By Nicole Starosielski
Reviewed by Jason Crider
The Undersea Network offers media scholars a deep investigation of the massive underwater fiber-optic cable infrastructure that makes possible the contemporary networked world. While the digital network is often envisioned as an immaterial “cloud,” Nicole Starosielski goes to great length to uncover and catalogue the tangible physical foundations through which our data and communications travel, as well as the often-severe ecological consequences of their material and scale. Borrowing from Alan Liu, Starosielski argues that a digital network “subtracts the need to be conscious of the geography, physicality, temporality, and underlying history of the links between the nodes” (qtd. in Starosielski, 3). By exposing these consequences, The Undersea Network “reintroduces such a consciousness, one might even say an environment consciousness, to the study of digital systems” (3). For Starosielski, undersea cables inhabit countless environments simultaneously, maintaining a fragile balance across not only “natural,” geographical ecosystems, but across social, political, historical, and other manufactured systems as well. As such, the title refers simultaneously to the literal cable infrastructure that spans our oceans, as well as the book’s “methodological intervention: to see networks as always embedded within complex and multidirectional circulatory practices—not a static territory, but a fluid environment in which our connections must be both insulated and grounded” (21).
In the preface, “Edges”—a network theory term referring to the link between two locations—, Starosielski narrates an experience at Electric Beach, in O’ahu, Hawai’i. The cable landing here operates not only as a “critical node” that connects a number of countries’ networks across the Pacific Ocean, but also the site of a tent city for local residents displaced as a result of the “modes of spatial organization” that enable its existence (ix-x). This somber moment echoes the boots-on-the-ground methodology Starosielski employs for the remainder of the book, and gives a small taste of the surprising, and often touching, discoveries brought to light in this groundbreaking work.
This book also features a companion website application, Surfacing, an interactive map of undersea cables, which “provides a nonlinear way to access our undersea network, one that is geographically rather than narratively oriented” (xiv). The site works as a standalone composition, and includes a rich archive of information, photographs, and errata that don’t fit within the tidy confines of the print book. Every chapter opens with a series of keywords that link the print book to Surfacing, transforming the book into an interactive and multimodal network.
Starosielski approaches the “invisible” transoceanic cable networks in each chapter by detailing various environments these cables exist in, and the relationships that emerge from this infrastructure. In doing so, she unveils the many flawed narratives surrounding our so-called wireless world, and in turn exposes the turbulent political, historical, and geographical structures that enforce them.
Chapter 1, “Circuitous Routes: From Topology to Topography,” outlines the historical and geographical logics of transoceanic cable placement. It chronicles three major epochs: the late nineteenth century telegraph routes that followed existing trade networks and colonization; the proliferation of telephone cables and their relation to the postwar political landscape; and the current moment of fiber-optic cable infrastructure and its entanglement with private enterprise and global capitalism. The underpinnings of our present network rely on the long-standing undercurrent of its telegraphic past, which forged “a balance between the need to interconnect with existing populations and infrastructure and the affordance of an area’s natural and social topography” (31). By tracing out our current fiber-optic routes to their copper and colonial roots, Starosielski lays the foundation for the remainder of the book.
Chapter 2, “Short-Circuiting Discursive Infrastructure: From Connection to Transmission,” deconstructs what Starosielski identifies as the two primary mainstream accounts of cable infrastructure: connection narratives and disruption narratives. Connection narratives “trace the development and initiation of the cable, aligning this event with a transcendence of national boundaries and the easing of international conflicts,” (23) whereas disruption narratives “describe an unexpected disconnection of the cable and detail the threats not only to transmission but also to a broader cultural order” (67). Starosielski identifies both narratives as “speculative fictions,” that only account for the moment of cable initiation, and thus deny their active and operative qualities: “since they fail to attribute significance to operational systems, these narratives actively obscure undersea cables in the public imagination: our inability to perceive cables is structured into the very stories intended to communicate information about them” (67).
Chapter 3, “Gateway: From Cable Colony to Network Operations Center,” delineates the shifting history and geography of Pacific cable stations, and outlines the ways colonization, militarization, and “spatial practices of operation, upkeep, and labor” continue to inform our current global oceanic cable system (97). Through a careful exploration of the physical infrastructure and complex labor relations that support connections across cultural and political borders, this chapter details how the network developed from laborers’ bodies to include increasingly expansive architecture. In doing so, Starosielski “delineates how the perceived boundaries of the cable station have shifted--from body to architecture to knowledge--and by shaping contours in cable environments, have anchored the undersea network in these sites” (98-9).
Chapter 4, “Pressure Point: Turbulent Ecologies of the Cable Landing,” looks at cable landings as sites of conflict and turbulence. When cables surface through coastal environments and communities, “local actors can induce turbulence in the system,” and consequently “have produced disproportionate effects across the network” (24). Understanding the various vulnerabilities and “turbulent ecologies” detailed in this chapter ultimately “mean that cable routes remain resistant to change, and information flow, funneled through such pressure points, continues to be affected by the materiality of the world it traverses” (169).
Chapter 5, “A Network of Islands: Interconnecting the Pacific,” analyzes Guam, Fiji, and Yap, and the impact that these islands’ insular qualities have on transoceanic networks, revealing how “networks and islands are mutually constituted” (173). Starosielski reads these locations in terms of the critical roles they play in the undersea network, collapsing their geographic distance into a tightly braided connectedness. The new storytelling presented in this chapter problematize the “connected vs. disconnected” paradigm to generate new models, and in turn “further substantiates the topography established throughout the book: technical networks of cable systems are both anchored in and stabilized by their surrounding environments” (174).
Chapter 6, “Cabled Depths: The Aquatic Afterlives of Signal Traffic,” details the undersea network’s long-term impact on oceanic knowledge, and chronicles the relationships among marine scientists, telegraph cable industries, and the U.S. military-industrial complex. While previous chapters primarily revolve around the digital materiality of the cable infrastructure and surrounding social practices that inform and emerge from it, this final chapter focuses instead on “the institutional and epistemological interconnections that have inflected cable development” (25). Starosielski identifies the undersea cable network as a porous and versatile technology that exists as a fluidity across culture, the communication of information, and environment.
As our global information network continues to grow, the environmental consequences of our data infrastructure will become increasingly apparent. In this shifting landscape, The Undersea Network’s intervention marks a critical moment for those invested in studying and improving the ecologies of our communication. Ultimately, Starosielski’s groundbreaking work serves as a crucial methodology and vocabulary for digital media scholars to better subvert the problematic myths of our information networks. The Undersea Network provides new ways to acknowledge, investigate, and when necessary, challenge the endless contingencies from which the Internet emerges.
Brennan, S., Loyer, E., & Starosielski, N. (2016). [Interactive map of undersea fiber-optic cable infrastructure]. Surfacing. Retrieved from http://www.surfacing.in.
Pound, Liu. (2013). “The amoderns: Reengaging the humanities.” A feature interview with Alan Liu. Amodern 2: Network archaeology. http://amodern.net/article/the-amoderns-reengaging-the-humanities/.
Starosielski, Nicole. (2015). The undersea network. USA: Duke University Press.