There is a There, There: The Political Geography of Cyberspace

by Chris Borgen

William Gibson (appropriating Gertrude Stein’s bon mot about Oakland, California) said of cyberspace: “there is no there, there.”  While this captured the feeling of Gibson’s fictional cyberpunk protagonists, it obscures all the physical “theres” that make cyberspace possible.  A student post at Infranet Lab called Re-Link:The Physical Network of Data is a quick visual primer on all the stuff of cyberspace that we sometimes forget about: trans-oceanic submarine cables, landing points, and so on.

The author notes that the U.S. is the de facto physical hub of the Internet, whereas “you can count the number of lines feeding Africa on one hand.” However, the author argues:

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.

He also discusses making Africa the new hub of the internet, due to its physical location.  While increasing the connectivity of Africa to the Web is important to assist development in Africa, we need, however, to keep in mind that that is not the same thing as deciding to place in Africa key infrastructure for the connectivity of the Americas to Europe to Asia. At that point, the risk of political instability becomes a key issue.

Looking at the issues of the physical infrastructure of cyberspace from a different angle, a 2008 post on Infranet Lab, Rewiring (Tele)Geography, noted one national security implication of the physical infrastructure of cyberspace:

The NY Times recently reported on the tendency of countries to redirect internet trafficaway from the United States. Intelligence agencies have previously been gifted with the convenience of a large majority of international internet usage eventually finding its way through US cables. This trend has been reversing in the last 5-8 years, as the US falls woefully behind up-to-date submarine cable updates, and as increased intraregional networks offer an ability to keep terabytes more local.

That post closed with the following observation:

What appears initially as (invisible) lines on a global map suddenly can be read as the very modern day gates and thresholds that assert the power, economic vitality, cultural credentials driving competitive urbanism. Villages such as Tarifa, Spain, strategically positioned as a constricted data threshold between the Atlantic and Mediterranean hubs, become a key information harbor at the scale of the data intraregion.

In the end, these posts with their maps showing webs of connections-thick in some places, thin in others-remind me of a more recent William Gibson aphorism, which is perhaps more apt than the one I began with:

The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

2 Responses

  1. The search for cheaper markets: in land, labor, what have you, is not surprising and will be a mixed blessing for those countries where they’re located. Of course “who owns what” will, once more, be telling….

    Several titles in my latest bibliography. “mass media: politics, political economy and law,” deal with some of the subject matter broached and implicated in this post. Please see: 

  2. I know that China has been heavily involved in Africa through aid and building infrastructure.  They have made huge efforts to gain access to coal, oil, and other resources.  It could make sense that China would also promise more access to the internet.  Are there any sources for that?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. There are no trackbacks or pingbacks associated with this post at this time.