Labor Day reading: Demystifying the Internet

When our devices and their embedded software miracles fail, we call customer service. And then we complain when their magic wand is not instantly effective.

We have become so used to interacting with our screens large and small to do everything from paying bills and staying in touch with loved ones to ogling viral cats and launching birds to kill pigs.

But can we, in the words of the old song, “get out and get under and fix up that automobile.” The very idea is foreign to us. The sketchy understanding we have about how it all works can lead to the uncomfortable sense that we are not in control.

I’m not going to tell you how to fix your device – but I am going to recommend having a better understanding of what happens once you hit send or update. It is beautifully described by Andrew Blum in his book  Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

US Senator Ted Stevens described the internet as “a series of tubes” and was roundly ridiculed for his lack of understanding. But as we learn from this entertaining and eye opening book, Stevens was quite close to the mark.

Blum’s visits to the massive data centers built by Google and Facebook in remotest eastern Oregon are described in vivid detail – the rough with the smooth. He talks with the guys who are feeding the fiber into pipes under the streets of Lower Manhattan. He meets the fishermen on the rocky end of the British Isles where transatlantic fiber comes ashore and watches wetsuited divers off the coast of Spain connecting Africa’s internet to Europe’s. As my devices collect video and emails and social media “magically” out of the ether, I know that it has all passed through switchers and routers and tubes around the globe. Blum’s travelogue even conjures up the smells of the windowless hyper-air-conditioned rooms that my data has flown through.

Some of the “it’s magic” part has been removed for me and I think that is a good thing. And maybe I feel just a tad more in control.