Re:Coding Algorithmic Culture

World Wide Wet

Text by Isabel Paehr

0. Metaphor, Material

The dominant metaphor for online internet data is the cloud, which is often depicted as a white or blue icon with rounded edges. Not only its color is surprising (a blue cloud?): 99% of all internet traffic is transmitted through submarine communications cables on the ground of the Earth’s oceans (Starosielski 2015). Thus, the visual and conceptual metaphor of the blue cloud follows what media scholar Jean-François Blanchette calls „the trope of immateriality“ (2011). This trope stands for the assumption that digital media, specifically bits, are supposedly independent from storage media and thus immaterial. In frictional relation with this trope, this text follows embodied computing practices and is invested in the wet, wired and weird workings of submarine communications cables. Calling on Vaseline, rubber, worms and sharks, I am more interested in surfing this World Wide Wet than other WWWs. By taking a deep dive into the lower layers of the network stack, and by tracing the material conditions of the colonial internet, I will encourage an understanding of internet connectivity through two main modes: friction and access.

1. An Intro from the Bottom of the Ocean

If you are reading this text on a website or have downloaded it, the data packages called bits that make up its materiality will have traveled through submarine cables that are surrounded by vast amounts of water. About 1.2 million kilometres of submarine cables span the globe (Brake 2019: 02) and the bits they transfer are produced and processed by a huge amount of computational devices.

Media scholar Jean-François Blanchette critiques that bits have been discussed mostly along „the trope of immateriality“ (2011), meaning that they have been depicted as independent from any particular material instances, and even „free from“ (Hayles 1999: 13, in Blanchette 2011: 1043) what Katherine Hayles describes as the „[…] constraints that govern the material world“ (ibid.). As an example of this trope, Blanchette quotes John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, published in 1996, in which the cyberlibertarian Barlow falsely predicted that corporations would have no power in cyberspace exactly due to the supposed immateriality of bits: „Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.“ (Barlow 1996, in Blanchette 2011: 1043) To build his counter argument, Blanchette follows bits through the computing stack and concludes that bits „cannot escape the material constraints of the physical devices that manipulate, store, and exchange them.“ (ibid: 1042) Formulated differently: The fact that you are reading this article on a different computer than it was written on is due to abstraction processes that allow bits to traverse temporal-spatial arrangements while still leaving traces and consuming energy. Blanchette’s naming and critiquing of the trope of immateriality is rigorous and inspiring. But I will not follow his rhetoric of „escape“ (ibid: 1042) and „constraints“ (ibid: 1042) of materiality. Instead, I will work with an understanding of computation as embodied. The aim is to both add to Blanchette’s trope, which does not yet account for the colonial (Thorat 2019) and ableist dimensions of assumed immateriality, and to develop an alternative embodied imaginary of a more-than-human internet. My conceptualization of internet infrastructures includes materials and species that are not traditionally considered parts of networks. In this other-configuration, I seek potentials for re-making internet and follow what Orit Halpern describes as the „sensory, or aesthetic aspect“ of data (2015: 37).

2. Slippery Misconceptions: Petroleum Jelly and the Softness of the Internet

In admiration of Bini Adamczak’s concept of circlusion, an „antonym of penetration“ that describes „pushing something – a ring or a tube – onto something else – a nipple or a shaft“ (Adamczak: 2016), I wonder how to render all elements of an encounter active. I will turn my attention towards the leaky substances that circlude, connect and insulate devices of electromagnetic transmission. Keeping electromagnetic current in place or moving it along defined lines requires more than a single artefact’s material boundaries: A cable’s electric current gets lost when it is in touch with salt water. To prevent this so called ‚leakage‘, the material petroleum jelly coats the wires of submarine cables. This semi-solid, translucent substance is commonly known as Vaseline. Insoluble in water, it surrounds the cable’s optical fibres as a final protective layer. Petroleum jelly is, according to the company Vaseline, „a naturally-occurring byproduct of the oil drilling process“ (vaselinearabia.com). On their website, the company gives insight into the early marketing strategies of its founder, Robert Augustus Chesebrough who traveled the state of New York in the 1870s to demonstrate the power of his ‚wonder jelly’. In public demonstrations, he burned his skin to then treat his injuries with what he would later call Vaseline. Petroleum jelly is a material of boundaries: It sits on burned and opened skin, has a noteworthy history as a (nowadays contested) lubricant for sex, and it is an elemental protective layer between fibre optics and the copper tube surrounding them, which makes it a core material in performing today’s internet. Vaseline binds and slips between different fields of practice such as extractive industries, internet communications, skin care and sex. If what keeps the current flowing in submarine cables is the same material that softens skin and enables specific sex practices, the internet can be described as both „hard wired“ and „softly coated“.

3. Gutta-percha

The outer layer of today’s submarine communication cables consists of polyethylene, which is also a product of the oil industries. When the first working telegraph was presented in 1839, this plastic had not been invented yet. To communicate over large distances and water masses, a good insulator to avoid leakage that could withstand extreme temperatures and pressure was needed – and found in the rubber-like material gutta-percha. Gutta-percha is harvested from a tree that grows around the Malay Peninsula. Scholar Dhanashree Thorat describes in her article Colonial Topographies of Internet Infrastructure: The Sedimented and Linked Networks of the Telegraph and Submarine Fiber Optic Internet how knowledge of the insulating qualities of the plant Palaquium gutta was stolen from Malay people by British colonisers (Thorat 2019: 258). Colonizers enforced labour to mass produce gutta-percha on plantations, which they then used to lay telegraph cables between Western shores and colonized lands. This deepened the control that colonizers had, as they could coordinate control through almost real-time communications. In India, „the colonial administration turned the telegraph into an instrument of control over territories, commerce, information, and above all, colonized people.“ (ibid: 260) While people in the colonies were forced to produce the materials needed for telegraphy, the new technology was described as „metaphorically attached to a newly disembodied consciousness“ by „annihilating space and time“ (Rosenheim 1977: 93, in Blanchette 2011: 1043) in the West. Rosenheim and his contemporaries did not only ignore telegraphy’s colonial conditions of production, but also did not notice the traces of materiality that were present in the West such as the olfactory evaporations of gutta-percha factories. The city of Berlin operates a data base about its past monuments, which also entails an entry on a factory in Kreuzberg that produced gutta-percha coatings for submarine cables. The building was despised by local residents for the smells it released.

Considering the ways in which people in colonised lands were forced to produce gutta-percha while Western scholars at the same time spoke of the supposed immateriality of telegraphy, the trope of immateriality can be called a colonial knowledge project.

These are not matters of the past: Present visual representations of the distribution of submarine cables on the globe such as TeleGeography’s submarinecablemap.com show that the majority of cables connect Europe, North America and East Asia. A cable running near a country does not mean the country has access to the internet, as Thorat points out (Thorat 2019: 270). Even when focusing on landing stations, which are the places where cables come to shores, the example of Djibouti is a transit point connecting 50 states via 12 cables in a country in which only 18.5% of people have access to the internet (ibid.). Access to internet infrastructure is distributed unequally.

4. Wormy Weathers: Teredo’s Taste for Cables in More-Than-Human Infrastructures

In her text Mediating Animal-Infrastructure Relations Lisa Parks involves nonhuman animals in her conceptualization of infrastructure and critiques that they are usually not considered „part of infrastructural materialities“ (Parks 2019: 144). Following osprey, a species of large birds that build nests on cell towers and sometimes even cause what is called „avian delays“ (Parks 2019: 146) in the towers maintenance, she writes: „[…] infrastructures are surrounded by biomatter, from roots beneath them to fungi on top of them to wildlife around them.“ (Parks 2019: 144)

In case of submarine cables, it is the mollusc Teredo, often referred to as „the shipworm“ (Parkes and Keeble 2016: 239) that eats at simple conceptions of an enclosed and stable internet. Teredo has historically complicated marine warfare by boring holes into wood: Some scholars make its tiny, rasp-like teeth responsible for sinking the Spanish Armada in 1588 (Hoppe: 2002). By eating, Teredo makes materials such as wood porous. With the first submarine cables, Teredo developed an appetite for gutta-percha. In today’s optical fibre cables, as Parkes and Keeble explain, the worms create electrical short circuits when hollowing through a submarine cable’s outer layers. Throughout its life and depending on water temperature, Teredo self-fertilizes and iterates between what biologists call female and male phases. Teredo does not just circlude cables, it eats through them. When queering the World Wide Wet and hollowing power relations, Teredo is a superstar.

Another animal involved with submarine cables are sharks. Sharks are playful beings that take delight in electromagnetic currents. They have been filmed biting and moving submarine cables. Compared to ship anchors or underwater landslides, shark bites are a relatively small problem for the submarine industries, yet Google announced to surround new cables with a Kevlar-like material (Gibbs 2014), which is usually used as a textile for bullet protection.

As Lisa Parks argues and the actions of molluscs and sharks affirm: „[T]he infrastructural then, is not a given, it is constituted through dynamic and hybrid materializations, which becomes most intelligible to us in instances of entanglement, relationality, and intra-action“ (Parks 2019: 149). Considering animals as parts of internet infrastructure makes it possible to learn from their non-compliancy and their queering practices, too: The materials that make internet infrastructure are part of the games and digestion of nonhuman animals such as sharks and worms, as well as human skin care routines.

5. Access and Friction, Access as Friction

To counter the trope of immateriality in its colonial entanglements, I turn to Anna Tsing who engages rubber as an example to explain her concept of friction. She writes: “Industrial rubber is made possible by the savagery of European conquest, the competitive passions of colonial botany, the resistance strategies of peasants, the confusion of war and technoscience, the struggle over industrial goals and hierarchies, and much more that would not be evident from a teleology of industrial progress. It is these vicissitudes that I am calling friction.” (Tsing 2011: 06) Frictional imaginaries are needed to counter dominant narratives of the internet as technoscientific progress: The stickiness of the tree sap of the 88 million gutta percha-trees chopped in the making of the telegraph network (Tully 2009: 575), the softness of the Vaseline surrounding the cables and the electrical shortcuts caused by the tiny teeth of the mollusc Teredo.

Friction is also a key term in Aimi Hamraie and Kelly Fritsch’s Crip Technoscience Manifesto. The manifesto quotes an earlier text of Kelly Fritsch on access as etymologically linked to connection and attack: „The etymology of the word access reveals two frictional meanings: access as ‘an opportunity enabling contact,’ as well as ‘a kind of attack’“ (Fritsch 2016: 23, in Hamraie & Fritsch 2019: 10). Positioning „access-making as a site of political friction“ (ibid), the authors analyse how disabled people creatively deal with policies and laws that aim to assimilate them into normative space. Hamraie and Fritsch show that access is frictional, never innocent, and often made possible through non-compliance. Access to the internet is frictional, as it cannot be untangled from the colonial violences that made and sustain it. While Tsing's understanding of friction is helpful when analysing the material and labor interdependencies in global submarine cable networks, it is Hamraie and Fritsch’s positioning of access as friction that allows for a reading of access to and within internet infrastructures as both contact enabling and assimilatory.

6. Summary

Conceptualizing the internet as an infrastructural performance of materials and animals means challenging current limits of the trope of immateriality. Dimensions of decoloniality and embodiment are key to a contemporary critique of this trope, as submarine cables carry colonial repercussions and control more than electromagnetic currents. I involve materials such as petroleum jelly and gutta-percha to investigate how these materials themselves are in friction with the way the internet is commonly imagined. The heat that emerges in this friction can be used to forge new connections between the copper corpses of the old telegraph cables that lie forgotten on the ocean floor and the disembodied metaphor of the cloud.


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