Surf’s Up!

November 7th, 2015. Filed under: surfing.


Rachael Squire has an interesting post on the Geopolitics and Security blog from Royal Holloway. She describes recent news stories about Russian submarines operating near deep sea communication cables and provides us with some historical context. I will be interested to see where this research goes. She writes:

Last week, reports emerged of a Russian submarine ‘aggressively operating’ near US undersea cable infrastructure. According to the New York Times and a subsequent report by CNN, the presence of Russian subs near such vital infrastructure has prompted fears that Russia might be planning to ‘attack’ the cables in ‘times of tension or conflict’. The ‘cable’ posing a security threat is not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War for example, cable tapping was a key intelligence gathering strategy by both the US and Soviet Union. As a case in point Operation Ivy Bells saw fast-attack submarines and combat divers deployed to ‘drop waterproof recording pods on the lines’. The divers would return every few weeks to gather the pods before delivering them to the NSA. The latest reports, however, hint at something different to Cold War cable hacks. According to the NYT the primary threat is that the cables would be cut or severed.

Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen has also been doing some interesting work researching, photographing, and mapping undersea cables. Hyperallergic has a nice review of his recent exhibition at Metro Pictures, which includes the following two images:


Trevor Paglen, “Bahamas Internet Cable System (BICS-1) NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean” (2015), c-print


Trevor Paglen, “NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Morro Bay, California, United States” (2015), c-print and mixed media on navigational chart


Over on Geographical Imaginations, Derek Gregory points out two new projects, both of which sound fascinating. One is Eyal Weizman’s new “Forensic Architecture” lecture, which extends Weizman’s earlier work on Rebel Architecture, nicely summarized in this video:

Gregory also mentions a new book titled A Prehistory of the Cloud by Tung-Hui Hu, which he predicts will “surely be one of the must-reads of the year.” Hu traces a history of cloud computing, finding its roots in older networks like railroads and in older forms of political power. Lisa Banks writes:

Hu’s riveting genealogy of the cloud takes us into its precursors and politics, and boldly demonstrates how fantasies of sovereignty, security, and participation are bound up in it. Much more than a data center, the cloud is a diffuse and invisible structure of power that has yielded a data-centric order. Imaginative and lucidly written, this book will be core to digital media studies.


Recently, I’ve been interested in accounts like these that take the “new” out of “new media” by historicizing digital technologies–showing how they emerged from particular imaginaries, discourses, and historical precedents. Armand Mattelart’s short book Networking the World, 1794-2000 does a nice job of this, showing how numerous communication networks, from the telegraph to the internet, have been met with utopian hopes that describe a new connected, democratic, and peaceful world. He writes:

Messianic discourse about the democratic virtues of technology, which mask what is at stake in the struggles for control of the structure and content of knowledge networks, are of use in geopolitics. The champion of information superhighways, Albert Gore, adopts the same tone as the prophets who have preceded him since the end of the eighteenth century, when he presents to the “great human family” his world project for a network of networks: the global information infrastructure (GII). (92)


Over on, James Bridle has a nice post that, like some of Gregory’s writing, connects military history to contemporary digital technologies and the politics of vision. He writes:

When radar signals were received aboard an aircraft carrier, they were displayed on a radar oscilloscope. But in order for this information be used in the midst of battle, the positions needed to be transcribed to a large glass viewing pane, and as part of this process they needed to be inverted and reversed. To perform this operation quickly and accurately, the radar operators were trained and drilled extensively in “upside down and backwards town”, a classified location where everything from newspapers to street signs were printed upside down and backwards. This experience would not so much create a new ability for the radar operators, as break down their existing biases towards left-to-right text, allowing them to operate in multiple dimensions at once.

This process, in Kevin’s reading and in mine, is akin to much of our experience of new technology, when our existing frameworks of reference, both literary and otherwise, are broken down, and we must learn over once again how to operate in the world, how to transform and transliterate information, how to absorb it, think it, search for it and deploy it. We must relearn our relationship not only with information, but with knowledge itself.


And, finally, I recently came across two great collections of articles, books, and scholars writing critically about digital media. The first, from the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England, is a Critical Algorithm Studies reading list, which “spans sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, geography, communication, media studies, and legal studies, among others,” intentionally avoiding work from computer science. The second is the Remediating Political Theory / Repoliticizing Media Theory reading list compiled by Jason Adams from The New Centre for Research & Practice. It’s a list of writers with no descriptions, so it’s a little harder to navigate, but potentially useful for the meticulous reader.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.