Inside Chicago’s Tech Startup Scene, and Its Tubes
* I've been reading Andrew Blum's Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, his chronicle of the Internet as physical infrastructure. One of the things I like about it is that the title is a defense of the late Alaska senator Ted Stevens, whose declaration that the Internet is a "series of tubes" made him a laughingstock a few years ago. But: he was kind of right.
Bits sail through a worldwide network of fiber-optic cables and come together in junctions where Internet providers connect their pipes to the networks of others. Blum’s transcontinental journey exposes some of the important issues confronting the Internet, such as the occasional disconnect between the interests of the corporations who control the physical pipes and the good of the network as a whole.
Stevens wasn't the first person to point this out—if I recall correctly, the Blue Man Group compared how it connects us all to a sewer system. But it is a series of round conduits with physical limitations. And in Crain's John Pletz has a neat piece about how Chicago is an important physical hub of the Internet, which touches on one of my favorite aspects of Chicago: how the new Chicago is laid upon the foundation of the old, and how its economic past feeds into its future:
Chicago is one of the half-dozen key vertebrae in the nation's digital backbone because it lies at the center of many of the fiber optic cables that stretch between New York and California, the country's major connection points to the rest of the world via cables under the oceans. Chicago has the third-biggest fiber optic capacity of any metro area in the country, behind New York and Washington. And three of the world's largest data centers are in Chicago or its suburbs.
And just like Chicago's position as a transportation center—long the case for similar geographical reasons—is at risk because of insufficient infrastructure investment, its digital future is in a similar juncture:
"Chicago is by far the center of railroad tracks in the U.S.," says Chris Gladwin, CEO of Cleversafe Inc., a data storage company based in the West Loop. "If you're hosting a server, Chicago is near the population center in the U.S. It will have the lowest average latency (lag time) to the rest of the U.S."
But the region can't take its position for granted. Unless the public and private sectors insist on further increasing high-tech infrastructure — adding lanes to our digital expressways, if you will — the city's fiber-dependent businesses could slowly disappear, much like the grain elevators and mills that used to line the Chicago River.
The frictionless virtual world is still brought to you by a real, physical infrastructure, and in many ways it follows the same rules that built the city in the first place.
* The Atlantic's excellent Renaissance man Alexis Madrigal is on a tour of Startup Nation, and after covering the South he's doing the center: Chicago, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh. He's filed a few dispatches from Chicago already, which are well worth reading. There's a map of the tech scene, centered around the Merchandise Mart (remember what I said about the new Chicago being laid on old Chicago's foundations), a view from VC, and a defense of the "Midwest Mentality" (update: in response to David Lepeska's new Chicago piece, which will be online shortly):
But I'd like to suggest, as the Web 2.0 fad fades, that perhaps Chicago has had the right idea all along. Google, after all, wasn't really a business-to-consumer play, though it looks like one; their customers have always been businesses who wanted to market things to customers with purchase intent. They're a corporate middle man, a nuts-and-bolts provider of more efficient advertising.
As Groupon, the leading light of the local scene, struggles with its role in that industry, that's where Andrew Mason is, trying to learn it from the other side.
Photograph: Steve A Johnson (CC by 2.0)