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Originally published Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'Tubes': exploring the physical infrastructure of the Internet

Andrew Blum's new book, "Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet," explores the infrastructure of the Internet — the buildings, wires, cables and vaults that move information around the globe.

The Washington Post

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'Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet'

by Andrew Blum

Ecco, 294 pp., $26.99

It's easy to think of the Internet as an ethereal, otherworldly place. Even the way we talk about it speaks to its inherent everywhereness and nothingness — it's all "wireless" this, "in the cloud" that.

We used to reach the Web by sitting down at a large, slow-moving machine and waiting while screeching noises let us know our phone lines were being put to work.

Now we carry the Internet around in our pockets. As Andrew Blum writes in his new book, there's a tangible, physical reality to the Internet, even if we tend to forget about it. And it's more than just the phones we absent-mindedly thumb or the routers we unplug and replug into our walls when our system is on the fritz.

Blum investigates the physical architecture of the online world, exploring "corrugated steel buildings, yellow fiber-optic cables, and basement vaults." These are the places where the data move, the cables that help information as it crisscrosses the globe, and the avenues that act as network intersections.

"Tubes" is sprightly and easy to read, with a story that travels from an Internet exchange in Palo Alto, Calif., to a network hub in Frankfurt, Germany. Blum makes a nighttime excursion to watch workers install cables under New York City and goes to a Google data center in Oregon. The trip to the Google data center reminds Blum that while all of our data appears to be freely floating in the clouds, it does have to be somewhere at all times.

The title of the book refers to an infamous speech given by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, who described the Internet as "a series of tubes." This is more accurate than we would think, Blum writes. Visiting a rundown building in Milwaukee to glimpse the wires connecting libraries, schools and government offices, he is struck by the sight of "all those tubes" necessary to bring the Internet to life for so many people.

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