The Undersea Network

By Nicole Starosielski. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015. 312 pp. $26.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-8223-5755-1.

The Undersea Network begins with a fundamental tension: the ubiquity of and reliance upon networks of undersea cables and our tendency to ignore or erase their histories. Starosielski insists on foregrounding their materiality, complexity and dependencies in order to counter the myths and metaphors that so often circulate around networked technologies and infrastructures. She wants to provide the reader with “…a view of global cable infrastructure that is counterintuitive yet complementary to the popular understanding of networking. It is wired rather than wireless; semicentralized rather than distributed; territorially entrenched rather than deterritorialized; precarious rather than resilient; and rural and aquatic rather than urban” (10). In doing so, she positions these networks of undersea cables as key figures elements in the histories of the development of communications technologies, the emergence of transnational corporate structures, tools of nationalist and/or globalist rhetorics and interconnected actors within ecosystems. While materiality is Starosielski’s entry point into these issues, she is keenly focused on the power and circulation of narratives. In this history, narratives and infrastructures are inseparable, not just in how they come to be but in how they function and are experienced.

Starosielski names her project a ‘network archaeology,’ bringing together methods from the study of science and technology, media, cultural geography, and history. This ambitious strategy allows her to engage with technical processes and specifications, corporate and national rhetorics and site specific ethnographic work. Yet the text is structured through and bounded by the explication and then challenging of dominant narratives around cable operations. For example, familiar narratives of singular innovation are debunked in favor of more holistic understandings of technological development.

The book is divided into six sections, each representing a strategy she sets forth as a “nodal narrative,” which “focus on a node in the system and chronicle the human and nonhuman extensions through it” (23). Chapter 1, ‘Circuitous Routes’, provides the historical backdrop of transoceanic cables which she periodizes in three eras: the telegraph era of the 1850s-1950s; the telephone/co-axial era of the 1950s-1980s; and our contemporary fiber-optic era. Chapter 2, ‘Short-circuiting Discursive Infrastructure’ tracks media engagement with cables, highlighting two recurring narratives focusing on “connection” or “disruption,” both of which eschew the mundanity of maintenance, the political realities of the ecological and environmental context of the cables and the embodied labor required for their making.  Chapter 3, ‘Gateway: From Cable Colony to Network Operations Center’ focuses on the cable station as a protected, negotiated and contested boundary space between local ecologies and global economies. Chapter 4, ‘Pressure Point: Turbulent Ecologies of the Cable Landing’ examines disruption and strategies of insulation around cable landing sites. Chapter 5, ‘A Network of Islands: Interconnecting the Pacific,’ brings islands to the center of cable systems zeroing in on the inseparability of the colonial, economic and military histories of Guam, Yap and Fiji with the histories and narratives of cable systems. Chapter 6, ‘Cabled Depths: The Aquatic Afterlives of Signal Traffic,’ traces the histories and contemporary manifestations of knowledge and research about the ocean alongside the development of transoceanic cables.

Starosielski often calls attention to her own subject position as she visits sites of current and former cable stations, positioning herself within the currents of geopolitical power. She describes the history and contemporary state of undersea cable networks not just through corporate or innovation histories but keeps in view the embodied labor and ecological cost required to build, maintain and use these infrastructures. This is however, where the challenges and limitations of studying massive infrastructure can be felt as it is a difficult juggling act.  

The book also has a companion digital mapping project, Surfacing, which starts the reader in a specific landscape and zooms out to track histories, environmental challenges, security issues, interactions with other technical systems just to name a few. The project provides archival documentation to further investigate specific sites. In an interview with the NYU Steinhardt News, Starosielski elaborates on her decision to develop the companion project, “…Surfacing allows its readers to skip across the network – jumping between nodes, between historical moments, and between cultural contexts.”[1]  This digital mapping project is then, rather than an ancillary artifact, an integral part of the broader project, an enactment of the methodology and theoretical framework outlined in the book. What the two parts of this project achieve together is a commitment to grounding histories and analyses of infrastructures within their geographical and temporal specificities. Starosielski emphasizes that undersea cables act as backbone of the vast majority of internet traffic and communications is radically material, territorialized and precarious.

Stacy Wood, School of Computing and Information, University of Pittsburgh


1. “Faculty Research Spotlight: Nicole Starosielski Launches Companion Website to The Undersea Network,” accessed 2017,