Friday, June 1, 2012

Terry Gross Convinces me to Read About the Physical Nature of the Internet. I Spot Part of It on Wisconsin Avenue While Going for Soup.

Because I use a car more for work, I find myself listening to the radio when I previously might have been reading. But sometimes the car makes me read more.  I find myself traveling a lot during Fresh Air (11 am and 7 pm on WUWM), a show I would have previously had to listen to online, and then before the internet, just heard about. That's because there was a time it wasn't aired in Milwaukee.

Fresh Air is one of the few media contacts that I remember back from my publishing days (thirty years ago) that really hasn’t changed much. I just looked at the masthead and there were Danny and Phyllis, the folks to whom I would send my author pitches, by mail, mind you. I’m not sure I ever got someone on the show in the years that I worked in publicity, but they were always the most gracious of rejecters, even to publicity assistant.

Later promoted to assistant publicist.

Later promoted to associate publicist.

Later promoted to junior lieutenant associate assistant publicity manager.

It’s almost odd to think that Terry Gross can still generate so much enthusiasm, such intellectual curiosity, for whatever subject she is discussing, whatever icon of the arts she is interviewing. I want to read every book, spend hours watching every cable show, and listen to every track of whomever she has on the show. Fortunately this desire usually dissipates; the world gets in the way. But I’m always amused by the folks who call from their cars between 11 am and Noon. “Do you have this book?” they ask? “I want to read it now.”

Yesterday I turned on the radio in the middle of an interview with Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. His thesis is that while we don’t think of the internet as a place, and in fact laughed at Senator Ted Stevens for calling it a bunch of tubes, that’s pretty much what it is.

Blum explores the physical presence of the internet, exploring data centers and network stations, and explains how it happened that in a development that was supposed to be the end of place, place matters more than ever.

But it was his name-dropping of Milwaukee that really hooked me. On a visit to see the place where they print the internet networking map, on the northwest side, a friend told him to check out what has become a regional data transfer center downtown. It wasn’t on purpose; the purported telecom hotel they were renovating on Milwaukee Street a decade ago was just torn down to build a hotel. No, this is just an old office building where there’s a device wired to get 25,000 customers onto the internet. And as more and more companies clustered here, they slowly drove out the lawyers and dentists.

And it so happened that our Harper rep was selling the fall list (the folks who publish this book, under the Ecco imprint) and she had just heard the piece too. And I had come into the story late and couldn’t figure out what he was doing in Milwaukee. And my confusion about the center was fed into her info that it was one of only about a dozen in the country, but she was referring to the giant printing press.

I wound up reading Andrew Blum’s Tubes straight through. There are two things that are fascinating about his journey. The first was how much physical nature there is to the internet. What we think of is nothingness is in fact miles of cables, buildings full of switching centers, and massive data centers. Blum visits all the historical centers of this technology, noting that a surprising amount is simply the next, next, next, next generation of the telegram.

And the other thing is how open much of it is. The internet was built on trust. It only works if the addresses and pathways are public. If not, you can’t get the information. And while there’s a lot of security in say, the Docklands, where much of Europe’s routers lead to (you should not be surprised to hear that the #1 most travelled path is New York to London), it’s only when you get to Google that everything becomes shrouded in secrecy and doubletalk. Yes, Google maps obscures its own data center. What we need is a competitive mapping company focusing on Google!

It’s strange to think that Google is basically grabbing information about our lives, from personal data to maps of our homes, and yet mumbo jumbos its way out of providing access to not just reporters, but to elected officials. As the handler told Blum when he noted disappointment: “Senators and governors have been disappointed too!” And how about this scripted lunch conversation: “Can you tell Andrew what you like about working at Google and living in The Dalles?”

It’s light years away when Blum visits the new Facebook Center in Prineville. Where Google is closed, Facebook winds up being open, more in the spirit of the Internet itself. Cablevision winds up similarly closed off, but this appears to be more the exception than the rule.

As I was yapping about this book to our pal Mike, he noted that Tubes would normally be something I was not interested in (technology) but in the end, sort of winds up being something I am interested in, some sort of weird hybrid of cultural history, travel writing, and even urban planning. And then I noted that per Blum, the switching station was just a block north of where we were eating. It really does somehow seem both exciting and shocking that everyone knows where it is.

So I spent a day reading a book and it wasn't even connected to an upcoming event? Yikes. And while Blum is not coming near Milwaukee, here's a list of his stops if you happen to be reading this blog from one of his tour markets.

No comments: