Re-Link: The Physcial Network of Data

[The global network of submarine cables as it existed in 1901.]

Editors Note: File under Feedback: Architecture’s New Territories, an InfraNet Lab seminar at Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design / University of Toronto. Guest post and images are by Ali Fard. -----------

With an estimated 1,733,993,741 users and a global growth rate of 380% since 2000 , it is easy to think of the internet as a free-flowing cloud of information accessible by all. However, unlike popular belief, our connection to the internet is not mediated by an uber high-tech network of satellites (or any of the other usual suspects). In fact, satellite links account for only 1% of all internet connections. Automatically, and incorrectly, thought of as a complex metaphysical network of information, the Internet consists of a highly physical network of lines and nodes; a simple system with inherent complexities. Simply put, it is a network of submarine communication cables laid across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and other water bodies that connect us to information databases in other continents. Although the technology has changed significantly, the network itself does not differ greatly from the network of submarine telegraph lines which existed as early as 1901. Much like long umbilical cords, these cables are the not-so-visible proof of our dependence on concentrated sources of information. These very real and physical “communication highways” establish links between information super hubs, while controlling internet’s dissemination of information. These lines, coupled with the terrestrial network of land lines and data centers, are the medium of the internet.

[The existing global network of submarine communication cables.]

The lines and nodes of the internet, much like any other physical infrastructure, are prone to an array of politico-economic issues. Closely related to the politico-economic reading of the hierarchical structure of the world, much of this understanding of internet has to do with its very physical backbone. Areas with the least number of users get the best connections and others, like most of Africa, get nothing. We can clearly make out the users from producers. The redundancies of the submarine lines to North America and Europe have caused internet prices to plummet, which in turn has encouraged not only higher usage of internet but an active participation in the information world. Meanwhile, you can count the number of lines feeding Africa on one hand. As a result, prices are so high that even the lines that are already in place become meaningless, because of lack of use.

[Submarine cable system, from left to right: Cable + Repeaters + Landing Points + Termination Stations.]

[Submarine communication cable: 1. Polyethylene cover; 2. & 4. Stranded steel armor wires; 3. & 5. Tar-soaked nylon yarn; 6. Polycarbonate insulator; 7. Copper sheath; 8. Protective core; 9. Optical fibers.]

[Cable-laying ship.]

[A submarine cable arriving on land in Bangladesh, April 10, 2009. REUTERS/Gina Din Corporate Communications/Japheth Kagondu/Handout.]

The Internet can be read as a dynamic network, but a network which is far from equally distributed. This unequal distribution is not because of lack of potential, but lack of means. It is clear that in today’s information heavy economy, to compete means to be connected. So, areas with little or no internet connection, which are already among the most economically unstable, get left behind and cannot compete. It is clear that the current state of the network privileges the most developed countries. This outcome is merely due to economic factors and not necessarily based on efficiencies and strengths of the network. So, how can this unequally distributed network be rewired to be able to function efficiently? How is this network affected with regards to the recent crisis in the economic structure of the world? How can a more logical rewiring of the network help African countries or other poorly connected areas of the world, while improving the system as a whole? 

[A current map of the global internet connection.]

[A possible re-wiring scenario in which Africa becomes an internet hub, taking advantage of its geographic location.]

One possible rewiring scenario has to do with the strategic geographic location of Africa. With cheap land, availability of natural resources and proximity to Asia, Europe and South America, Africa can provide fertile grounds for international data center activity. Big Internet companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, whose data center activity is mostly concentrated in North America and Europe, can start investing in the internet infrastructure of African countries by providing better connections, and in return can be allowed to establish data centers in areas with little economic activity. These companies can take on an active role in shaping the information economy of Africa by not only providing internet connections, but also by providing jobs and training. All this cannot be achieved by corporate colonization, but through an active and dedicated participation in the growth of the information economy of the region. Although great imagination may be required in visualizing such proposition, and a great deal of analysis is required in understanding the ups and downs of such a mammoth initiative, it is in no way farfetched. It is in fact such a proposal that can bring much needed attention to how information is distributed throughout the world and provide grounds for discussion of possible new futures of the network. Also from the Feedback seminar: Border Economies: the Maquiladora Export Landscape, Juan Robles Bloemenveiling Aalsmeer, Fei-Ling Tseng Related: Rewiring (Tele)Geography

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