Life as one big, supersized blue sky……..We all picture it that way, right? (Cubs and Orioles fans aside, let’s just pretend we do.) And the internet is just one big fluffy cloud floating by unencumbered, ripe for the plucking. These days, at the time and place of our choosing, even.
That’s perhaps how most of us think of it, anyway. Writer Andrew Blum (Newsweek, Wired, Popular Science), for one, does not. Not anymore. And after you listen to his talk at TED this past June, you may change your outlook as well. The clip was filmed in Scotland and recently posted to TED.com.
After a squirrel chewed through his internet cable one afternoon, rendering him offline, Blum challenged himself to search for the physical internet. His two-year quest led to the publication of a book, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” in which he determined that the internet was, as he told Edinburgh, “unequivocally physical and surprisingly intimate.”
Of all the words used to describe the web and our relationship to it, Blum’s stand in stark contrast to the notion of the “cloud.” The center of the internet, it turns out, could be construed as any one of 12 major data centers across the globe in which networks connect to one another. Or perhaps it’s the thousands of miles of undersea cable that connects North America to Europe, Europe to Africa and so forth until a giant cable belt skirts the circumference of the planet, effectively holding up our very breeches of functionality.
(Yep, that’s how you spell britches. Correctly, anyway. Oh, speaking of cable-dependant functionality, watch the new show Revolution on NBC.)
So, Cubs and Os fans, take heart. Think of the internet as less blue sky/fluffy cloud, and more grimy steamer laying undersea cable. Heck, think of it as more hungry squirrel. After all, mankind essentially has transferred his consciousness/hopes/dreams/inner thoughts to the web…and we all know how squirrel-ly we can be.
Go to TED and watch the clip; it’s worth the time. And speaking of TED, some TEDx events are scheduled for Arkansas over the next few months:
More later. But in the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the transcript of Blum’s talk:
…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.
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?