My mother still recalls being a young girl and receiving her first phone call from abroad. Sometime in the 1960’s my grandparents had a phone installed in their house and my great uncle, who was a sailor, called the house all the way from Australia. To this day my mother remembers the amazement of being able to speak to someone located at the other side of the world, and better yet, to hear her uncle’s voice so clearly!

Shannon Matter’s article “Scaffolding, Hard and Soft – Infrastructures as Critical and Generative Structures’’ reminded me of this story and got me curious about this amazing infrastructure which we now pretty much take for granted.

The deep seabeds of the ocean are home to over 428 submarine cables stretching over 1 million kilometers around the world, connecting continents, large communications hubs with small, remote places. These cables consist of fiber optic material which “sends information coded in a beam of light down a glass or plastic pipe”, which sounds like a beautiful description of communication. However, the external home of these “beams of light” is a lot less poetic, consisting of steel wires, copper and petroleum jelly.

Image result for fiber optic cable ocean

It turns out that optical fiber cables measure in size from that of a soda can to as small a magic marker depending on how deep into the oceans the cables are laid. It also turns out that sharks enjoy chewing on these internet cables, posing somewhat of a threat to our internet access. I suppose challenges are to be expected when humans invade territories that are not natural to us and the gnawing sharks serve as a reminder that our digital lives are rooted in very real, physical equipment which is susceptible to damages and breakdowns. These submarine communication cables can be positioned as deep as 8000 meters down onto the bottom of the ocean and follows what Matter’s describes as “the principle of path dependency” where new infrastructure is built on top of previously established infrastructure, in this case that of the telecommunication networks. This might mean that the “beams of light” that carried my great uncle’s voice from half way around the globe traveled across the same ocean route as the internet does today. Matter’s article provided me with the opportunity to reflect upon the physical dimension of our wireless existence that surrounds us. It also served as a reminder of how humans are involved in every aspect of the process of communication from the innovation of devices to designing the infrastructure to implement the technology, not to least mention all of the manual labor that goes into maintaining the infrastructure. The article also made me pause and think about the network that makes it possible for me to receive photos from my mom on my phone. I bet she didn’t imagine that when she was a girl!


  1. Dax Oliver

    Interesting post, Camilla! I think of how marine biologists say they still know so little about the ocean floor, yet all these undersea cables are getting thrown down there. Sharks eating the cables are an example of the unpredicted results when two systems interact without much forethought. It also reminds me of how the computer term “bug” began from an actual bug getting caught in a machine.

    1. Camilla Skoglie Post author

      Hi Dax,

      that’s funny! I had no idea that the term “bug” actually stems from a real bug creating problems but that makes a lot of sense. Out of curiosity I looked up the Heidegger book you mentioned and it sure looks like a topic that can send your mind swirling….kudos to you for tackling it!

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