It’s Tuesday at the office. You’ve had a glance at all your favorite news sites, sifted through emails and responded to a few. Perhaps your Google calendar has prompted a meeting, and over instant message, you’ve invited your mom to lunch. When your work is done, you order takeout online and stream your favorite TV show. It’s a perfectly normal and satisfying day.

We rarely think about the everyday mechanics that make such a routine possible: As our technology becomes smaller, lighter, more portable—even wearable—chunky cables and plugs have come to be viewed as ugly and passé. Our television is swiftly moving from cable to online streaming; our cellphones no longer have buttons. Our computer hardware systems have become all but invisible, tucked behind high-definition flat screens. Terms like “wireless” and “the cloud” have led us to imagine—if we ponder it at all—that our communication travels swiftly through the air overhead.

As appealingly sleek and ethereal as that sounds, the truth is a bit—well, soggier. In reality, about 99% of transoceanic communication is transported through an intricate network of undersea cables, cables that bind the earth and traverse our oceanic floors—where they lay insulated beneath miles of ice cold, shark-infested waters—and surface on remote beaches and cable stations across the globe.  

book cover: The Undersea Network

In the The Undersea Network, the first comprehensive study of our elusive deep-ocean cable trails—from the telegraph to the fiber-optic era—NYU media, culture, and communication professor Nicole Starosielski draws attention to the grounded, physical nature of our Internet infrastructure. Even within the fields of media communication or data study, Starosielski says, the myth that satellites support Internet traffic is a powerful one. “Satellites are really used for imaging the earth and the distribution of television, but they’re not really used for the Internet if there are cables available,” she explains. “So really what I wanted to convey was how important these cable systems are.”

In the The Undersea Network Starosielski outlines the logistics of laying cables from one point to the next, describing how they are physically pulled from the ocean before being connected to a station. For isolated settlements like Tahiti, this activity is often cause for celebration, a rite of passage into a faster and more connected global community. The 2010 landing of the Honotua cable from Hawaii prompted festive ceremonies with men and women dancing in traditional garb.

Starosielski uses her background in the humanities (she has degrees in film studies) as well as her interest in environmental science to consider cables from almost every angle—be it geopolitical or ecological. She traces cable history from pre-colonial trade routes to the industrial revolution, when the maps were redrawn with telegraph and telegram networks. Documenting the cultural and symbolic significance of cables, she explores their portrayal in media and popular culture—from the colonial era, when cable stations were celebrated beacons of progress, to the Cold War, when cables were sites of competition, to our own era, in which the fiberoptic cable network remains culturally invisible even as it operates right beneath our noses. The project includes an interactive mapping site, surfacing.in, where one can explore how the undersea network connects major economic centers: California to Hawaii, Hawaii to Fiji, Fiji to New Zealand, New Zealand to Australia, Australia to Singapore. In building it, Starosielski recreated her own experience of traveling to 40 different installations, or nodes, in the Pacific alone, gathering visual and archival materials from each site.

At her Washington Square office, Starosielski keeps handy a small piece of fiber-optic cable. Coated in clear plastic and sprouting thin, transparent threads of the kind sometimes used for quirky color-changing night-lights, it fits snugly in her hand. Its physical presence shatters what Starosielski calls the “fantasy of dematerialization”—that stubborn belief that our phone conversations and emails are swirling somewhere above us, dispersed into the atmosphere.

NYU Stories sat down with Starosielski to learn more about how so much information can be trafficked through such a small thing—and about how cables make the (online) world go round.  

—Anneke Rautenbach

photo: portrait of Nicole Starosielski

Why do you think most people know so little about the physical infrastructure behind the Internet?
People who have theorized about infrastructure have said that it’s always been part of the background. We don’t tend to see wires or roads or systems—we’re not often conscious of them. Another reason is that the cable industry doesn’t court much publicity because it’s very concerned with security—there’s a belief that you can have security through obscurity. You don’t want to give your competitors any information, either. Companies like AT&T that have been enormously influential on our undersea network, but do you ever hear about their network? Do they release information about it? Do they publicize it? No.

By contrast, there was a lot of publicity for telegraph systems. People would show up at the landings, help pull the cables out of the ocean—it was a moment to be celebrated, commemorated. You were going to be connected, finally. Today, in places like New York City, we assume that connection. But if you are on a remote island and you have never had a cable and have always relied on satellite traffic, your awareness will be piqued because of your lack of infrastructure. Just like if you don’t have a highway near your house you know how important highways are because you have to drive so far to get to one.

You write that damage to the undersea cable network could destabilize entire economies. How is it most vulnerable?
The greatest risks of damage have always been human risks—fishermen, shipping vessels, boats and anchors have always posed a larger threat than earthquakes, tsunamis and aquatic creatures on the sea floor. Of course there have also been plenty of instances where earthquakes have triggered undersea landslides, and there have been instances of old telephone cables getting strung between hills and whales getting tangled up in them. But that’s infrequent, especially compared to the amount of cable breaks that are caused by shipping—mostly caused by a ship dropping anchor on a cable, or fishing nets dragging across the ocean floor and breaking one.

How often does that happen?
There’s a cable break about every three days, but you wouldn’t know it. Most of the time these don’t have a major effect because traffic is rerouted.

Who’s in charge of maintaining this network?
Right now there isn’t much coordination among government agencies and owners or investors in cable industries. I’m hoping that with more coordination among agencies we could relieve pressure points—the very narrow channels a lot of our Internet traffic goes through, making it all the more vulnerable. For example, Australia and South Africa both have many cables, but they tend to land in only one or two areas. In Australia it’s Perth and Sydney, so the entire country’s traffic is basically funneled out of those two spots. If we had more diversity in routing, and more diversity in who was using undersea cables and who was aware of them, that could potentially open up space for a more resilient but also a more equitable network.

What role did cables play in the Edward Snowden scandal revealing National Security Agency surveillance of private communications?
Tapping has always gone on at cable stations. In the telegraph era there was censorship and interception of messages at cable stations and that continues today. That was what the Snowden leaks were about: the NSA and Government Communications Headquarters were tapping in at undersea cable stations to monitor and screen messages. They weren’t necessarily blocking anything, as you see happening in some countries, but they were monitoring cables. That happens because you only have a few cable points where everything goes. True or not, everyone began to perceive the U.S. as a place where their traffic was being monitored. So now new routes are being formed in order to avoid the U.S. One route goes from Brazil to Portugal, I believe. Another is Arctic Fiber—it goes over the north of Canada between London and Tokyo and has a circuit that does not land on U.S. soil.

How have different coastal communities reacted to a cable’s arrival?
I love the story about Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, where the country’s first transpacific telephone cable landed. Because it was the time of the Cold War, the station was buried underground to protect it from attack, so a thoroughfare for the cable had to be dynamited through a reef. Since then, the hole in the reef has become a major attraction for scuba divers and snorkelers, and is dubbed the “Telephone Cable Channel.”

Another of my favorites is the story of the Honotua Cable, which is only the latest in a series of cultural links between Hawaii and Tahiti, stretching back to ancient times. Legend has it that long ago, the Tahitian queen lived at what is now the cable landing site, and the cable has re-established the route that she used to travel to and from Hawaii. There is a plaque at the site, part of which reads: “To revive these ancient connections, Honotua was made: The submarine cable that connects Tahiti to Hawaii. After quietly undulating in the deep sea, it has landed here, at Mamu. (silence). Hopefully human ignorance will dissolve into silence and only knowledge will be conveyed.”

Incidentally, the name is also important: “hono” means link, and “tua” means back, backbone, or far ocean.

What most captivates you about the ocean?
From the time I’ve spent on the ocean, both underwater as a scuba diver and above its surface on boats, I’ve been really fascinated by how it experientially reorients our sense of movement and capacities. It takes so much work to hold things in place in the ocean, to counteract its currents and flows. And in many ways that mirrors some of the issues we face with our contemporary information sphere—the problem is not how to get things to circulate, necessarily, but to get them to circulate regularly, predictably, in the ways that we want them to. It’s a non-human force that we don’t just struggle against, but harness.