cooper, who until very recently worked for Tata Communications, the communications wing of Tata, the big Indian industrial conglomerate. And I’ve never met him. We’ve only communicated via this telepresence system, which always makes me think of him as the man inside the Internet. (Laughter) And he is English. The undersea cable industry is dominated by Englishmen, and they all seem to be 42. (Laughter) Because they all started at the same time with the boom about 20 years ago. And Tata had gotten its start as a communications business when they bought two cables, one across the Atlantic and one across the Pacific, and proceeded to add pieces onto them, until they had built a belt around the world, which means they will send your bits to the East or the West. They have — this is literally a beam of light around the world, and if a cable breaks in the Pacific, it’ll send it around the other direction. And then having done that, they started to look for places to wire next. They looked for the unwired places, and that’s meant North and South, primarily these cables to Africa. But what amazes me is Simon’s incredible geographic imagination. He thinks about the world with this incredible expansiveness. And I was particularly interested because I wanted to see one of these cables being built. See, you know, all the time online we experience these fleeting moments of connection, these sort of brief adjacencies, a tweet or a Facebook post or an email, and it seemed like there was a physical corollary to that. It seemed like there was a moment when the continent was being plugged in, and I wanted to see that. And Simon was working on a new cable, WACS, the West Africa Cable System, that stretched from Lisbon down the west coast of Africa, to Cote d’Ivoire, to Ghana, to Nigeria, to Cameroon. And he said there was coming soon, depending on the weather, but he’d let me know when, and so with about four days notice, he said to go to this beach south of Lisbon, and a little after 9, this guy will walk out of the water. (Laughter) And he’ll be carrying a green nylon line, a lightweight line, called a messenger line, and that was the first link between sea and land, this link that would then be leveraged into this 9,000-mile path of light. Then a bulldozer began to pull the cable in from this specialized cable landing ship, and it was floated on these buoys until it was in the right place. Then you can see the English engineers looking on. And then, once it was in the right place, he got back in the water holding a big knife, and he cut each buoy off, and the buoy popped up into the air, and the cable dropped to the sea floor, and he did that all the way out to the ship, and when he got there, they gave him a glass of juice and a cookie, and then he jumped back in, and he swam back to shore, and then he lit a cigarette. (Laughter) And then once that cable was on shore, they began to prepare to connect it to the other side, for the cable that had been brought down from the landing station. And first they got it with a hacksaw, and then they start sort of shaving away at this plastic interior with a — sort of working like chefs, and then finally they’re working like jewelers to get these hair-thin fibers to line up with the cable that had come down, and with this hole-punch machine they fuse it together. And when you see these guys going at this cable with a hacksaw, you stop thinking about the Internet as a cloud. It starts to seem like an incredibly physical thing. And what surprised me as well was that as much as this is based on the most sophisticated technology, as much as this is an incredibly new thing, the physical process itself has been around for a long time, and the culture is the same. You see the local laborers. You see the English engineer giving directions in the background. And more importantly, the places are the same. These cables still connect these classic port cities, places like Lisbon, Mombasa, Mumbai, Singapore, New York. And then the process on shore takes around three or four days, and then, when it’s done, they put the manhole cover back on top, and they push the sand over that, and we all forget about it. And it seems to me that we talk a lot about the cloud, but every time we put something on the cloud, we give up some responsibility for it. We are less connected to it. We let other people worry about it. And that doesn’t seem right. There’s a great Neal Stephenson line where he says that wired people should know something about wires. And we should know, I think, we should know where our Internet comes from, and we should know what it is that physically, physically connects us all. Thank you. (Applause) (Applause) Thanks. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Andrew Blum: What is the Internet, really?

  1. rather confusingly i started talking bout vsauce then about the it crowd, i have a habit of changing subject mid sen yeah i really like it as well, not my favourite, the one with countdown is probably my favourite one or the one with space star ordering. basically i love the it crowd *nerd face*

  2. Yeah it does. Because if you took the time to learn everything people thought you should know. You would never have time to apply any of it.

  3. At first I wanted to slam you for the pompous way you hold yourself and the rude way you insulted the intelligence of this man, but then I realized you were right.

  4. Have you ever wonder what Internet is all about. Is it something physical or mere illusion? In this wonderful talk, the passionate young man Andrew Blum vividly describes about his fact-finding mission with touch of humor. Good Talk. Good Subject. Delightful.

  5. I don't understand the negative comments. This is fascinating! Too bad it was cut off, I would have liked to see the entire lecture.

  6. As someone who works in data centers, I don't understand how people are not even aware of the physical part of networks, websites, etc. Schools need to start having field trips to data centers (even though most data centers are secure facilities), so we are not raising a generation of idiots who think the internet is created my magic.

  7. It's pretty mind boggling to me how a bunch of cables transmitting electricity (probably) can be transformed into such a monumental thing as the internet. Think of yourself. You are a bunch of neurons firing in your brain, but the sum of all these electrical impulses and chemical processes that's going on inside you, gives rise to an entirely different thing. The fact that the internet exists, physically, is a cool thought in my opinion, and one that most people usually don't stop to consider.

  8. Just finished reading his book Tubes and its amazing, was really nice to see some of the pictures he took during this talk and visually see the things he witnessed in the expansion of the internet.

  9. honestly, nothing against this nice guy, with an admirable passion to know more about its surroundings, however maybe some day a squirrel will chew up its power cable, and then he will discovery from where its electricity comes from, and why is he not living in a cave.

  10. Why is everyone slamming this guy, I bet you 95% of the population have no idea about the physicality of the internet. He may be just scratching the massive surface of the internet but at least he is trying to understand. We get it, some of us are way more intelligent at networking and computers in general, but you don't have to look down on others because they didn't know about it.

  11. There is this part on middle 18281828, really easy to remenber took me like 15 secs.. and you can momerize other ones on min, not that hard, atleast not for me.

  12. Brilliant! Blum is right, once the workers cover the manhole with sand, we forget how physical the internet really is.

  13. He wanted to see it, and touch it. It's very important that we know how things that we use, work. What makes a notification on your phone possible, and more importantly, how the world works.


  14. Sometimes I wonder if the TED guys are ever going to figure out that cutting to angles of the gaping jaws of random audience members is jarring and unnecessary.

  15. interesting video but when I search what is the internet I wanted to find out how it was found where it stems from why do we use it the way we do what else could we use it for what is the basic of the web

  16. loved this.. really insightful .. i was aware of just how physical the internet is.. but in this incredibly visual time we live in.. it takes seeing the guy coming out of the sea holding the internet cable first, before you can truely imagine a guy coming out of the sea holding the internet.cable

  17. To my opinion it is crazy to think that each computer connected to the Internet in the world is physically connected to mine by a tremendous number of possible path.

  18. Interesting talk, but I don't understand one thing. Who actually thought that internet wasn't a physical thing? Did people think that it's based on what, air, somewhere on the actual cloud? Do people think that television isn't physical, thinking that it just "appears"? Is someone who doesn't know that products in supermarkets are delivered there, and don't really grow in their warehouses?

    Internet is another way of delivering digital content through the use of a massive web of physical infrastructure, which is why it was labeled WWW. It's not just a cool name; it represent what it ACTUALLY is. There's nothing to think about here. How is that not obvious?

    I loved the quote in the end, which is a completely different topic, by the way, and not what the whole talk was about. And I'm not trying to sound smart here – I might not be getting something here – but why does this obvious thing even needs to be explained for adults? Serious question.

  19. I hope in my field of study some event will inspire me to explore and discover answers to curiosities presenting themselves in the most interesting of manners.

  20. It is disturbing. While we, in the industrialized, consumer driven economies, believe everyone is on their home computers and on the Internet. Wrong! About 15% of the global population is, the rest are not..what kind of world are we creating…

  21. The internet is a group
    Filled with
    11 year olds that act like
    Minecraft 9 year olds
    20+ people who make disgusting drawings of zootopia and stuff

  22. you have always a choice to this technologies mainly for communication but i wonder how many days could you get a reply from a single message you sent. or you would have to go physically to a store in place far away from your home just to buy something in case things you need are not available from the stores near you. it is possible the the cost of travel is more greater the things you buy far away.
    your idea may be is very good if where not in a monetary based system. it would be the best experience of a life.

  23. "Wired people should know something about wires."Do you know where your food comes from?Your water?Your clothes?The internet is not the first world wide system and is no more or no less important than the others…until you think you can go with food, water and clothes, as I'm sure some smartass will insist he can.

  24. Wow, what a perspective!!! This man was quite successful in explaining the physicality of something as abstract as the internet. Really enjoyed listening to him

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