INTERVIEW: Andrew Blum Wants to Know Your Internet

INTERVIEW: Andrew Blum Wants to Know Your Internet

The author of Tubes discusses how to improve broadband access, why we should treat Internet infrastructure as a common utility, and why he wants to bring the virtual back into place.

Andrew Blum has written about cities and technology for a host of outlets such as Wired and Urban Omnibus, but has most recently taken his interest in these topics to book form. His recently published book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, explores the geography of our digital universe.

This evening, Blum will speak at the Philadelphia Free Library. Reached by email, Blum talks with Next American City’s Diana Lind about the connection between urban life and the web.

Next American City: A lot of people have written about the virtual communities and online cities that mimic our real-life neighborhoods. Your book flips the discussion and talks about the very real locations of seemingly intangible and less-discussed Internet infrastructure. Why was this approach more appealing to you?

Andrew Blum: In my own thinking, I can never escape the power of place. I had a strong hunch that the physical adjacencies and clusters that drive everything else also had to apply to the Internet — and that absolutely turned out to be the case. But even more than that, I was sick of sitting at my desk, looking at the world through the prism of my screens. I wanted to know what, and who, was out there. In that sense, Tubes is very much my own effort at bringing the virtual back into place. 
NAC: So the “cloud” is not this ethereal and weightless thing, but actually a series of buildings in cities where the Internet comes out of the ground. You note that in some cases — such as high-frequency trading — being extremely close to where Internet is located is an advantage. Are there other advantages or disadvantages to being close to the Internet?

Andrew Blum Credit: TypePad

Blum: The major advantages of being close to “a lot of Internet” are cost and speed. At the wholesale level, Internet bandwidth is cheapest and most abundant where there are the highest concentrations of networks — just like air travel is cheaper from hubs than second- and third-tier cities. We’re often insulated from that by the giant cable companies, who have their own nationwide networks. But looked at the other way, we’re beholden to their monopoly partly because of this price variation. ISP’s need to connect to the Internet too, and that’s cheaper and easier some places compared to others. Leveling this out — the piece known as the “middle mile” — is a big part of improving broadband access overall.
NAC: Many new cities in Asia and other regions are now incorporating Internet infrastructure as they’re being built. While this will make communication technologies easier to implement, do you think this is an overall good thing for urban development?
Blum: There’s no doubt we need a lot of fiber-optic cable, everywhere. (Even wireless is only a solution if there’s fiber to back it up.) And I also believe that Internet infrastructure should be treated more like a utility, with common pipes. That’s what will lead to more choice, which we desperately need. I don’t see any downside for incorporating Internet infrastructure in urban development. Certainly I don’t think anyone still believes the Internet is only for the wealthy.
NAC: Your book closes by suggesting that the World Wide Web might become a little more local, with people eventually using email servers other than Gmail and more boutique Internet providers. Sounds like what has happened in response to factory farming and globalization. What do you think will drive that trend?
Blum: “Local nets” strike at the core philosophical idea that defines the Internet’s infrastructure: The global network is only the aggregate of local connections. Embracing that is potentially empowering for us, as well as for communities. The farming metaphor is apt: I like to say that at the moment, we’re consuming the Internet equivalent of iceberg lettuce. We don’t even know what else is out there! The first step, certainly, is knowing more about where our Internet comes from. Just as with food, once we come to terms with that, we’ll begin to recognize the subtle but profound advantages to be had with a higher class of Internet service, that’s also a source of pride for its community.

Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: philadelphiainfrastructurecivic tech

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