The World Wired Web

It is perhaps appropriate that the term cyberspace was coined by a science fiction writer. “A consensual hallucination,” William Gibson wrote of his concept in 1984’s Neuromancer. “Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.” By the time that the Internet became a ubiquitous part of life, it had long been sold to us along similar lines—as a wondrous end-run around material realities. “For early internet pioneers, the ‘real world’ vs. cyberspace dualism,” explains the sociologist PJ Rey, “served a certain naive, if profitable, political agenda of envisioning the Web as a utopia where users could escape the divisions and institutionalized inequalities of the past.” This has not helped us understand the way the world is changing.

Even as we are increasingly integrated into networks on which we come to depend, the basis and functioning of these networks steadily recedes from view. And this is particularly the case with the network of networks that is the Internet. At the points where we interact with it, the Internet presents itself to us with no residue of its real workings. This is partly, of course, a result of complexity. For example, without software attuned to the “user,” hardware would remain beyond our reach.

But it is also by design. This is not a grand conspiracy, but a consistent orientation in the way that Internet-based technology has been marketed, sold, propagated, described, justified, and extended. For example, mobile internet use—and the status of the data that is gained through it—is conceived of as both a process of and the result of liberation from physical ties; the whole is perceived as a new abstracted, disembodied, and non-material reality. What was dependent on the ground now floats in the clouds. This is, to put it mildly, a fantasy.

In reality, the supposedly wireless and cloud-based world of the Internet is dependent on a huge and ever-growing material infrastructure that is below and amid us. Not only that, but the more wireless and cloud-based the user experience, the more literally wired the world must become to accommodate and facilitate it. The growth of wireless and cloud technology means that the world is more tethered to and dependent on wires, how they function, and the places where they meet and interact than it has ever been before. Like so much else today, the price of our abstract user-based illusion is a physical reality we rarely notice.

The furthest your wireless phone calls will travel without the benefit of wires will be the distance between you and your nearest cell tower, and the same for your recipient—usually a couple of miles in total. For the rest of the journey, your voice will travel, just as it did before mobile phones, on wires connecting with a series of switching stations. Whereas you used to see the cable that very palpably connected you to the telecom system, from pole to house, a more complex but similar reality now occurs out of sight, giving you the feeling that your voice is zooming around the ether. With mobile connections now demanded almost everywhere, more towers are built and more cable must be laid to connect them.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Almost any commercial, governmental, or personal endeavor now relies on constant information sent and received through the Internet—and you are, of course, literally sending and receiving information when you view a website no less than when you exchange text messages or emails. Most of this sending and receiving is occurring over long distances, including overseas. Surely this is where the humble wire must step aside and make way for the mighty satellite—that mystical symbol of our space age. Most would assume so. In fact, 99 percent of international Internet communication occurs because someone has taken the considerable trouble and expense of laying down a cable that connects the place where you are to the place where the information, contact, or data is. There is such a thing as a functioning, efficient, and useful World Wide Web because the nations of the world have been quite literally tied together with wire.

In fact, quick international communication has for a century and a half been mostly made possible by nothing more elegant than long wires stretched between lands. What has changed over the years is the equipment at either end of the wire, how the information it sends is coded at one end and decoded at the other, and how the message is pushed through so that it neither diffuses nor peters out on the way. Of course, these changes have eventually necessitated new kinds of cable, but this has usually followed an initial adaptation of the new technique to the old carrier. This evolution and path dependence—alongside the material constraints we only pretend to have outgrown—have ensured that our new means of cheating distance are far closer to older ways than we imagine. “For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age,” Andrew Blum asserts in Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, “when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.”

Foundations: Telegraph and Telephone
The telegraph had initially been established on the coattails of the railways, with the wires strung beside the tracks for easy contact between stations. But as soon as it became a general means of quicker communication, there was a demand for it to connect regions and nations. The first successful undersea telegraph cable was laid in September of 1851 between England and France. By December of that year, one could communicate by telegraph between Paris and London. Bridging the distance between hemispheres was, of course, a far greater undertaking, and the first transatlantic cable was not as successful as its proponents portrayed.

After Queen Victoria’s 19-word message to President Buchanan took 30 hours to send in August 1858, 722 more messages were sent over the next three weeks before the cable became permanently inoperable. It was another eight years before the telegraph lastingly connected America to the British Isles, but by this time dozens of underwater cables were being laid, with imperial Britain leading the way. At the close of 1872—as British-laid cables crisscrossed the globe, integrating local connections with a larger network—a message could be cabled from London to Adelaide in Australia. Less than three decades had passed since Samuel Morse sent an inaugural message down his modest line between Washington, DC and nearby Baltimore.

The telephone was invented only a few years later, yet it took far longer to adapt it to either widespread or long-distance use. Nor did the growing use of radio broadcasting in the 1920s supplant the importance of the telegraph. But in the 1950s, coaxial telephone cables, aided by repeaters along the route that amplified the signal, were laid under the seas. After the first transatlantic telephone cable was placed on the ocean floor in 1956, new wires between continents were once again providing the veins of a worldwide system. By the late 1980s, two technologies which would prove most compatible were emerging: fiber-optic cables and the Internet. Without the former, the latter would still be a cumbersome and noisy process unable to handle a fraction of what we demand of it today.

Internet technology started as a way of using existing telephone infrastructure to connect computers rather than phones. “Modems are a digital hack on an analog technology, of course,” Neal Stephenson noted in his legendary 1996 Wired magazine tour-de-force (“Mother Earth Mother Board”), “they take the digits from your computer and convert them into a complicated analog waveform that can be transmitted down existing wires.” And, as such, Stephenson also commented, the Internet reconnected with the symbolic heritage of the telegraph. As Internet use first rapidly grew and then exponentially took off in the 1990s and early 2000s, fiber-optic cables allowed it to escape the speed and capacity constraints of telephone technology. But in order for this to facilitate worldwide connections commensurate with its raw potential, these new wires needed to not only be laid beneath the roads, or even, harking back to the early days of telegraph, along railway tracks.

A New Cable Craze
Since the late 1980s, fiber-optic wires—fine glass tubes the width of a hair inside insulated cables—have been stretched across the ocean floors of the world. At either end of each cable is often the same unassuming beach-side landing station that housed the telegraph interchanges. But now lasers send billions of pulses of light per second down the wire, conveying extraordinary amounts of data every second. Meanwhile, thousands of volts of good old electricity are fired down the line through its copper casing, boosting the light to its destination. These landing stations at each end of an undersea cable are connected to nearby Internet exchanges, which, are, in turn, connected with local networks and, increasingly, vast data centers across the country.

Underwater cable projects range from the parochial—such as the three-mile Scandinavian Ring North linking Helsingborg, Sweden with Helsingør, Denmark—to the global—such as the mind-boggling 24,000-mile “SeaMeWe-3” that stretches from the North Sea coast of Germany to the Australian city of Perth, connecting 31 nations. While those distances are extreme, there are currently 57 cables longer than 6,200 miles. These include the milestone FLAG Europe-Asia (FEA) cable, operational since 1997, boasting England and Japan at either end of its 17,000-mile reach, as well as the 9,045 mile-long JUPITER cable which, as of next year, will send data between the West Coast of the US, Japan, and the Philippines. Continent-spanning and circling cables continue to be planned and laid.

The result is not only a world-wired-web of astonishing material detail and infrastructural complexity, but the repetition and accentuating of age-old patterns and problems. Following both established routes and obeying geographical necessity, the world’s Internet cables, upon which an astonishing degree of its commerce and exchange depends, cluster through familiar choke points. These narrow passages linking oceans between continents which cause logistical headaches for military planners, global traders, and the oil industry alike, are also where dozens of undersea cables congregate. The Luzon Strait (between the Philippines and Taiwan), the Strait of Malacca (between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra), the Mandeb Strait (between the Arabian Peninsula and Africa), the Hormuz Strait (pushing into Iran on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula), and the Suez Canal each host many vital and globe-spanning cables.

Maren Winter /

Naturally, this cable crowding creates vulnerability. For example, the devastating earthquake of December 26, 2006 in the Luzon Strait severed six of the cables that connected great centers in East Asia with North America. “The impact was immediate,” British parliament member Rishi Sunak reports in a parliamentary investigation (“Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure”). “Chunghwa Telecom, the largest telecoms operator in Taiwan, reported Internet outage of 100% to Hong Kong and South East Asia.” Meanwhile, “Hong Kong found 80% of its communications capacity had been wiped out in minutes, leaving Asia’s most important financial centre reliant on a single surviving cable to carry billions of dollars of trades and transfers across the world.” It took 50 days to make the tricky underwater repairs.

Similarly, the astonishing cable traffic in the Mediterranean indicates that at least some aspects of our world’s functioning would be familiar to a visitor from millennia ago. Two years after the above incident, the anchors from two large ships off the coast of Egypt severed five cables serving links between Europe and many points south and east (again leaving one cable functioning on these particular routes). In a single moment, 80% of Internet capacity was lost between Europe and the Middle East. In a previous age, Britain regarded Egypt as the key to its position in Southeast Asia, but it remains true today that a squeeze in the Mediterranean causes a pinch in the Indian subcontinent. In this case, far-away Pakistan instantly lost 70% of its Internet connection, while India lost more than half of its crucial westbound links.

This clustering of routes is also both caused and perpetuated by the commercial and logistical importance of certain countries and particular regions within them. Unsurprisingly, the United States, where the first Internet network began and which hosts so much content and data, is the (mainland) landing place of about 60 undersea cables. But these landings are not scattered around the country. For example, a dozen emerge in the pinch of the East Coast between Long Island and Point Pleasant, New Jersey. The 40 cables that land in England frequently arrive across the Atlantic in the same Cornish havens that once launched telegraph cabling across the world. From there, Internet traffic heads to Canary Wharf in East London and then, often, south to cables across the English Channel or further east to North Sea links.

Similarly dramatic and historically familiar concentrations occur in East Asia. When Neal Stephenson followed the laying of the FLAG Europe-Asia cable in the mid-nineties, he spent considerable time in the hotspot of Hong Kong. Twenty-five years later, four new cables landing in Hong Kong are about to be operational; one connecting with California, Malaysia, and Singapore; another that will also land in California and Taiwan; a third connecting with Australia; and a last reaching to the remote but cable-busy American territory of Guam. Nearly 30 cables land in the tiny but significant city-state of Singapore. The Egyptian city of Alexandria sits at the gateway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It once contained the greatest library in the world; now, it hosts the landing of four of the world’s most significant undersea cables, which represent a combined 62,000 miles of cable connections.

More Wired Than Ever
But why does this new cable craze not abate? The ever-deeper webbing of the world with fiber-optic wiring partly follows the logic of its quick supplanting of both telephonic and satellite technology. The rapid growth of Internet use was predicated on the development of fiber-optic cables, which can transfer far more data at far higher speeds with far lower cost than satellites. Ever-greater speed, density of data, and quality of user-experience was demanded as the Internet grew into a catch-all vehicle of not only communication and information, but digital entertainment. Therefore, the fiber-optic-enabled growth of Internet use has helped to unleash an insatiable demand for wire capacity, constantly stretching the infrastructure.

“The global demand for international bandwidth…increased at a rate of 52 percent in 2017,” Alan Maudlin of TeleGeography reports. “Further, the amount of capacity deployed on international networks doubled between 2015 and 2017.” As Jean-Sébastien Tassé of network analytics firm EXFO points out, “There is no competitive technology on the market for intercontinental communications. Data rates keep increasing—we’re at 100G and 200G now, while 400G is close behind—and 5G will bring even more intercontinental traffic, which will require even more subsea cables.” Billions of people across the world insist on conducting every function of life over the Internet, with ever-increasing technical standards and complexity, all of which requires the restless blasting of bits across the continents.

Significantly, this traffic also increasingly includes the use of personal documents that, until recently, were stored on local devices. The so-called “cloud” means that everyday work, as well as enormous media files, must be sent to you on fiber-optic cables. “The notion of the cloud is a marketing concept,” comment Jennifer Holt and Patrick Vonderau within the collection, Signal Traffic, “that renders the physical, infrastructural realities of remote data storage into a palatable abstraction for those who are using it.” But despite this sleight-of-hand, Lixian Loong Hantover notes (in “The Cloud and the Deep Sea”), “With the rise of cloud storage, our need to access international servers has increased our reliance on this global undersea cable infrastructure.”

This dynamic may now be the dominant driver of demand for Internet traffic, since content providers like Facebook and Google store and send astonishing amounts of other people’s data around the world and “experience high volumes of demand between their proprietary data centres,” as Maudlin explains. “The role of inter-data centre bandwidth requirements in bolstering overall transport demand becomes clear when examining content provider capacity on major submarine cable routes. In the Atlantic and Pacific, content providers accounted for over half of total demand in 2017.” And this, furthermore, accounts for one of the novel recent developments in the ownership of undersea cables.

Previously, cables across the oceans were invariably owned by state-run telecom companies or private companies, both of which made money by providing the infrastructure, not the content of what travelled through their cables. Occasionally governments are direct owners, as with the GTMO-1 and GTMO-2 cables connecting Florida and Puerto Rico to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay. However, in recent years, the major content providers driving international traffic are moving into the ownership of the cables themselves. For example, Google now owns or part-owns at least 13 undersea cables. It fully possesses the Junior cable, as of last year running 240 miles between the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro and Santos; the Curie cable, connecting Los Angeles and the Chilean city of Valparaiso (a 6,509-mile cable); and the Dunant cable which, starting in 2020, will send data across the Atlantic, spanning 3750 miles between Virginia Beach and Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, France.

Meanwhile, Facebook and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are co-owners (along with four other stakeholders) of the new trans-pacific JUPITER cable mentioned above, as well as the Bay to Bay Express (BtoBE) cable, one of the new Hong Kong cables that also connects California. In the case of the latter, only China Telecom shares ownership with Facebook and AWS. Facebook is also a co-owner along with Google (and others) of a further transpacific and another transatlantic cable that both begin operation this year. The latter, the Havfrue/AEC-2 cable, spreads its fiber-optic reach from Norway and Denmark to Wall Township, New Jersey. The same giant and unaccountable mega-companies that control the private information of billions are increasingly mediating the physical infrastructure upon which this data flows.

Head in the Cloud
The delusion of an almost mystically-functioning wireless world, even as more infrastructure than ever is needed to keep it running and growing, is not a benign one. The cultural invisibility of this infrastructure, as Nicole Starosielski insists in The Undersea Network, “is due to a broader social tendency to overlook the distribution of modern communications in favour of the more visible processes of production and consumption.” Only my activity and experience as a so-called consumer seems relevant to my conception of, and interaction with, the world. But, as with so much of the technological life today, this smooths our entry into loops of compulsion and dependence on giant firms that operate serenely beyond our perception. At the very least, we ought to know what and who we are blithely reliant upon for almost everything we do.

Fatuous talk of a digital utopia in which place, home, and particularity are irrelevant is only possible when we collude in counterfactual ways of understanding and describing the world’s systems. “The environments that cables are laid through—the oceans, coastal landing points, and terrestrial routes,” Starosielski explains, “are seen as friction-free surfaces across which force is easily exerted, and where geographic barriers are levelled by telecommunications.” But the more we recognize “the resolute materiality of network infrastructure,” to use Starosielski’s phrase, the less susceptible we will be to the ceaselessly destructive myth that place no longer matters.