60 Hudson Street | Photo: Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons, CC0 (Public Domain)
On Monday, I read this little fluff-post about “the questions each state googles more than any other state,” which is a strangely specific category, but led to an interesting question. No, not “Is Ted Cruz the Zodiac Killer?” (thank you Idaho), but Texas’s question “Where is the internet?”
“The internet is a network of networks,” says Andrew Blum, author of “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet” — a book that literally answers the question Texas wants to ask. If you really want to know about the internet, you should read that book, or at the very least, listen to this 2012 interview from NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
The internet has a lot of hardware, and that hardware is connected by a whole lot of cables, which meet at a whole lot of interchanges. Think of an interchange as something like the router in your home: your router allows your two laptops and cellphones and roku to all use the same connection. An interchange is like that, except that the laptops and cellphones are actually massive networks run by Google or whoever, and instead of hanging out in a shoebox under the stool in your front hallway, they’re the size of a skyscraper, hanging out in New York or Mumbai or wherever the thousands-of-miles-long undersea fiber-optic cables pop out of the ocean.
Here’s a great description from that same interview, where Blum describes 60 Hudson Street in New York (seen above), one of the biggest interchanges in North America, where the majority of transatlantic cables pop out:
“It’s essentially… a building-sized jumble of wires, one network connecting to another network… It’s been very important for the telephone as well. And so there’s this mix of these incredibly high-tech, brand-new, very high-capacity machines, and then these old banks of copper wires and switches. … Like that’s the place where Deutche Telecom connected all of its calls to the US… And the contrast is incredible. It’s amazing that we think of the Internet as a high-tech, sterile place, and some of its places are, but this place is the complete opposite, it’s sort of this great old art deco palace.“
And no, the internet isn’t at 60 Hudson Street, that’s just one of its exchanges, its hubs. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of places like 60 Hudson, all over the world, connecting networks to networks, which are all connecting data centers where your “cloud” storage lives in hard drives in real life, connecting you to Netflix to Nextflix’s storage over at Amazon data centers, to your bank and your bank’s bank, connecting your bitcoin miners to your bitcoin users and your bitcoin startups.
If you want to know where your data is, well, it’s probably in a few places at once, because Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. But if you want to know where the internet is? It’s in your phone. In your laptop. It’s in your ISP’s building. It’s in the interchange your ISP connects to and the interchange that interchange connects to. It’s in the undersea cables connecting interchanges. It’ll even be in the telecoms satellites Elon Musk wants to put up to avoid those undersea cables, and the unmanned planes Facebook wants to use to beam internet access to under-served areas.
The internet is a distributed network of networks, with infrastructure connecting you to everyone else all over the world.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.