Inside Books: The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski

The Undersea Network
By Nicole Starosielski
Duke University Press, 2015

Despite our efforts to go “wireless,” we live in a world that is more wired than ever. Submarine cable systems — not satellites — are responsible for carrying 99 percent of all transoceanic digital communications, including phone calls, texts, emails, websites, and digital images and videos.

These little-known undersea fiber-optic cables are critical infrastructures that support our global network society, says Nicole Starosielski, assistant professor of media, culture, and communication and author of The Undersea Network.

“The book traces how today’s digital circulations are trafficked underground and undersea, rather than by air, through winding cables the size of a garden hose. The cables follow paths that are tried and true, often following the contours of earlier telegraph and telephone cables,” writes Starosielski.

A 2009 visit to Hawaii propelled Starosielski’s journey across the Pacific to track the telegraph, telephone, and fiber-optic cable routes from North America through islands that have been critical to transpacific networking and to economic centers across the ocean.  The reliability of these systems is seen as essential for business, the functioning of governments, and national security.

The Undersea Network illustrates the complicated relationship between media, the environment, and cultural history. Accompanying the book is an interactive digital mapping project (surfacing.in), where readers can trace cable routes and view photographs and archival materials.