Blog 1: The material conditions of the internet, or, the internet is no magic

Blog 1: The material conditions of the internet, or, the internet is no magic

Andrew Blum’s engaging introduction to the discussion about the physicality of the internet (as a thing rather than a concept) helps me see how the internet is afforded––as well as limited––by its own materiality. The internet as a tangible object is not an all-powerful force out there that moves through the air, electrifies machines, or digitizes words and pictures; it has a physical form––tubes and wires and plastics––that transmit data from one point to another. In other words, what the internet can and cannot do are constrained by what it is made of.

For instance, the tubes that are routed from continent to continent need to be made with materials that can withstand the elements of the nature, including ocean creatures and the treatment of time. In 2014, one of Google’s fiber optic cables undersea was reportedly bitten by a shark (as the video below documents).

Thankfully, this shark didn’t quite like the taste of the internet.

This thingness of the internet demystifies the internet as magic. The way Blum puts it, the internet is almost like something you and I can experience by touching, seeing, hearing, and even smelling and tasting it. (Ask Miss Shark above.)

As with all objects with physical properties, the internet occupies spaces. In Chapter 1, Blum focuses on the place of the internet. He travels across states to locate the hubs of internet. It is interesting to me that the discussion of materiality begins not just in the physical properties of the internet, but also the sense of its presence. Toward the end of the chapter, Blum writes,

Yet what’s so striking to me––and so often overlooked––is that each router is inherently present. Each router is a singular waypoint, a physical box, in a real place, on a packet’s journey across this real earth. Two billion people use the Internet from every country on earth […] The question “Where is the Internet?” should seem meaningless, because where isn’t it? (p. 34)

I was hoping for a deeper dive into a philosophical inquiry of the idea of presence, and how it tells us about the thingness of something. I think it would be interesting and helpful to unpack the notion that we get a sense of connectivity (or connectedness) when using the internet despite its lack of tangibility. But I also understand that kind of discussion is beyond the goal of Blum’s book.

In Chapter 2, Blum visits the history of internet development. I think this chapter is quite accessible and most of us have heard a thing or two about the ARPANET experiment and the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 (aka the Gore Bill). What stood out to me in this chapter is how institutional forces (Department of Defense, military research communications, etc.) became a material condition for the development of the internet. Think human needs, labs, machines, and the costs of maintaining all these.

Blum’s journey to uncovering the materiality of the internet invites many questions, among them I ask:

  • Thinking about the reality of the internet, what are some immediate concerns for the future of the internet? 
  • How does the materiality of the internet affect how we use it?
  • Provided that the history of internet development is largely written in the North American tradition (emphasis on US government and society), how have American values and practices impacted the way the world is using the internet today?

I look forward to our discussions in class!

Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A journey to the center of the internet. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. [Prologue, chapters 1 & 2]


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