Let’s say you’re reading this in Egypt, or Hong Kong, or London. How exactly do bits and bytes get from this web server (somewhere in California) to your far-flung screen? It’s not satellites or magic, but it is crazy. There’s a wire running along the bottom of the ocean with beams of light screaming through it.
The German literary theorist Walter Benjamin has a line that goes something to the effect of, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Part of what he meant by that is that there is no work of art or industry that does not have structural violence somewhere beneath its cultural scaffolding. To offer a heinously crude example, Romantic poetry is sublime and all, but the money that funded its production was made by landowners who exploited the working poor while their government went about colonizing the world.
As it happens, the British needed an excellent communications system to maintain their empire, so later put a great deal of 19th-century effort and engineering into linking the corners of the Commonwealth with telegraph wires. That was a predecessor of the modern intercontinental fiberoptic cable network, which some private investors were trying to expand in the mid-1990s. Neal Stephenson decided to follow the route of the Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe, or FLAG, cable-laying project from Thailand to Japan and back to Egypt, and he chronicled the adventure, in which he dubbed himself a “hacker tourist,” in a 1996 article published in Wired magazine. It is no exaggeration to say that it is one of the most astonishing pieces of journalism ever conceived.
“Mother Earth Motherboard” is brilliant business reporting, smart technological history, and savvy storytelling. What’s more, if you have read or intend to read James Gleick’s The Information, this article is a must-read companion. Obviously, these projects were conceived in entirely different decades, separated by billions of websites and petabytes of digital information. But they are complimentary in that Gleick weaves intellectual and scientific history with the industrial archeology of common communications, and Stephenson ties common communications to the industrial archeology of circum-planetary engineering. And by using the somewhat bookish phrase “industrial archeology,” I simply mean “the history of how stuff gets made.” (Simple example: Whether in Washington or London, you’re likely reading this in front of a QWERTY keyboard. Why QWERTY? Not because the arrangement of letters makes for easy typing; rather, because the arrangement prevented early typists from smashing common letters like “a” and “e” with their strongest fingers, a hazard that would tangle the levered arms on early typewriters. Industrial archeology stares you in the face all day long.)
Stephenson honestly wants to know just how people approach the engineering project of tying continents together with cable, and the the answer is more complicated and far more interesting than I first suspected. He explains the approach:
Our method was not exactly journalism nor tourism in the normal sense but what might be thought of as a new field of human endeavor called hacker tourism: travel to exotic locations in search of sights and sensations that only would be of interest to a geek.
This leads to a story that covers subjects ranging from the intricacies of mathematical models used to calculated the curvature of slackened wires trailing 30 kilometers out into the ocean behind specialized cable-laying ships, to the basic mechanics of what happens when those cables run ashore at their terrestrial destinations:
One day a barge appears off the cove, and there is a lot of fussing around with floats, lots of divers in the water. A backhoe digs a trench in the cobble beach. A long skinny black thing is wrestled ashore. Working almost naked in the tropical heat, the men bolt segmented pipes around it and then bury it. It is never again to be seen by human eyes. Suddenly, all of these men pay their bills and vanish. Not long afterward, the phone service gets a hell of a lot better.
And while he does not linger on the economic plight of the laborers who actually dig the holes and build the manholes for stretching the buried cable across southern Thailand, he is straightforward in describing the conditions of the work that builds the Internet:
The manhole-making village we are visiting on this fine, steamy summer day has a population of some 130 workers plus an unknown number of children. The village was founded in the shade of an old, mature rubber plantation. Along the highway are piles of construction materials deposited by trucks: bundles of half-inch rebar, piles of sand and gravel. At one end of the clearing is a double row of shelters made from shiny new corrugated metal nailed over wooden frames, where the men, women, and children of the village live. On the end of this is an open-air office under a lean-to roof, equipped with a whiteboard – just like any self-respecting high tech company. Chickens strut around flapping their wings uselessly, looking for stuff to peck out of the ground.
The story here loops across Southeast Asia and the Far East, back through North Africa, and concludes at the historical starting point for key developments in long-distance communication, southwest England. Simultaneously, Stephenson careens between the mid-1850s, the construction of the Library of Alexandria around 300 BCE, and the (then, as in, 1996) present, linking technological entrepreneurship in a manner more exciting than most comic books:
Everything that has occurred in Silicon Valley in the last couple of decades also occurred in the 1850s. Anyone who thinks that wild-ass high tech venture capitalism is a late-20th-century California phenomenon needs to read about the maniacs who built the first transatlantic cable projects (I recommend Arthur C. Clarke’s book How the World Was One). The only things that have changed since then are that the stakes have gotten smaller, the process more bureaucratized, and the personalities less interesting.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that building FLAG constitutes a “document of barbarism,” but the insanity of the project sounds something like the modern equivalent of white people barreling across the American West—except the American West is the floor of the ocean, and there are international telco cabals instead of railway tycoons. This of course takes more than a few column inches to capture. The article is nearly 42,000 words long, which Wired must have abbreviated for the print edition—that’s about 70 pages cut-and-pasted into an MS Word document. But if you really like knowing how things work, then I can’t recommend this article more highly.
(H/T: I got to this piece from The Byliner, where I will likely see many other hundreds of hours melt away chasing good #longreads.)