I'm a Geographer: Andrew Blum Is a US Journalist and Author of Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet. after Completing a Degree in Human Geography, He Set off to Find the 'Where' of the Internet. He Talks to Olivia Edward about Why Place Remains Important in Our Hyper-Connected World and How the ISP We Choose Will One Day Really Matter
Edward, Olivia, Geographical
I became interested in the geography of the internet about a decade ago. As I began to spend a lot of time online, my sense of place changed dramatically. My attention was always divided. I was half in the world around me and half inside the screen. I began to realise that the world behind my screen didn't seem to possess a physical reality of its own and I became intrigued.
I think the internet exists in three culturally, logically and physically. There are plenty of books about the culture and logic of the internet, but there isn't another book that focuses exclusively on the physical and geographical aspects of the internet in the way that mine does. This is utterly a book about geography; I imagined a place and then I went and visited these actual places.
Physically, the internet is a collection of machines linked by cables. There's a big discrepancy between how people imagine the internet and its actual physical reality. A couple of years ago, the Silicon Valley philosopher Kevin Kelly began an internet mapping project and asked people to send in their maps of the internet. Most of these mental maps were either chaotic expressions of spidery infinity, or images of the internet-as-village.
The metaphors of the internet used to be spatial--a town square, an internet superhighway--but then those metaphors began to fall out of favour. They became inadequate. Our way of being in the world has changed so quickly that we don't have the experiential capability to conceive of the 'where' of the internet.
When we load a web page, it seems to happen automatically but that's only possible because of all of these connections that have been made by hand from one physical place to another physical place. I don't like the way the internet has made place feel meaningless in the world, so in my book, I tried to recapture that sense of place that I feel the internet has eroded.
And place is still important for those building the internet's physical structure. There are three different pieces of the internet: the internet exchange centres (where the networks meet), the data centres (where data is stored) and the cables (that carry the information between these places). And place is really important to all of them.
Internet traffic isn't beaming about via satellites in the sky. The internet is connected via tubes underneath the ocean. …