Why You Still Don't Really Understand the Internet

Andrew Blum explains the internet; Gene Hackman explains the security state; and a 19th-century Scotsman explains the modern world.


At our October event, award-winning historian Amanda Vaill explained how fake news works and its disturbing origins. You can read the text of her important lecture here.


You might as well think that the cloud was an actual cloud, blowing information around the sky alongside airplanes, rainstorms and flocks of geese if you popped into the world just now without any understanding of where any of the internet came from. So maybe before you or anyone else you know become too crazed by the blockchain or the internet of things or any other tech marvel based on the exchange of data across a global network, try out this book for a chance to demystify those ethereal networks our tech conversations way too frequently gravitate towards: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum.

The thesis is simple, and might be a bit easier to get curious about if you’ve seen how recent techie shows like Silicon Valley riff on the massive, intimidating hulk of modern server farms. The internet is not a cloud: it lives in fiber wires and storage drives, servers and undersea cables. “The Internet has a physical reality, an essential infrastructure, a ‘hard bottom,’ as Henry David Thoreau said of Walden Pond,” writes Blum in the prologue. “In undertaking this journey, I’ve tried to wash away the technological alluvium of contemporary life in order to see—fresh in the sunlight—the physical essence of our digital world.”


And just as we can lay bare what the physical implications of the internet really are, we can do just the same about its social implications — over two decades before people really had to think about the world wide web and how good it can be at ensnaring its unwitting inhabitants. The Conversation, a Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece that won the Grand Pix at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, it is by all means worth a watch. (Also, Harrison Ford reprises a humorously small role in the movie; this was at a point in his career where he was still working as a small-time actor and carpenter for Coppola in the years after American Graffiti).

Gene Hackman plays the protagonist, Harry Caul, a spook with a budding conscious about the private jobs he takes that employ his staggering talent for surveillance to spy on random people. He has one job where his work for a client leads to a triple murder. Fast forward to the present, and he’s not crazy about going through with a job after he thinks he’s about to enable another kill with the evidence he has turned up bugging a couple in San Francisco. That, and the fact that Caul’s greatest fear is himself being spied on, bugged and otherwise be robbed of his privacy. It doesn’t take long for these two pressures to begin chafing against each other once his client becomes impatient; would Caul have even had a choice today?

ON THIS DAY IN 1876 . . .

He might have been born a Scotsman, but America usually gets to take credit. On this day in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for his roaring new invention: the telephone. Now, if you’ve watched The Sopranos episode where Tony’s family rants about all great discoveries that Italians do not credit for, you’d know that the invention of the telephone is high up on the list. But unfortunately, Antonio Meucci, the Italian immigrant who first announced his invention of the telephone in 1871, ran out of money to renew his patent claiming the telephone — though the U.S. Congress has since recognized him for his work. And Elisha Gray, an Oberlin College professor, applied for a patent for the telephone on the very same day as Bell but allegedly didn’t get his lawyer to the Patent office on time. He was two hours short of beating Bell.

Working for Western Union Telegraph Company, Gray and Thomas Edison did everything they could to thwart Bell’s new ambitions fueled by the telephone. In a case which reached up all the way to the US Supreme court, Bell successfully sued Edison and Gray for stealing his patented idea. The Bell Compnay emerged from the fray stronger than ever before, and would soon transform into what is still a behemoth company today — American Telephone and Telegraph, or AT&T. There might be a funny joke here about how Verizon is heir apparent to Edison and Gray in their fight to overtake AT&T, but the lesson is as staid and serious as ever: patent, patent, patent. (And make sure you can pay to keep it, or end up like poor Meucci.)