“The Underwater Web: Cabling the Seas” – Smithsonian Library Exhibition

April 21, 2008

In 2001, the Smithsonian Institution sponsored an exhibit on undersea cables, tracing the history of international communications from 1851. At first, these cables carried telegraph messages, subsequently telephone traffic, and now internet data. The subtitle of the exhibition, “How the Old Become New and Other Seeming Contradictions” refers to the “rebirth” of undersea cabling in the form of fiber-optic cables. Now these cables, still predominantly hidden and disregarded in a “wireless age” despite the fact that they channel much of the international communications traffic.

The online version of the exhibition gives an excellent history of the establishment of these cable lines, their inventors, and the technologies that support underwater communication. What is the relationship between underwater media and media in the air? There seems to be an interesting dynamic between the two.

A site of undersea cable maps

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“Of Cables and Conspiracies” article in The Economist

March 12, 2008

An article from February 7, 2008 in the Economist reports several undersea cable failures (or sabotages) in the course of a week. In response, bloggers circulated conspiracy theories: were the cables really destroyed by ships’ anchors or are submarines to blame? Though these are ultimately discounted by the author, who ends with “It may be rare for several cables to go down in a week, but it can happen,” the article brings up a number of questions:

Just how susceptible are underwater cables to attack? (Because on one hand, “big oceans are criss-crossed by so many cables that a single break has little impact” but on the other, “75m people from Algeria to Bangladesh saw internet links disrupted or cut off”.)

And how much does economic and political stability rely on these cables? The author seems to think that stability will increase, but we just as often see increased instability in the expansion of global networks.

In any case, yet another instance that place and infrastructure do matter.

Undersea Cables Economist article