NYU Steinhardt News

Faculty Research Spotlight: Nicole Starosielski Launches Companion Website to The Undersea Network

Nicole Starosielski, Assistant Professor of Media, Culture and Communications, researches the global distribution of digital media, and the relationship between technology, society, and the environment. Her book, The Undersea Network, examines the cultural dimensions of transoceanic cable systems, beginning with the telegraph cables that formed the first global communications network and extending to the fiber-optic infrastructure that carries almost international Internet traffic. Starosielski recently launched Surfacing, an interactive digital mapping project that allows users to explore the undersea fiber-optic cables that carry 99% of all transoceanic digital communications. She describes her research and the website in the interview below.

What inspired your research on undersea cables?
I was working on a PhD in Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara. That campus is situated right on the ocean, and there’s a significant amount of marine/aquatic research conducted there. In part out of interdisciplinary conversations with marine scientists, environmental studies scholars, filmmakers who were documenting the ocean (among others), I started a project on underwater media—which was going to include everything from undersea remote operated vehicles to oceanic documentaries. When I went to my advisor, Lisa Parks, she suggested that I look at undersea cables. At first I thought, “Those are so boring—and old,” but to follow her advice, I started tracking down the cable systems. When I realized that they carried almost all of our transoceanic internet traffic, and also realized that no one around me seemed to know this, the cables became the subject of the entire book.

Why did you develop the website as a companion to the book?
A website, especially a mapping site, offers a different set of affordances for conveying knowledge. While the book is linear (or at least many people will read it in a linear way), Surfacing allows its readers to skip across the network—jumping between nodes, between historical moments, and between cultural contexts. In doing so, my hope is that they will get a better sense of how our networks operate and how they are entangled in the environments around them.

How are readers using the interactive digital mapping project?
I think people are using it in classrooms, to teach students about our global network infrastructure or to teach them about digital mapping. In many ways, the site is a countermapping project—which I hope exposes some of the assumptions and limits of traditional mapping interfaces. As the user zooms in and out from each of the layers of Surfacing, for example, the scale shifts and the possibilities for interaction change. I wanted it to be a site that would make its users think critically about maps, even as it informed them about undersea cables.

What advice do you have for scholars engaging in transnational research?
When I began researching cable infrastructures, I wasn’t quite sure where to start—they span the globe, they’re often hidden and out-of-sight, and there’s not a lot of publicity circulated about them. One of the things that has been incredibly helpful for me has been to visit actual infrastructure sites in various countries. It was at these sites that I’d often get a sense of how these systems had developed, and would find information about their histories that wasn’t recorded in archives. The second thing I’d recommend for scholars who are interested in transnational objects and infrastructures is to get in touch with the international communities that produce such objects and maintain international systems. Almost every industry has a conference, and once I stumbled upon SubOptic and the Pacific Telecommunications Council, I quickly met the men and women who had helped to build our undersea network. They have all been incredibly helpful and generous, and I’ve found this connection to the industry itself a rewarding part of the research process.