The Undersea Network (2015) by Nicole Starosielski is a critical note on the materiality of global digital communication that is mostly associated with an increase in virtuality and dematerialization.
The cover shows two transoceanic cables emerging from the sea and lying partly visible at the coast while other part seems to vanish in the ocean’s depths. Starosielski, an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University, brings these cables to the surface following them from cable stations to landing sites, where they emerge, talking to telecommunication workers, station manager and residents. Why such a banal seeming issue?
The book starts with the observation that the undersea fiber-optic cables “transport 99 percent of all transoceanic digital communication” (p. 1). Despite of this This aquatic and rural infrastructure “remained largely invisible to the publics that uses them” (p. 3). This is not only by definition as she quotes Susan Leigh Star (1999), but also willingly produced by a small cable industry as part of security strategy and a general “rhetoric of wirelessness” (p. 9). Taking this into account, Starosielski develops an alternative view on networks as wired, semicentralized, territorially entrenched and precarious (p. 10). Far from being a pure and banal object or just virtual she illustrates that these cables are embedded in “turbulent ecologies” (p. 14) and are “entangled in contemporary cultural conflicts” (xiii). By following an ethnographic approach she reveals this “hidden labor, economics, cultures and politics that go into sustaining everyday intercontinental connections“ (p. 2). As she points out: The distribution of media and communication “requires ongoing spatial manipulation to generate the illusion of frictionfree movement” (p. 228). Cultural practices, political formations and environmental aspects affect these cables and cables affect these sorroundings. Insofar, this study can also be seen as a fascinating »thing study« (Daston 2004; Harman 2002) in the tradition of a speculatice and object-oriented philosophy that neglects the distinction between subject and object and establishes a dynamic understanding of things in their »becoming«.
From a methodical standpoint The Undersea Network offers an interesting approach to research on networks. By taking up the work of media archaeologists, Starosielski aims to establish a »network archaeology«. The idea of this approach is to draw on “archives and historical narratives to shed light on emerging practices and, in light of these practices, to offer new vantage points on the past” (p. 15). Thus, Starosieleski makes an epistemological claim on networks as at each point affected by past cultural-historical forces as well as contemporary localized conflicts.
From a theoretical standpoint The Undersea Network is predestinated for further theoretical reflection on new materalism and digitalization, especially the question on the »agency of objects«. A monadistic sociology with philosophical foundation in the line of Spinoza (affect), Whitehead (event), Tarde (imitation), Deleuze (difference and repetition) and Latour (re-assembling) could offer a methodological and theoretical framework for this further reflection. It could also be explored how the suggested network archaeological approach relates to this theoretical framework.
Taking these aspects into account, The Undersea Network is a fascinating ethnographic contribution on digitalization, new materialism and dynamic ecologies in social science, media and communication studies. Forthermore, it is an interesting perspective on a how to do research on things as critical matter and product of assembling instead of being pure materiality.
For those who are interested in new media and further inquiry, this book offers an additional digital map where the reader can explore individual cable routes and local histories by diving into photographic archives and navigating numerous connections (www.surfacing.in).
-Sandra Balbierz (Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt)
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