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I attended one of the LSE open conferences yesterday evening. The speaker, Andrew Blum, an architect and journalist at Wired US, presented his new book: Tubes, behind the scenes at the internet. He told of his journey into the material, sensorial and social aspects of the internet infrastructure.

What did Andrew Blum discover in his journey? That internet exchanges are centrally located: Lower-Manhattan in New York, Canary Wharf in London. That they are hosted in imposing buildings with a telegraph and telephone pedigree. That inside they are cool, noisy with a persistent smell of burnt rubber, that becomes smell of earth in the basement where cables come out of the ground and enter the building. That they are part of local internet/telecom districts that bring together operators, service providers, suppliers, manufacturers. And that they are where network engineers and cables meet and connect to each other.

Internet exchange buildings are the nodes. It is here that direct connections between pairs of networks, agreed in the boardrooms, are established.

Connecting the buildings/nodes are cables, laid out underground along existing infrastructures, like railways or roads. Surprisingly the emerging map of the physical  internet starts resembling a traditional map with cities, where internet exchanges are, and railways along which cables run.

The picture is made slightly more complex by transoceanic cables linking the continents and following the coastline of Africa. Transoceanic cables and underground cables meet in landing stations, that Andrew Blum describes as “very similar to lighthouses”. Their location is not different from where telegraph and telephone cables were, so much so that all cables reach the English coast in one Cornwall cove.

Data-centres are the final element of internet. They are either close to internet exchanges or located in remote areas with excellent power supply and favourable cold climate. Andrew Blum visited Facebook and Google datacentres both in Oregon and some 120 miles apart. The former is a beautiful building with an expressive architecture. The latter is an ugly, anonimous, functional building that the author was not allowed to visit. Looking at the most recent internet exchange and data-centres, Andrew Blum sees the emergence of a more confident architectural language to give flesh and bones to internet.

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