Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network is one of two books about the invisible infrastructure that makes the modern world function on my reading list this season (I still have to read the other, Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud). Books that explore the physical network underpinning the internet come round with some regularity, but Starosielski has managed to create something new and innovative with her approach these underwater communication cables.
Quite rightly, Starosielski doesn’t attempt a comprehensive history of these cable networks since the first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858. Instead, she focuses on a few key themes: how network operators have perceived the threats to the network (whether from contact with other societies, nuclear war, or the spread of tactic knowledge about networks), how fiction and non-fiction media have described cable connections (through narratives of connection, disruption, nodes, or transmission), how the points where cables land reveal the conflicts between cable operations and the human and non-human inhabitants of their surroundings, and how the presence or absence of cable connections shapes the development of the Pacific islands on which they touch.
There’s plenty of contemporary resonance in The Undersea Network. Given the story about potential Russian cable taps or cuts that went viral and increasingly histrionic in the retelling a few months ago, what Starosielski unearths in the reporting on a break in the first transatlantic telephone cable, TAT-1, in 1959 is informative. On February 23, the disrupted cable was on page 33 of the New York Times. Four days later, the story moved to the front page with the title “U.S. Navy Boards a Soviet Trawler in North Atlantic: Action off Newfoundland Follows Breaks in Five Transoceanic Cables.” There was, of course, no particular nefarious connection – damage from fishing trawlers was, at the time, the most common cause of cable cuts. But there was a very big difference to the public between protecting cables from mundane, random damage and from deliberate attack.
In fact, The Undersea Network reveals that there’s a lot more to be learned about the history of undersea cables during the Cold War. The strategic history of nineteenth-century cable systems has been pretty well described (by historians such as Paul Kennedy and Daniel Headrick). Jonathan Winkler’s book Nexus describes how both sides during the First World War worked to cut and tap each others’ cables, and how that warfare drove the US Navy’s postwar interest in long-distance radio communications. Other writers describe government interest in cable activity in the 1920s and 30s, but there’s almost nothing about long-haul communications by cable after 1945. Instead, attention focuses on the development of communication satellites. Starosielski, however, notes in passing some of the military interest in the new generation of coaxial cables. The cable stations on Guam and Hawai’i and at San Luis Obispo in California were buried underground. The new “superstation” at Keawa’ula was built to withstand 50 pounds per square inch of overpressure, while the Tanguisson Beach station on Guam was fitted with a decontamination chamber in case of nuclear attack. Those are the not the sort of decisions made to protect sites considered peripheral to wartime strategy.
Depending on one’s interest, it may be another aspect of the story that catches your eye. By ranging so widely across the history of undersea cables, The Undersea Network points out just how many connections those cables make within our world.