Tubes by Andrew Blum

A nice, quick intro to the physical infrastructure of the internet. Doesn’t really go into how all those pieces work — there’s no discourse on the technology behind a router — but does build a mental image of the boxes, buildings, and people that keep the world connected.

Three things I learned:

  • ARPAnet’s first Internet Message Processing machine was installed at UCLA in 1969. The machines were manufactured on the East Coast, but only West Coast universities were open to the idea of the network at the time.
  • In 1998, The Netherlands passed two laws to pave the way for fiber everywhere. One law required landowners to give up right of way for holes to be dug, second law required any company digging a hole to lay fiber to also let other companies lay their own cable in the same hole and share the costs. The one-two punch made it cheaper and easier to lay fiber, and also blocked anyone getting a monopoly.
  • The busiest route in the world is between London and New York, with more internet traffic than any other line.

The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

An excellent antidote to the normal narratives of invention and progress.

But Edgerton isn’t a Luddite, or a cynic that doesn’t believe in progress.¬†Instead, he sets out to fill in the stories that normally get glossed over in normal histories: the importance of horsepower to the modern armies of World War II, the communities in West Africa that have grown up specifically to maintain the cars and trucks they inherit from the developed world using local materials, the resurgence in whaling in the 1920s and 1930s driven by demand for whale oil to be used in margarine. It’s fascinating, incredibly readable, and it changed the way I read stories of technical progress and achievement.

Three facts in particular stood out to me:

  • India and Taiwan produce more bicycles each year than the entire world did in 1950.
  • In 2003, the largest R&D spenders weren’t in biotech or the internet; they were car companies: Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, etc.
  • The rickshaw, which I always assumed was an old tech lingering in the modern world, was in fact only invented in 1870, in Japan.