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Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

What undersea cables have to do with Brooklyn squirrels.

Do you ever stop to think what happens when a web page, like this one, manifests as digital text and image on your screen to transmit ideas between someone else’s brain and your own across time and space — and how it all works, in practical terms? The very thought of this physical underbelly of our information ecosystem feels strange and uncomfortable, as if betraying our dichotomous culture of “virtual” vs. “real,” cyberspace vs. physical space. And yet, while we may ponder its cultural impact, its biases, and its economics, the internet — despite our metaphors of clouds and information superhighways, and our concept of a “wireless” web — is a thoroughly physical thing. That’s precisely the unsettling realization at which Andrew Blum arrived after a squirrel in his Brooklyn backyard nibbled through the cable connection of his internet, the internet, causing it to falter. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet records Blum’s quest to uncover what few of us consider and even fewer understand — the jarringly tactile, material nuts and bolts of an intricate architectural system we tend to see as an abstract, amorphous blob.

If you have received an email or loaded a web page already today — indeed, if you are receiving an email or loading a web page (or a book) right now — I can guarantee that you are touching these very real places. I can admit that the Internet is a strange landscape, but I insist that it is a landscape nonetheless… For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.

From the vast data warehouses of major tech companies and giant labyrinths of undersea cables that bridge continents to the nano scale of optical switches and fine fiberglass, Blum reveals an internet that has “a seemingly infinite number of edges, but a shockingly small number of centers.”

Submarine cable map by TeleGeography, depicting more than 150 cable systems that connect the world.

He writes in the introduction:

This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there. To stitch together two halves of a broken world — to put the physical and the virtual back in the same place — I’ve stopped looking at web ‘sites’ and ‘addresses’ and instead sought out real sites and addresses, and the humming machines they house. I’ve stepped away from my keyboard, and with it the mirror-world of Google, Wikipedia, and blogs, and boarded planes and trains. I’ve driven on empty stretches of highway and to the edges of continents. In visiting the Internet, I’ve tried to strip away my individual experience of it — as that thing manifest on the screen — to reveal its underlying mass. My search for ‘the Internet’ has therefore been a search for reality, or really a specific breed of reality: the hard truths of geography.

What emerges is Blum’s three-way Venn diagram of understanding:

The networks that compose the Internet could be imagined as existing in three overlapping realms: logically, meaning the magical and (for most of us) opaque way the electronic signals travel; physically, meaning the machines and wires those signals run through; and geographically, meaning the places those signals reach. The logical realm inevitably requires quite a lot of specialized knowledge to get at; most of us leave the that to the coders and engineers. But the second two realms — the physical and geographic — are fully a part of our familiar world. They are accessible to the senses. But they are mostly hidden from view. In fact, trying to see them disturbed the way I imagined the interstices of the physical and electronic world.

Still, we seem drawn to the spatial and physical mystery of the internet, often visualizing it with the same egocentrism with which medieval man visualized the universe. Blum points to The Internet Mapping Project, in which Kevin Kelly asked ordinary people to sketch how they conceive of the internet, constructing a kind of “folk cartography” and exposing the internet as what Blum calls “a landscape of the mind.”

An entry from Kevin Kelly’s Internet Mapping Project, soliciting hand-drawn depictions of the internet.

Blum, in fact, dedicates an entire chapter to maps — a treat for a cartographically compulsive map-lover like myself. In it, he recounts the story of a Milwaukee printer that runs into technical difficulties in printing TeleGeography’s annual map of the global internet. Blum observes:

The networked world claims to be frictionless — to allow for things to be anywhere. Transferring the map’s electronic file to Milwaukee was as effortless as sending an email. Yet the map itself wasn’t a JPEG, PDF, or scalable Google map, but something fixed and lasting — printed on a synthetic paper called Yupo, updated once a year, sold for $250, packaged in cardboard tubes, and shipped around the world. [This] map of the physical infrastructure of the Internet was itself the physical world. It may have represented the Internet, but inevitably it came from somewhere — specifically, North Eighty-Seventh Street in Milwaukee, a place that knew a little something about how the world was made.

To go in search of the physical Internet was to go in search of the gaps between fluid and fixed. To ask, what could happen anywhere? And, what had to happen here?

But Tubes is far more than a technical anatomy, revealing instead the broader implications of this seemingly ubiquitous parallel world that two billion of us inhabit, in one form or another, on any given day. In the epilogue, Blum transcends the physicality of his quest to ponder the philosophical:

As everyone from Odysseus on down has pointed out, a journey is really understood upon arriving home. […] What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.


Trees of Life: A Visual History of Scientific Diagrams Explaining Evolution

Mapping 450 years of humanity’s curiosity about the living world and the relationships between organisms.

Since the dawn of recorded history, humanity has been turning to the visual realm as a sensemaking tool for the world and our place in it, mapping and visualizing everything from the body to the brain to the universe to information itself. Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution (public library) catalogs 230 tree-like branching diagrams, culled from 450 years of mankind’s visual curiosity about the living world and our quest to understand the complex ecosystem we share with other organisms, from bacteria to birds, microbes to mammals.

Though the use of a tree as a metaphor for understanding the relationships between organisms is often attributed to Darwin, who articulated it in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, the concept, most recently appropriated in mapping systems and knowledge networks, is actually much older, predating the theory of evolution itself. The collection is thus at once a visual record of the evolution of science and of its opposite — the earliest examples, dating as far back as the sixteenth century, portray the mythic order in which God created Earth, and the diagrams’ development over the centuries is as much a progression of science as it is of culture, society, and paradigm.

Theodore W. Pietsch writes in the introduction:

The tree as an iconographic metaphor is perhaps the most universally widespread of all great cultural symbols. Trees appear and reappear throughout human history to illustrate nearly every aspect of life. The structural complexity of a tree — its roots, trunk, bifurcating branches, and leaves — has served as an ideal symbol throughout the ages to visualize and map hierarchies of knowledge and ideas.

The Ladder of Ascent and Descent of the Intellect, not tree-like at first glance, but certainly branching dichotomously, the steps labeled from bottom to top, with representative figures on the right and upper left: Lapis (stone), Flamma (fire), Planta (plant), Brutum (beast), Homo (human), Caelum (sky), Angelus (angel), and Deus (God), a scheme that shows how one might ascend from inferior to superior beings and vice versa. After Ramon Lull (1232–1315), Liber de ascensu et descensu intellectus, written about 1305 but not published until 1512.
The ‘Crust of the Earth as Related to Zoology,’ presenting, at one glance, the ‘distribution of the principle types of animals, and the order of their successive appearance in the layers of the earth’s crust,’ published by Louis Agassiz and Augustus Addison Gould as the frontispiece of their 1848 Principles of Zoölogy. The diagram is like a wheel with numerous radiating spokes, each spoke representing a group of animals, superimposed over a series of concentric rings of time, from pre-Silurian to the ‘modern age.’ According to a divine plan, different groups of animals appear within the various ‘spokes’ of the wheel and then, in some cases, go extinct. Humans enter only in the outermost layer, at the very top of the diagram, shown as the crowning achievement of all Creation.
‘Genealogy of the class of fishes’ published by Louis Agassiz in his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Research on fossil fishes) of 1844.
The ‘genealogico-geographical affinities’ of plant families based on the natural orders of Carl Linnaeus (1751), published by Paul Dietrich Giseke in 1792. Each family is represented by a numbered circle (roman numerals), the diameter of which gives a rough measure of the relative number of included genera (arabic numerals).
The unique egg-shaped ‘system of animals’ published by German zoologist Georg August Goldfuss in his Über de Entwicklungsstufen des Thieres (On animal development) of 1817.
‘Universal system of nature,’ from Paul Horaninow’s Primae lineae systematis naturae (Primary system of nature) of 1834, an ingenious and seemingly indecipherable clockwise spiral that places animals in the center of the vortex, arranged in a series of concentric circles, surrounded in turn by additional nested circles that contain the plants, nonmetallic minerals, and finally metals within the outermost circle. Not surprisingly, everything is subjugated to humans (Homo) located in the center.

Ernst Haeckel’s famous ‘great oak,’ a family tree of animals, from the first edition of his 1874 Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des menschen (The evolution of man).

(More on Haeckel’s striking biological art here.)

Tree by John Henry Schaffner showing the relationships of the flowering plants. The early split at the base of the tree leads to the monocotyledonous plants on the left and the dicotyledons on the right.
Schaffner, 1934, Quarterly Review of Biology, 9(2):150, fig. 2; courtesy of Perry Cartwright and the University of Chicago Press.
A phylogeny of horses showing their geological distribution throughout the Tertiary, by Ruben Arthur Stirton.
Stirton, 1940, plate following page 198; courtesy of Rebecca Wells and the University of California Press.
Ruben Arthur Stirton’s revised view of horse phylogeny.
Stirton, 1959, Time, Life, and Man: The Fossil Record, p. 466, fig. 250; courtesy of Sheik Safdar and John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Used with permission.
William King Gregory’s 1946 tree of rodent relationships.
Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.
The frontispiece of William King Gregory’s two-volume Evolution Emerging.
Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Images courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press


Live the Questions: Jacqueline Novogratz’s Advice to Graduates

“Inspiring hope in a cynical world might be the most radical thing you can possibly do.”

‘Tis the season for exceptional graduation speeches, in which cultural icons bequeath their life’s wisdom to a new generation of, ideally, hungry-eyed thinkers and doers — icons like Neil Gaiman, David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos. This month, one of my big heroes, Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz, addressed departing Gettysburg College seniors and imparted upon them, through anecdotes from her own remarkable story, a handful of beautiful aspirations to live by, summarized below.

We’ve become a society seeking instant gratification. We want simple answers, clear pathways to success… Life does not work that way. And instead of looking for answers all the time, my wish for you is that you get comfortable living the questions.

Novogratz’s four pieces of advice, synthesized:

  1. Focus on being interested, not on being interesting — don’t fall for status, seek opportunities that help you grow. (Cue in Paul Graham on prestige.)
  2. Focus more on listening and learning — the rest will come.

  3. Don’t worry about what other people think of you. (Cue in Hugh MacLeod on ignoring everybody.)
  4. Take risks. Ask the “dumb” questions. Fail if you have to, and then get up and do it again.

  5. Avoid cynicism. Pessimists can tell you what’s wrong with the world, but it’s the optimists who set out to change it. (Cue in E. B. White on the duty to elevate rather than lower down.)
  6. Inspiring hope in a cynical world might be the most radical thing you can possibly do. Hope may not feed us, but it is hope that sustains us.

  7. Build on what came before. (Because we know creativity is combinatorial, everything is a remix, and giving credit matters.)
  8. Before you finished getting out of bed, brushing your teeth with clean tap water, putting on clothes, making breakfast, turning off the light, walking out the door, you are benefiting from the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals from all around the world. They all deserve your spirit of generosity. So walk with humility and reverence for the human endeavor, and know it’s your job to help take that endeavor forward.



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