When a cable is not just a cable – Fellows’ seminar by Jess Auerbach

8 March 2022

Global digitisation means that the world is connected by unseen, below sea, fibre-optic cables that criss-cross the planet. But who decides where the cables go, who manages and repairs the infrastructure, who decides who is connected and who not to the ever-expanding global knowledge infrastructure? These are some of the complex, capricious connections that STIAS Iso Lomso fellow Jess Auerbach of the Department of Anthropology, North-West University hopes to unravel in her new book project – Capricious Connections: the politics of knowledge in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean islands.

Iso Lomso Fellow Jess Auerbach presented her seminar on 3 March 2022

“The book will explore what sociologist, architectural and design theorist Benjamin Bratton understands to be the ‘contingent megastructure’ of digital infrastructure, by exploring how southern Africa ‘plugs into’ the global knowledge infrastructure, and the contestations surrounding ownership, control and data in today’s so-called digital railways. It begins an ethnography of an undersea internet cable system that stretches from Fortaleza, Brazil, to Angola, South Africa, across the Indian Ocean via Mauritius and up to India and Malaysia,” explained Auerbach. “This intersection of history, maritime law, geopolitics, engineering and imagination enables the internet to reach across and around Africa. Simultaneously, it shapes what is known, by whom, and how, and contributes to the development of highly contested knowledge systems that are at once ideological, grounded in local realities, and potent vehicles for aspiration, imagination and wealth.”

Auerbach is asking who wires the world and gets to control the digital infrastructure. She is particularly interested in what the effect of this is on knowledge in the African context.

“The infrastructure is not neutral. There are far fewer cables in the South Atlantic than the North Atlantic. For example, the City of London has four times the data centre capacity of southern Africa. The cables themselves may be seen as of little consequence but they are the basis of much bigger conversations.”

The pure glass used in fibre-optic cables makes them a very vulnerable, surprisingly fragile infrastructure with huge potential for massive positive and negative use. Interestingly, in her talk Auerbach pointed out that many of the routes followed in the laying of the cables build on cable-lines originally laid to enable morse-code communication during Europe and the US’s early wars. These were later converted to telephone lines and the routes are now used for fibre-optic cables.

“We need to follow the cables and thus the data – to understand who is controlling, who is profiting and who is excluded,” she added. “Africa is not currently often at the table in these discussions. I believe we need to look at how to shift public discussions to think about our knowledge infrastructure more broadly.”

Through the Iso Lomso Fellowship, Auerbach has been given a chance to build one what were footnotes in her PhD thesis and to develop them into a book proposal. The book will combine insights from anthropology, science and technology, communications and engineering and will build on Auerbach’s prior research in Angola, Brazil, Mozambique and Mauritius, which she describes as having “given me a deep appreciation of what I have theorised as ‘knowledge mobilities’”.

“I hope to contribute to interdisciplinary dialogue pertaining to Africa’s place in the world of data, undersea infrastructure, conflict, cost and movement through the online, offline and intermediary spaces of contemporary communication and thought,” she explained.

Positive inversions

Auerbach’s own view of the world was shaped early by her primary school geography teacher – Mr Pearse (a guest at the seminar) –“who first pointed out to me that when you draw a map you have power, that the North is not a ‘real’ thing, and that a map describes much more than is on the page”.

“Placing Europe at the top of the world placed it closer to God than the rest of us in 16th century European imagination, and this viewpoint was used to justify violent historical behaviour. The need to invert this perspective, to not be influenced by how we are ‘supposed’ to see the world but to see it from our own point of view and from a place of power, has been a critical idea for me in my academic career.”

“These kinds of insights need to happen when children are young. University is often too late. I’m grateful to have had a teacher who instilled the idea that Africa is not at the bottom of the world.”

Africa as a wired space

The book will trace how Africa connects with and yet is distinct from the global communication infrastructure. Some of the topics Auerbach proposes to include are the linkages between land, sea and sky; data and the right to know; data as a human right including social movements around universal basic data; who knows what about us – management of personal data and data surveillance; the intersection between maritime and international law; how to govern the cables including the politics of where and when cables come up to land, cable breakages and the dynamics of their maintenance and potential interception; and, imagined futures.

Right now who gets to lay and maintain the cables and control the technology and intellectual property is part of a shifting global power game. Cables are usually manufactured by partnerships involving private companies and national governments and even, in some cases, using development-aid money. But it’s a high stakes battle between China, the United States and perhaps, with the global unfolding we are seeing now, increasingly, Russia.

“Their governance of infrastructures affects the kind of knowledge futures we have and that we want,” said Auerbach.

“The right to connectivity and internet is an important moral question. In the knowledge economy basic data access is like water and food,” she said. “It’s inappropriate for some to have access and others not. We run the risk of developing parallel systems of knowing. Children from different parts of the world will inhabit fundamentally different worlds.”

“The pandemic has shown us the power and limits of the digital world. In South Africa it was the first time the university sector had to sincerely look at the data and technology realities of the students,” she continued.

“All information is highly contested,” she added. “Truths and untruths have political effect. Where does the power and control of big tech end? Who do we trust? This time has exposed the contradictions, divisions and dark side of digital capitalism and internet tribalism.”

“Knowledge systems as acts of patronage still exist. The imagination of Africa as the ‘heart of darkness’ still continues and is perpetuated by new technologies because too often Africa-based experts do not play a leading role in the wiring of the continent. We have to repaint how the world is known and imagined, position Africa as a site of geopolitical and scientific sophistication, and ask what is Africa as a wired, connected space in the globe?”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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