Inside the Walls of Tech and Architecture — Alumni Profile, Andrew Blum ’99.

Architecture and technology writer Andrew Blum ’99 may have started his journalism career writing about cookies, but he now answers questions as big as “where is the internet?”

Inside the Walls of Tech and Architecture — Alumni Profile, Andrew Blum ’99.
In his over two decade journalism career, Blum subjects have included art, architecture, technology, design, travel, and even a profile on Brad Pitt. Photo courtesy of Andrew Blum ’99.

In the May 8, 1996 edition of The Student, there appears an article headlined “Shotgun With Sugar Jones: An Evening With The Cookie God.” When I reached out to the author of the piece, Andrew Blum ’99, to ask his interest in being profiled, he responded with a resounding yes, and requested a copy of his article from the archives, if it was convenient. But he hardly needed to see the article: He remembered its headline word for word and his estimation of its publication date was just a semester off.

In “Shotgun With Sugar Jones,” Blum details a night spent riding around with Sugar Jones, the leader of a late-night hot cookie delivery service (think Insomnia before Insomnia). By shadowing Jones, Blum hoped to uncover some of the services’ mysteries: “Who are these brave men and women who set out to deliver cookies to the masses? Where do the cookies come from? … How are those cookies cooked?” he wrote in the article. This commitment to unearthing the inner workings of everyday infrastructure continues to be reflected today in Blum’s work as an architecture and technology writer.

Books and Buildings

Blum came to Amherst certain he wanted to major in English. In high school, Blum loved literature classes and spent time editing the school paper.  He fell in love with “the Amherst idea of, you know, sitting by the fireplace reading books,” though this warm-toned, old-academia image doesn’t quite align with Blum’s vibe. As a journalist, he has written about solar panels, semiconductors, and the first iPhone, just to name a few. When I spoke to him last week, his salt-and-pepper hair and navy, gray, and white plaid shirt cut cleanly through his blurred Zoom background.

Blum chose Amherst in part because he found the town lively, as opposed to other small liberal arts colleges located in the middle of nowhere. The college’s successful alumni was also a big draw. A friend of his older sister landed a publishing job in New York after graduating from Amherst a few years before he began here. “I kind of was really impressed by that,” he said.

The spring of his first year, Blum began forming his own approach to writing. In a 20th-century poetry class, he analyzed language syllable by syllable, trying to break down how it functioned. He broadened his vocabulary and challenged his use of diction.

A European studies class gave Blum the opportunity to explore the opposite end of this spectrum. Instead of scrutinizing each syllable in a poem, “Great Books Part II” demanded rigorous analysis of classics like “War and Peace” and “Madame Bovary” presented in one-page papers to be turned in each Tuesday morning. Blum has distinct memories of Monday nights with his friends, Anya and Eric, mulling over what they were each going to write about in their papers. Blum wrote his papers on Tuesday morning before the 11 a.m. class, but never went to bed on Monday night without having an idea of what he wanted to say. After finishing his paper in the morning, he printed it and ran across campus to turn it in to legendary Professor of Philosophy William Kennick, who Blum claims, “was a much harder grader then than almost everybody else was.”

“[The “Great Books” course] definitely changed the way I think about sitting down to write and it changed the way I think about what it means to actually say something substantial in your writing,” Blum told me.

Blum did major in English, but he also filled many of his class slots with Art History courses. He studied with American art and architecture Professor Carol Clark and Italian art and architecture Professor Nicola Courtright. In a research seminar on campus architecture with Clark, Blum and his peers worked on excavating what would become the foundational information for Blair Kamin ’79’s architectural tour book “Amherst College: The Campus Guide.” Through a Cornell study abroad program to Rome, Blum expanded his knowledge of architecture, which would become integral to his career.

Blum’s “Cookie God” article was part of a brief stint at The Student, but Blum was also involved in other writing on campus. He dedicated much of his time to literary magazines. He also played pick-up basketball with his friends and wandered around campus stopping into his friends’ rooms to see who was around.

“It was obviously pre-cell phone … just try to find people was a sort of defining experience that I don’t think exists anymore,” he said.

As I spoke with Blum about his time at Amherst, I pointed out to him his overwhelming use of “we” as his pronoun of choice. He chuckled at the observation but answered my curiosity earnestly. He did have a distinctly close group of friends, he remembers, though they have come and gone in his life since graduating. But one in particular has stuck around — his wife, Davina Pardo ’99.

Pardo and Blum met in their senior year, after Pardo transferred to Amherst the year before and Blum returned from his spring abroad, in what Blum and I agreed was a Val meet-cute. They were eating together at a table with friends, when everyone excused themselves and left the two of them sitting alone. After a minute, Pardo said she had to go to class and left, but then sat down at another table. A few weeks after that, they started dating. “She’s a little bit apologetic about it,” he said, but it seems to have worked out. They now have two kids, aged 11 and 14.

Blum’s English thesis was a fortuitous bridge between his English coursework and postgraduate pursuits. When I asked Blum about the work, it took him a second to gather his words, because he still “live[s] with a lot of these ideas in [his] writing normally.” He eventually told me that his thesis explored sense of place in American literature, specifically in “Continental Drift” by Russell Banks and “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau. Blum was working on his thesis during a theoretical transition in literary analysis. Foreshadowing how his later work would push the envelope, Blum did not shy away from imposing the new wave approach onto his old school close reading techniques, “with a fair amount of tension with my advisor over how to do that,” he added.

Designing a Career

After graduation, Blum and Pardo moved to New York, Blum’s hometown. In a logical pursuit of his two passions, Blum spent a year working mornings teaching an English class at his former high school (Ethical Culture Fieldston School) and afternoons in the Architecture and Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art. Simultaneously, he worked towards his longer-term dream of writing about architecture by letting contacts in the industry know he was looking for work and eager to write. This landed Blum his first story: a Q&A with the new dean of MIT School of Architecture and Planning.

Blum in PPE inside the plant.
For a piece on the semiconductor shortage in “Time Magazine,” Blum got suited up to visit a semiconductor fabrication plant. Photo courtesy of Andrew Blum ’99.

One of Blum’s first published stories as a freelance writer was on the sustainable features of George W. Bush’s new ranch country house in Texas. He was in a lecture at the Architectural League of New York, where he was an intern at the time, when an architect from Austin presented on the construction of the new house. Images of the house had never been published, which showed “all these sustainable features — it had all of this high tech for the time, green design, which seemed totally remarkable ... especially running against Al Gore, the opposition couldn’t have been clearer.” Blum pitched the story as a Talk of the Town piece to The New Yorker and they took it.

The role of fortuity was not lost on Blum. “It was like a huge break that I was sitting in this lecture, and I was like, ‘Wait a second, you’re designing a house for George W. Bush?’” he said.

After a year in New York and some time traveling, Blum and Pardo moved to Toronto, Pardo’s hometown, where Blum began a graduate program in geography at the University of Toronto. This way, Blum could study urban planning and urban theory, without design. With 50,000 students, the university was quite different from Amherst, but Blum loved it, nonetheless.

“It was exactly what I wanted from graduate school, which was a continuation of a lot of the deep thinking that I had done in Amherst, but more subject-based,” he said.

This was in the fall of 2001. He recalls his first day of class being September 10, “I guess,” he pondered, “to be a New Yorker, an American in Canada in this pretty Marxist geography program in fall 2001 … that was really distinct.” Looking back on this moment in his life as a graduate geography student, he wondered: how are things being arranged, or rearranged, globally?

“Tubes” and Beyond

Fast forward a decade to 2012, and Blum was publishing his first book, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.” Almost like a tech spinoff of Blum’s thesis, the book examines the sense of place of the Internet, or more plainly, where and how is the Internet located in real literal physical space?

“Tubes” was the first of its kind in terms of thinking about the physicality of the Internet. Blum explained this achievement with sincere modesty. In some ways, “Tubes” helped pave the way to the creation of media studies. In the years leading up to the book’s publishing, there was no journalistic or academic material to be found about the subject of the internet. Blum added that the final chapter of the book is about Facebook and Google and it’s “very critical.” Yet again, very little criticism of these platforms existed at the time.

Blum said he was proud of how his work energized the conversation around the power that Facebook and Google have, which has now become “obvious and widespread.” I asked him if his work ever becomes scary, to which he gave a rather bureaucratic answer, but tagged on, “among the things that journalists write about, I don’t see this as a very dark one.”

Blum published his second book in 2019, “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast,” exploring the infrastructure of weather forecasting through the who, what, and why. He is currently working on a new book about the infrastructure of the transition to renewable energy.

His over two-decade career has been guided, more than anything, by a personal quality: Blum loves to learn. “I’m entirely driven by my curiosity … almost everyone is more interesting than you expect them to be.” Surprisingly, Blum’s inquisitiveness is his primary tool, and the English major comes second. “Writing is never not painful, but the reporting process is never not interesting.”

“The idea of being able to add something to the world,” Blum said, “gives me an abstract, but real sense of purpose.” Explaining how things like sustainable energy and the internet function may be more high-stakes than how warm cookies get delivered. But the ethos of Blum’s work has remained the same: All of those Amherst students in the late 90s, as well as all of his readers now, understand more about the world around them because of Blum’s work.