Digital Humanities
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“At The Edge of the Network: Undersea Cables and Deep Infrastructure”, a presentation by Nicole Starosielski for CUNY Graduate Center

On Tuesday, March 8th, 2016, I had the opportunity to hear Nicole Starosielski speak in the CUNY Graduate Center Skylight Room about her new published book The Undersea Network and its corresponding GIS project component. Starosielski’s editorial involvement with the book Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures had intrigued me as to how the talk, titled “At the Edge of the Network: Undersea Cables and Deep Infrastructure”, would relate to contemporary media studies discussions. Rather than reiterate issues of how people relate to each other in the high-speed internet era, Starosielski presented a fascinating study of cultural impetus and environmental factors that allowed for a series of globally-installed undersea cables to cohere into a network uninhibited by normal patterns of geospatial distance.

To begin the presentation, Starosielski prompted the audience of about twenty to access the web address on their laptops, a web site which she explained was the mapping corollary to The Undersea Network. Her exact instructions were to “try and find me” in the mapping interface, the challenge of which became clear after I visited the site. The website explained, “In Surfacing, you are a signal traveling across the undersea network . . . From your landing point, you can traverse the Pacific Ocean by hopping between network nodes.” I noticed that the landing point that generated for me —Nakhodka, Russia—was actually a different “node” entirely from the Portland, Oregon spot that Starosielski had pulled up on her display screen. The permutations of Surfacing ultimately seemed to be part of her point, exhibiting the technical relationships between the 184 network cable landings in the Pacific and how they extend beyond traditional scale and model.

As Starosielski herself explained in the presentation, Surfacing was designed as a “counter visualization” that maps nodes of the cable network system. The kind of mapping she was interested in, though, made use of layers that were uniquely annotated to provide context for why cables might have been laid over in each particular area or to explore more complex factors such as ecological histories and the inclusion of both antiquated and contemporary images to encourage a user to draw predictive conclusions about cable landing areas of their own accord.  Starosielski also emphasized that a Surfacing user is never able to see the entire cable map across the globe, although she was quick to point out that different descriptive mapping projects have laid out the cable network according to geographical distance between cable landing points. Instead, Surfacing clusters annotated locations by themes or narratives such as “security”, with the map becoming directed by the data moving in relation to each other.

This decision to forgo a trajectory guided by geospatial proximity reflects Starosielski’s interest in making Surfacing “an entangled vision” which might more accurately reflect the dynamism of cable-hopping as Starosielski sees it. One of the aspects of digital humanities networks that she mentioned interests her is how people construct network edges, and in the case of Surfacing it was important to conceive of how to construct vectors independent of time and place in a way that could still sustain the potential of narrative discovery. The idea of network edges as dynamic and layered vectors made me think of William Kretzschmar’s “GIS for Language and Literary Study”. Starosielski spoke of her initial intention for Surfacing to be a geographic representation of the conflicts surrounding the laying of the cable network. This meant constructing a geocoded map which might allow equal weight to each cable landing spot and — as I had discovered through navigating the interface myself — also allow the data to generate in dynamic ways each time it was accessed. Surfacing almost functions like a more lively Literary Map of Manhattan, correlating certain information to one geocode while still affording any number of user-directed narrative paths to take place.

Kretzschmar’s emphasis on layers seemed particularly applicable to Surfacing, with not only vector images layered atop each other (i.e. the world map beneath landing point photos beneath any supplementary historical photos that Starosielski had gathered) but also in how Starosielski detailed the original conception for the project as a “never ending loop” of information. She confessed that she had been unable to make it work, but Surfacing was supposed to have no top scale of information, a user would have merely cycled through theme layers and story layers and image layers until being returned to whichever layer they had chosen to begin with. In this way, she explained, the layering of Surfacing would have reflected the relatively of distance within the cable network.

Beyond the layering of content, Starosielski also discussed her reluctance to develop Surfacing as a conventional Cartesian mapping system. In this kind of map, geography becomes an enframing mechanism in the coordinates, but she explained, “What the cable network does is contorts the map in a way that actually makes these specific places much closer than geographic data.” In its final form, then, Surfacing orients the spectator in terms of cultural distance as opposed to geographic systems which are almost irrelevant given the speed of signals through a well-constructed cable network. Given her own terms, Surfacing reminded me of the uses of network tools discussed by Franco Moretti in “Network Theory, Plot Analysis”. Kinships are presented as part of a larger system for the purpose of investigating themes and power relationships, which in Starosielski’s work expressly speaks to the complex global negotiations surrounding information access and connectivity. In this way, Surfacing is on the one hand a mapping project — the view that demonstrates how traditional geospatial traveling distances do not apply in cable-hopping — but also constructed and studied in terms of a network project.

After Starosielski had concluded her prepared talk, she remained to answer a diverse array of questions such as insights into “secret government cables” or fascinating connections to other academic works like The Victorian Internet. These matters all cycled back into Starosielski’s greater argument that the current state of technological connectivity has precedent in cultural history studies going back decades if not centuries. To have supposed and subsequently built a way of monitoring the human, cultural impact on this most modern of all technological innovations, then, is a fascinating matter that I had never encountered until exploring Surfacing. Starosielski’s methods and questions stand as a testament to the significance of this kind of work.

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