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Discover the physical side of the Internet

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    I've always written primarily about architecture,
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    about buildings, and writing about architecture
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    is based on certain assumptions.
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    An architect designs a building, and it becomes a place,
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    or many architects design many buildings, and it becomes
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    a city, and regardless of this complicated mix of forces
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    of politics and culture and economics that shapes
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    these places, at the end of the day, you can go
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    and you can visit them. You can walk around them.
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    You can smell them. You can get a feel for them.
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    You can experience their sense of place.
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    But what was striking to me over the last several years
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    was that less and less was I going out into the world,
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    and more and more, I was sitting in front of my computer screen.
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    And especially since about 2007, when I got an iPhone,
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    I was not only sitting in front of my screen all day,
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    but I was also getting up at the end of the day
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    and looking at this little screen that I carried in my pocket.
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    And what was surprising to me was how quickly
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    my relationship to the physical world had changed.
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    In this very short period of time, you know, whether you
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    call it the last 15 years or so of being online, or the last,
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    you know, four or five years of being online all the time,
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    our relationship to our surroundings had changed in that
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    our attention is constantly divided. You know,
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    we're both looking inside the screens and we're looking
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    out in the world around us.
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    And what was even more striking to me, and what I really
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    got hung up on, was that the world inside the screen
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    seemed to have no physical reality of its own.
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    If you went and looked for images of the Internet,
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    this was all that you found, this famous image by Opte
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    of the Internet as the kind of Milky Way, this infinite expanse
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    where we don't seem to be anywhere on it.
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    We can never seem to grasp it in its totality.
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    It's always reminded me of the Apollo image of the Earth,
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    the blue marble picture, and it's similarly meant to suggest,
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    I think, that we can't really understand it as a whole.
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    We're always sort of small in the face of its expanse.
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    So if there was this world and this screen, and if there was
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    the physical world around me, I couldn't ever get them
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    together in the same place.
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    And then this happened.
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    My Internet broke one day, as it occasionally does,
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    and the cable guy came to fix it, and he started with
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    the dusty clump of cables behind the couch,
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    and he followed it to the front of my building and into the basement and out to the back yard,
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    and there was this big jumble of cables against the wall.
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    And then he saw a squirrel running along the wire,
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    and he said, "There's your problem.
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    A squirrel is chewing on your Internet." (Laughter)
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    And this seemed astounding. The Internet is
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    a transcendent idea. It's a set of protocols that has changed
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    everything from shopping to dating to revolutions.
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    It was unequivocally not something
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    a squirrel could chew on. (Laughter)
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    But that in fact seemed to be the case.
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    A squirrel had in fact chewed on my Internet. (Laughter)
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    And then I got this image in my head of what would happen
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    if you yanked the wire from the wall and if you started
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    to follow it. Where would it go?
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    Was the Internet actually a place that you could visit?
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    Could I go there? Who would I meet?
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    You know, was there something actually out there?
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    And the answer, by all accounts, was no.
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    This was the Internet, this black box with a red light on it,
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    as represented in the sitcom "The IT Crowd."
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    Normally it lives on the top of Big Ben,
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    because that's where you get the best reception,
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    but they had negotiated that their colleague could borrow it
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    for the afternoon to use in an office presentation.
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    The elders of the Internet were willing to part with it
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    for a short while, and she looks at it and she says,
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    "This is the Internet? The whole Internet? Is it heavy?"
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    They say, "Of course not, the Internet doesn't weigh anything."
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    And I was embarrassed. I was looking for this thing
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    that only fools seem to look for.
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    The Internet was that amorphous blob, or it was a silly
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    black box with a blinking red light on it.
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    It wasn't a real world out there.
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    But, in fact, it is. There is a real world of the Internet out there,
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    and that's what I spent about two years visiting,
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    these places of the Internet. I was in large data centers
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    that use as much power as the cities in which they sit,
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    and I visited places like this, 60 Hudson Street in New York,
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    which is one of the buildings in the world,
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    one of a very short list of buildings, about a dozen buildings,
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    where more networks of the Internet connect to each other
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    than anywhere else.
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    And that connection is an unequivocally physical process.
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    It's about the router of one network, a Facebook or
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    a Google or a B.T. or a Comcast or a Time Warner, whatever it is,
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    connecting with usually a yellow fiber optic cable up into
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    the ceiling and down into the router of another network,
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    and that's unequivocally physical, and it's surprisingly intimate.
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    A building like 60 Hudson, and a dozen or so others,
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    has 10 times more networks connecting within it
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    than the next tier of buildings.
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    There's a very short list of these places.
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    And 60 Hudson in particular is interesting because it's home
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    to about a half a dozen very important networks,
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    which are the networks which serve the undersea cables
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    that travel underneath the ocean
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    that connect Europe and America and connect all of us.
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    And it's those cables in particular that I want to focus on.
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    If the Internet is a global phenomenon, if we live
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    in a global village, it's because there are cables underneath
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    the ocean, cables like this.
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    And in this dimension, they are incredibly small.
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    You can you hold them in your hand. They're like a garden hose.
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    But in the other dimension they are incredibly expansive,
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    as expansive as you can imagine.
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    They stretch across the ocean. They're three or five
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    or eight thousand miles in length, and
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    if the material science and the computational technology
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    is incredibly complicated, the basic physical process
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    is shockingly simple. Light goes in on one end of the ocean
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    and comes out on the other, and it usually comes
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    from a building called a landing station that's often
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    tucked away inconspicuously in a little seaside neighborhood,
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    and there are amplifiers that sit on the ocean floor
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    that look kind of like bluefin tuna, and every 50 miles
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    they amplify the signal, and since the rate of transmission
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    is incredibly fast, the basic unit is a 10-gigabit-per-second
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    wavelength of light, maybe a thousand times your own
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    connection, or capable of carrying 10,000 video streams,
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    but not only that, but you'll put not just one wavelength of light
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    through one of the fibers, but you'll put maybe
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    50 or 60 or 70 different wavelengths or colors of light
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    through a single fiber, and then you'll have maybe
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    eight fibers in a cable, four going in each direction.
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    And they're tiny. They're the thickness of a hair.
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    And then they connect to the continent somewhere.
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    They connect in a manhole like this. Literally,
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    this is where the 5,000-mile cable plugs in.
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    This is in Halifax, a cable that stretches from Halifax to Ireland.
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    And the landscape is changing. Three years ago,
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    when I started thinking about this, there was one cable
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    down the Western coast of Africa, represented
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    in this map by Steve Song as that thin black line.
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    Now there are six cables and more coming, three down each coast.
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    Because once a country gets plugged in by one cable,
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    they realize that it's not enough. If they're going to build
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    an industry around it, they need to know that their connection
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    isn't tenuous but permanent, because if a cable breaks,
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    you have to send a ship out into the water, throw
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    a grappling hook over the side, pick it up, find the other end,
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    and then fuse the two ends back together and then dump it over.
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    It's an intensely, intensely physical process.
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    So this is my friend Simon Cooper, who until very recently
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    worked for Tata Communications, the communications wing
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    of Tata, the big Indian industrial conglomerate.
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    And I've never met him. We've only communicated
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    via this telepresence system, which always makes me
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    think of him as the man inside the Internet. (Laughter)
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    And he is English. The undersea cable industry
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    is dominated by Englishmen, and they all seem to be 42.
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    (Laughter) Because they all started at the same time
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    with the boom about 20 years ago.
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    And Tata had gotten its start as a communications business
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    when they bought two cables, one across the Atlantic
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    and one across the Pacific, and proceeded to add pieces
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    onto them, until they had built a belt around the world,
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    which means they will send your bits to the East or the West.
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    They have -- this is literally a beam of light around the world,
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    and if a cable breaks in the Pacific, it'll send it around
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    the other direction. And then having done that,
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    they started to look for places to wire next.
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    They looked for the unwired places, and that's meant
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    North and South, primarily these cables to Africa.
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    But what amazes me is Simon's incredible geographic imagination.
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    He thinks about the world with this incredible expansiveness.
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    And I was particularly interested because I wanted to see
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    one of these cables being built. See, you know, all the time
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    online we experience these fleeting moments of connection,
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    these sort of brief adjacencies, a tweet or a Facebook post
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    or an email, and it seemed like there was a physical corollary to that.
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    It seemed like there was a moment when the continent
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    was being plugged in, and I wanted to see that.
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    And Simon was working on a new cable,
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    WACS, the West Africa Cable System, that stretched
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    from Lisbon down the west coast of Africa,
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    to Cote d'Ivoire, to Ghana, to Nigeria, to Cameroon.
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    And he said there was coming soon, depending
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    on the weather, but he'd let me know when,
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    and so with about four days notice, he said to go
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    to this beach south of Lisbon, and a little after 9,
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    this guy will walk out of the water. (Laughter)
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    And he'll be carrying a green nylon line, a lightweight line,
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    called a messenger line, and that was the first link
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    between sea and land, this link that would then be
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    leveraged into this 9,000-mile path of light.
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    Then a bulldozer began to pull the cable in from this
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    specialized cable landing ship, and it was floated
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    on these buoys until it was in the right place.
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    Then you can see the English engineers looking on.
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    And then, once it was in the right place, he got back
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    in the water holding a big knife, and he cut each buoy off,
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    and the buoy popped up into the air, and the cable
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    dropped to the sea floor, and he did that all the way out
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    to the ship, and when he got there,
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    they gave him a glass of juice and a cookie,
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    and then he jumped back in, and he swam back to shore,
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    and then he lit a cigarette. (Laughter)
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    And then once that cable was on shore,
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    they began to prepare to connect it to the other side,
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    for the cable that had been brought down from the landing station.
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    And first they got it with a hacksaw, and then they start
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    sort of shaving away at this plastic interior with a --
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    sort of working like chefs, and then finally they're working
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    like jewelers to get these hair-thin fibers to line up
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    with the cable that had come down,
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    and with this hole-punch machine they fuse it together.
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    And when you see these guys going at this cable with a hacksaw,
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    you stop thinking about the Internet as a cloud.
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    It starts to seem like an incredibly physical thing.
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    And what surprised me as well was that as much as this
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    is based on the most sophisticated technology, as much
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    as this is an incredibly new thing, the physical process
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    itself has been around for a long time, and the culture is the same.
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    You see the local laborers. You see the English engineer
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    giving directions in the background. And more importantly,
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    the places are the same. These cables still connect
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    these classic port cities, places like Lisbon, Mombasa,
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    Mumbai, Singapore, New York.
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    And then the process on shore takes around three or four days,
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    and then, when it's done, they put the manhole cover
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    back on top, and they push the sand over that,
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    and we all forget about it.
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    And it seems to me that we talk a lot about the cloud,
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    but every time we put something on the cloud,
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    we give up some responsibility for it.
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    We are less connected to it. We let other people worry about it.
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    And that doesn't seem right.
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    There's a great Neal Stephenson line where he says
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    that wired people should know something about wires.
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    And we should know, I think, we should know
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    where our Internet comes from, and we should know
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    what it is that physically, physically connects us all.
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    Thank you. (Applause)
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    (Applause)
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    Thanks. (Applause)
Title:
Discover the physical side of the Internet
Speaker:
Andrew Blum
Description:

When a squirrel chewed through a cable and knocked him offline, journalist Andrew Blum started wondering what the Internet was really made of. So he set out to go see it -- the underwater cables, secret switches and other physical bits that make up the net.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
closed TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
11:59

English subtitles

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