14 January 2010

wires and tubes: submarine fiber-optic cable journalism from Wired Magazine

An old MCI do-not-dig-here marker for a fiber-optic cable laid alongside the railroad tracks in Berkeley, California.  Photo by author.

Way back in 1996, when the Internet was yet to be found in our pockets and was likely accessed by dial-up modems, the sci-fi/cyberpunk/etc writer Neal Stephenson (who has a Bachelors in Geography from Boston University according to Wikipedia) wrote what has to be one of the longest pieces Wired has published--62 pages formatted to print on standard, 8.5'' x 11'' printer paper--about the laying of what was then the longest wire in the world, connecting Europe with East Asia and points in between.  The writing is great and very informative.  Stephenson calls himself a "hacker tourist" as a way to circumvent both journalistic standards and scholarly language, creating a picture of what it takes, or took in 1996, to lay the fiber-optic infrastructure that allows the Internet to function around the globe.  In the intervening 14 years, the amount of submarine cables have increased tremendously.  Edward Malecki published an article on the subject in the Annals of the AAG a year ago, and yet that article, while useful, does not get at the on-the-ground reality of what it takes to lay and maintain the cables in the way Stephenson's essay does.  "Mother Earth Mother Board" is archived at Wired's website and is free to access.  I am working my way through it now and am thoroughly enjoying it.

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