The Undersea Network, by Nicole Starosielski

John Gilbey is fascinated by the unseen fibre-optic communications cables that gird the globe

March 5, 2015

In the early 1970s, as a teenager, I attended an event in the unfamiliar surroundings of a science lecture theatre at the University of Southampton. It was part of an outreach programme by what was then the British Association for the Advancement of Science, exposing school-age students to concepts and developments intended to intrigue and challenge them. The topic that night was straight out of science fiction: the novel technology of optical fibres and how the new medium might be used to transmit information across surprising distances with minimal power.

 

This was the stuff of Isaac Asimov: technology in the service of mankind, information travelling (literally) at the speed of light across the globe. The evening’s highlight was the unveiling of a drum of the new wonder material, a hand-made sample several hundred metres long that was used to connect a video camera and a black-and-white monitor on opposite sides of the stage. The camera scanned the scene, the fibre relaying the image to the monitor. When the house lights were lowered, an eerie ruby glow bathed the bench as the raw, uncoated fibre leaked a little of its laser light into the air. We were impressed, and slightly sceptical. How were we to know that there wasn’t a more conventional cable hidden somewhere? To prove his point, the speaker picked up one end of the fibre and effortlessly snapped it. The monitor erupted with white noise as the signal was lost.

I was enthused by the power of the technology, but naturally had no idea that, within 20 years, fibre-optic cables based on this material would begin to be strung across the ocean floors of the world, building an infrastructure that would render the existing copper-based networks obsolete and make the rapid global development of the internet possible. Nicole Starosielski discusses this revolution, and much more, in a fascinating book that is part history, part travelogue and part socio-economic memoir.

It would be easy to think of the oceanic cable network as an essentially Victorian technology, the product of hard-eyed men with stovepipe hats and improbable whiskers. But throughout The Undersea Network, Starosielski, a media and communications scholar, brings home to us that the true nature of the beast is not static – it is a continually developing and evolving entity. Cable networks are not “fit and forget” systems: they have to be monitored, managed, repaired and, ultimately, replaced. From manually delivering the comparatively low bandwidth of hand-keyed Morse code telegraphy, to enabling today’s multi-gigabit digital pathways, there has been a thread of almost continuous technical and operational development, albeit with some of the practical lessons learned in the time of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his contemporaries remaining as valid today as they were more than a century ago.

Connecting continents with cable technology requires an impressive degree of collaboration, cooperation and pragmatism – and it is clear from Starosielski’s text that the path has not always been easy, especially as much of the world has moved from a rigidly colonial to a sometimes chaotically independent culture. Running connections between two land masses that, in essence, fly the same flag – “Copper Cable Colonialism”, as the author puts it – is one thing. But it is another matter entirely to negotiate with a flurry of new nations, whose concepts of territoriality will inevitably be sensitive, for the landing of a new cable and establishment of support facilities, as corporate culture replaces colonial mechanisms. Starosielski’s elegant narratives attest to the struggles, negotiations and conflicts that emerged between service providers and host nations during the early post-colonial period. Of these, her discussions of the impacts on both the staff of remote cable company outposts and the local, newly technological communities are especially rewarding.

She also considers how changing network technologies and topologies reflect the evolution of the political and economic map of the world. While some regional hubs for cable networks, such as Fiji, continue to accrue benefits from their role as transit points and aggregators, significant emerging routes reflect new realities. Arctic Fibre is developing a route that will link the UK and East Asia via the Bering Strait and the newly open northern coasts of Canada and Alaska; similarly, the BRICS Cable project promises a southern route between South America, South Africa, India and China, without the infrastructure going near either Europe or the US. All are impressive advances on the late Victorian cable routes such as the All-Red Line, which linked nearly all the British colonies and landed only on British-flagged territory.

Perhaps the most engaging part of Starosielski’s book relates to her fieldwork visiting a number of cable installations across the Pacific Basin. Exploring these remote sites, often with the assistance of local people, allowed her to see for herself the places where the sinews of the internet creep from ocean to beach to technical centre almost unregarded. Typical is the case of the Nasugbu cable landing in the Philippines, which The Undersea Network illustrates with a photograph of a wave-washed alleyway between two huts: critical infrastructure and public, social space rubbing along together in an apparently unordered manner. While never losing her researcher’s perspective, Starosielski shows great skill in capturing the personal narratives of the individuals she meets and explores with on her travels – both company employees and local people whose personal space overlaps that of the cable industry. This helps to build a solid image of the way social and cultural influences interact with the operation and lurking presence of the cable networks.

The vulnerability of transoceanic cables is obvious, operating as they do in a hugely hostile environment. At the interface between land and sea, they need to be protected from the depredations not only of human activity – especially trawl fishing and anchoring ships – but also of weather and shoreline erosion. Further offshore, tectonic activity, mudslides and other natural events can do expensive damage. The potential impact of the cable infrastructure on the environment is also a key consideration, and Starosielski cites in detail the extensive practical as well as legislative obstacles that a new cable landing has to overcome to win approval in a Western country such as the US. In an interesting aside, the text discusses what can happen to the redundant cable when it is taken out of service – with one significant element becoming an artificial reef off the Maryland coast.

Socially and economically, we are now highly dependent on this almost invisible technology and the companies and individuals who manage it. In the post-colonial – and presumably the post-9/11 – period, considerable emphasis has been placed on “hardening” the cable network infrastructure against attack. Previously rather relaxed access has now become much more restricted, and facilities are protected by concrete emplacements reminiscent of the Cold War era. This itself is a reflection of the increasingly vital role of the global cable network.

Starosielski’s account makes for fascinating reading, drawing together the varied threads of history, technical complexity, economic power and political will that have shaped the world’s cable networks. Despite the scale of the infrastructure under discussion, the narrative remains intensely personal, and one to be enjoyed.

The Undersea Network

By Nicole Starosielski
Duke University Press, 312pp, £68.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780822357407 and 7551
Published 20 March 2015

The author

Nicole Starosielski, assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, grew up in suburban Springfield, Massachusetts. “My mother worked for Continental Airlines and my father was a commercial photographer. I spent many years in his studio, using Photoshop to colour-correct digital photographs and clone out imperfections. My mother’s job made it possible for us to travel around the world, our trips last minute and dependent on which flights had open seats.”

Starosielski’s early interests in transportation networks and digital manipulation converged in The Undersea Network and a related digital project, Surfacing (http://surfacing.in). She says, “I don’t think the monograph is an outdated format. There are plenty of important reasons to keep books around; I’m sure The Undersea Network will last longer in the library than Surfacing will on the internet. Surfacing affords more interactive possibilities, dynamism in the content and connections to visual material, but demands a different kind of engagement from the user.”

On her initial interest in this book’s subject, she recalls, “When I was working on my PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was exposed to research in marine science, coastal cultural geography, the oceanic humanities and environmental media. Inspired by this work, I began a dissertation on underwater media, broadly construed, including everything from Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries to subsea remote operated vehicles.

“My dissertation adviser, Lisa Parks, worked on satellite systems and suggested that I might include undersea cables in the mix. I thought at first, ‘Those are old and boring, why would I do that?’. But once I realised that all our transoceanic internet traffic depended on these systems, and yet most media and communications scholars believed it was wireless, I turned my entire focus to submarine cables.”

Starosielski took all three of her degrees in California: her BA at the University of Southern California, and her master’s degree and doctorate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

What is her view on the budget cuts besetting the University of California system, and its impact on the institutions’ work?

“I definitely share the widespread concern about the UC system. When I was doing my doctoral work there, budget cuts were regular occurrences, ranging from graduate funding reductions to faculty furloughs. The activism around these cuts was substantial.

“But instead of withdrawing from work, faculty educated the students about the UC system’s financial operations and the California budget crisis. In a sense, it was a moment of infrastructural education, one in which we all became acutely aware of the eroding system we were dependent upon.”

Has she found a difference – cultural, academic or otherwise – between institutions in California and those in the East, such as NYU?

“The biggest difference that I’ve experienced across these universities has been the split between public and private institutions. For this reason, among others, the University of Southern California and New York University are quite similar. The departments tend to be independent; the schools are interwoven with the media cultures of the cities in which they are located; and the job comes with all of the privileges of being at a private school.

“At UC Santa Barbara, the campus was radically interdisciplinary, a centre of intellectual culture in the area, and the faculty (at least in my experience) were highly committed to the education of the students and to the improvement of the university. So in many ways the particular histories, economic structures and cultural environments of these universities seemed more influential than the East Coast/West Coast divide. That said, the warm weather is always nice to return to!”

Karen Shook

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