On the Very Bones of the Wireless World

The Undersea Network changes our imagination of communications infrastructure, revealing how culture, politics and geography interrelate in the global circulation of technology.

Recently, I was teaching my first-year students about the technological displacement of workers. I asked my students to think about aspects of their lives that once were not but are now “technologized”. They shared things like, “I text my friends and family instead of calling them,” “I shop online instead of going to a store,” and “I use my phone to wake myself up instead of using my alarm clock.” Interestingly, all of my students’ examples connected with their use of digital communications technology, particularly smartphones.

In Internet-centric urban centers, lived reality is comprised by an ongoing and continuous engagement with technology. How will I find my way to that new café without Google Maps? How will I express my frustrations without the Y U NO Meme Generator? There has been an intensification of the intertwining of lived experience with the internet or internet-based technology.

Although we are unable to imagine our lives without the internet, we are also largely unable to imagine the actual technology that makes “the internet” a reality. Our understanding of technology is usually based on the goods that we purchase and use on a daily basis: wireless routers; laptops and smartphones; Bluetooth speakers. Because the majority of our engagement with wireless technology is used to do things like stream music, find our way around while we travel, and pay for coffee at Starbucks, we come to imagine technology as primarily ephemeral save the device in our hands. As a consequence, we have very little engagement with and even less understanding of the communications infrastructure that makes our wireless world possible.

In The Undersea Network, Nicole Starosielski changes the way we imagine wireless communications technology by making manifest the supposedly hidden infrastructure upon which our “wireless” world is built. The “undersea network” is Starosielski’s term for the numerous submarine cable systems that are buried in and under waterways throughout the world. These cable systems are vast: they travel throughout waterways, “landing” or coming ashore at stations placed on islands like Guam or Hawai’i or in locations with limited marine traffic and low current.

The undersea cable network is the backbone of the internet, and makes it fast and cost-effective. Yet, contrary to what we might assume about the origins of cable systems, they are not a 21st or even 20th century phenomenon. Starosielski emphasizes three eras of cable systems: the telegraph era, which spanned from the 1850s-1950s; the co-axial or telephone period, which ranged from the 1950s-1980s; and the fiber-optic period, which, spanning the 1980s to the present, comprises the cables that connect and maintain the Internet.

Most people, Starosielski says, do not know that these cables exist, nor do they know the extent of the undersea cable system, despite the fact that these same people rely on the very technologies that are powered by such cables. “Dissociated from our everyday lives,” she writes, “undersea cables are particularly difficult to connect to our imagination of media and communication.” The Undersea Network raises awareness about the existence and ubiquity of the cable system as well as the diversity of actors and activities that created and continue to maintain this vast global network.

Starosielski’s approach to undersea cable systems is a combination of critical ethnography and investigative history. The text is framed by a simultaneous revealing and countering of the dominant narratives of cable operations. These narratives, while infrequent, usually take the form of news articles covering “connection narratives”—the activation of a newly landed cable—or “disruption narratives”—the breakage of or injury to an existing cable. These two sets of narratives are hegemonic, comprising what is reported in and by mainstream media, but Starosielski problematizes these narratives as ahistorical and impersonal. In focusing upon either the initiation or disruption of cables, dominant narratives neglect to engage the day-to-day of cable operations.

In response, Starosielski offers what she calls a “nodal narrative” of cable systems. Nodal narratives aim to counter hegemonic ones by expanding “the static spatial and temporal parameters” that govern “cable history” so as to articulate that the story of cable systems is more fluid and open than history has allowed.

One such narrative is that of the human realities of cable systems. Starosielski details that the generation and maintenance of a cable station produces community, as a direct result of the manual labour and people power that create and maintain the station and network, especially in the early days. Cable stations were never autonomous; they “relied on and participated in local infrastructure and practices,” from tennis in Fiji to canoe races on Fanning Island. Today, cable stations are maintained by a long-term “small and insular” group of workers who maintain the network through shared experience, history, and knowledge.

Colonialism also touches the human reality of cable systems. In the early 20th century, the establishment of a cable station generated necessary relationships between workers and native islanders, some of whom worked at cable stations. Frequently, this was a relationship of “colonial ambivalence”. The inclusion of native islanders was one in which they were at once objects of exotic affection and subjects of the civilizing process that supposedly came with western technological development. By virtue of their role as labourers at cable stations, native islanders were both integral to and distanced from the cable community.

Another “nodal” narrative is that of how cable systems have always, and fundamentally, been contingent upon negotiations and often conflict between industry and local ecology. Currently, cable systems intersect with local geographies and environments, producing either political or practical frictions or threats to the stability of the systems.

In the first two eras, heat waves, hurricanes and technical difficulties were a frequent occurrence that presented challenges to workers stationed on islands. At present, in the fiber-optic era, networks intersect and conflict with local ecologies. Environmentalists in developed locations protest the landing of cables because cables and cable stations are thought to threaten wildlife habitat. In California in particular, objection to cable systems from an ecological point of view has generated a lengthy and expensive permitting process intended to slow or stop the development of cable systems.

In under- or less-developed locations, by contrast, “landing” a cable is far less restrictive because it is seen as a boon to the local economy via the establishment of jobs, infrastructure, and connectedness. Through this comparison, Starosielski shows that cable development is entangled with local policy and politics that generate either interference or allowance.

Starosielski’s “nodal” narrative approach also reconceptualizes the undersea cable network in terms of how the “imagined geographies” of the sites where cable networks come ashore. The undersea network circulates across and throughout oceans and islands: more than half of the extant nodes are located on islands. Yet, we imagine oceans and islands as isolated spaces. There are more cables on Guam than anywhere else. In making manifest the networked nature of islands like Yap and Guam, Starosielski helps us reimagine islands and oceans as nodes of connectivity. Starosielski shows how the perceived isolation and isolatedness of the island, as an idea, obscures its connectivity and networkedness, and is therefore a “strategy of insulation” that the cable industry can leverage to protect the system.

Accompanying The Undersea Network is a companion website, Surfacing.in, which offers a digital map of the cables systems and stations. At the time of this writing, the site is in beta mode, and so it’s a bit difficult to navigate and make sense of the site path. Though it only allows for a fragmented engagement, Surfacing.in allows users to engage visually with the myriad ways that cable sites and stations interface with local and historical economic, geographic, political, and ecological conditions.

The Undersea Network covers a fascinating global and historical terrain, uncovering not only the fallaciousness of a “wireless world”, but also the “long-standing relationship between media infrastructures, environmental processes, and cultural history.” Starosielski’s timely work demonstrates not only how cable systems are integral to the lived reality of everyday people but also to the global economic and financial systems. The operation of such systems hinges upon the ongoing and seamless operation of a massive but largely invisible network.

Starosielski offers a crucial intervention into theoretical conceptualizations of communications infrastructure. The Undersea Network challenges our sedimented understanding of technology as “rhizomatic”, “dematerialized”, and “deterritorialized” by revealing its centricity, concentratedness, and materiality. This rich text also has profound implications for how citizens in an always-networked society and economy understand our lived realities. The Undersea Network makes us reconsider the “wirelessness” of our world by admonishing us consider it in terms of its peculiar and ongoing connectedness to geographies, cultures, and politics.

RATING 8 / 10