Blog 3: Let there be light, or, data transmission

Blog 3: Let there be light, or, data transmission

What intrigued me the most in Blum’s chapters 5 & 6 is the science of internet, where he finally talks about how fiber optic cables work to enable the internet. The way Blum has described it, the internet is wired like a nervous system across the world, where geography matters. While Blum has not made the connection clear, the early infrastructure of the telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse (1791-1872), has great influence on the development of the internet. Blum has only briefly touched on the telegraph when he spoke of Porthcurno (or Porth Kernow) and the Telegraph Museum.

[By the way, an interesting read: The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers]

Many of us might not know digital information can be transmitted through signals. Early technology uses electronic voltage to carry binary information. Modern internet uses optical signals because they are faster and less likely to get lost during transmission. Here, provides a quick technical description of how optical transmission works:

Electrical signals from digital circuits (high/low voltages) may be converted into discrete optical signals (light or no light) with LEDs or solid-state lasers. Likewise, light signals can be translated back into electrical form through the use of photodiodes or phototransistors for introduction into the inputs of gate circuits.


Through fiber optic technology, data are transported by light pulses. As Blum simply puts it, light goes in on one end, and out the other. It is this simple mechanism that enables the most basic of the internet.

And what I saw was not the essence of the Internet but its quintessence––not the tubes, but the light. (p. 163)

This adds another layer to our understanding of the physicality of the internet. Surely we have considered the material conditions of the internet––tubes and fibers and human labor––we have yet to discuss how the internet relies on physics––the nature and properties of matter and energy––to work.

Light, as ever present and yet invisible to us, carries all that we communicate through the internet. Maybe it is this philosophical notion of presence and invisibility that contributes to how we used to see the internet as magic.

My questions for this week are:

  • How might we make visible what is invisible about the internet (tubes, light pulses, undersea cables)?
  • What are the effects of internet conglomeration? (Consider Blum’s review of Tata Communications)

Blum, A. (2012). Tubes: A journey to the center of the internet. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. [Chapters 5 & 6]


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