: New: Book Report: The Undersea Network

It's a book about undersea cables: telegraph cables, coaxial cables, fiber. That sort of thing. The examples are from around the Pacific. And the examples are pretty sweet. The author chased down a fair amount of stuff that's usually kept quiet. Along the way, there's fun bits of communication tech lore. There's human stuff, too. Telegraph cables started out as a way to connect colonizers with colonies; cables nowadays can put cloudy abstractioneers unknowingly in conflict with the real world.

A factoid: someone at a conference said that 60% of all cable breaks are from ship anchors and trawls. The main danger to cables is from folks dragging anchor or fishing fleets trawling nets along the bottom of the ocean (with huge weights, e.g. old train wheels(!), on them to make sure they hug the ocean floor—unfortunately, also thus digging through the muck to sever buried cables). Now that we coat cables in stuff that tastes bad, sharks aren't still biting through them.

Cables excite folks, because communication is awesome; cables make folks nervous, because spying is bad:

On the whole, however, there remains a fundamental conservatism in the cable industry that dates back to the telegraph era, and many of the companies remain aligned with, though not beholden to, national governments. One can see this quite clearly in the emergence of Huawei Marine, a Chinese cable supply company that was launched in 2008 to compete with American and French cable suppliers. After Huawei Marine signed a contract to build Hibernia Atlantic's Global Financial Network Project Express from New York to London, along one of the most heavily trafficked routes in the world, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee released a report warning of the risks of using a Chinese supplier and suggesting that equipment could be used to tap content. Hibernia Networks subsequently halted its work on the cable system and shifted to a U.S. vendor, T.E. SubCom. The historical emphasis on the security of individual systems and the dependence on established technologies, routes, and players has made undersea cable one of the most reliable communications technologies in the world, yet at the same time it has kept the cable network's geography one of the most static in the history of communications.

An academic wrote this book for other academics to take seriously. You will bump into language like "Like nodal narratives, stories about transmission extend the spatiality and temporality of cable discourse to…" Which academic field, you ask? Media Studies. This leads to some unexpected nooks and crannies: some of this book is about cables, but some of it is about creative works/reports/ephemera/media on the topic of cables. (I'm still hoping for a book on undersea-cable-snagging grappling hooks written by some, uhm, historian of mechanical and/or nautical engineering or somesuch. But Media Studies turned out to be a surprisingly interesting lens through which to look at these cables.) Wading through the academic palaver is worth it. There's the story of Fiji: it got hooked up to communications networks as a colony. It gained its independence, but was still important since it was on the network. Later on, a coup overthrew the governement and disrupted cable traffic. Folks who'd routed communications through Fiji sought backup plans. Post-coup, those folks kept using their backup routes, didn't want to pay to route through Fiji; Fiji had an unreliable reputation. Lesson learned: when overthrowing your government, let the cables be.

And a chapter about how cable-laying and undersea exploration have complemented each other. Scientists chart the ocean bottoms. Cable-layers use this information to choose better routes. Scientists use old undersea cables to send measurements from undersea instruments up to land-based labs.

This book is a survey. E.g., it's neat that it mentions SOSUS, but if you want to learn more about it, you'll want to look elsewhere, e.g. in Listening for Leviathan.

You can get quite a bit of this book's goodness online, though it requires some poking around and exploring: Surfacing.In has a fair amount of photos, maps, and musings.

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