The backbone of our thirsty complicities: from internet hiccups to collective synapsis at AWID 2016

5 October 2016

By Nadège

Attribution TeleGeography’s Telecom Resources. Interactive submarine cables map here.

Got internet?

Got internet? That was probably one of the most asked questions that underlined the whole AWID Forum this year in Bahia (Brazil). This common worry and “fed-up-ness” even deserved comical allusions in the plenaries.

The FixHub team, anticipating what would be a scarce resource, met up months before to plan out a connectivity strategy. We ended up buying 3G SIM cards that burnt out like fuses and realized, days after the forum had started, that the AWID organization had hired a connection for the hub.

We finally managed to get a router blinking cheerfully but the following day, the hotel made us disconnect the giant ethernet cable that was crossing the hall, all for the sake of installing the router closer. People were literally tripping on that cable. Obviously it wouldn’t have been very ethical on our part to place internet connectivity before human physical integrity.

The problem was we couldn’t figure out how to connect everything back up again, next to the telephone outlet. There was a huge load of weird devices and cables. The router was this frisbee plate stuck on the wall that we hadn’t even identified (it didn’t even look like a router!). After tackling with condescending male techies that obviously didn’t want to explain anything clearly, connection was up again on the next-to-last day of the forum.

In the meanwhile, everybody was trying to get on the hotel connection. You had to log into this portal with a giant url which didn’t automatically load when you connected to the network. Why would we need to log-in anyway if we were in the middle of an isolated resort where no-one from outside would hang onto the line? Well, this controlled system is called a “captive portal” so you get the idea: “Play by our rules” – a classic patriarchal mechanism.

It’s a bummer to not be able to be in touch with your loved ones or check your work mail but framing the problem just as an “incident” and not in a geopolitical and infrastructural dimension just hides the elephant in the room.

It’s a bummer to not be able to be in touch with your loved ones or check your work mail but framing the problem just as an “incident” and not in a geopolitical and infrastructural dimension just hides the elephant in the room. Hardware issues (your computer has physical components inside that make your device susceptible to connecting with others and they can fail), operative system going mad (out of date drivers, for example, which means that your operative system doesn’t get along with the hardware); imposing firewall and antivirus that blocks stuff without explaining it to you), router hiccups (that box is connected to the whole global internet and coordinates your connection; it might just be unplugged from the energy supply or loose cables, misconfiguration, too many people hooked up or just old and grumpy), internet service provider fuck ups (maintenance procedures, oversubscription overbooking actual resources to gain more profit ), intentional blocking (governments can order to cut it off (1)), submarine cable mishaps (ship anchors, fish trawlers, earthquakes, turbidity currents, sharks or even copper scavengers) and the list goes on.
It’s a miracle every time you load a page successfully.

Tangibility of the internet: the infrastructure that lies beneath

A friend told me the other day that they can’t imagine the physicality of digital technologies because they are not able to grasp it’s material form, it’s body. Internet is alive, it has veins and lungs. It grows old, overheats, gets confused and forgets.

Internet is alive, it has veins and lungs. It grows old, overheats, gets confused and forgets.

When things break, we realise what lies beneath, I mean literally beneath: internet is a spaghetti-work of really long wires that root into the earth and sea.

What started off as an experiment with wire insulated with tarred hemp and India rubber submerged in the water of New York Harbor 174 years ago (2), is now 885,000 km (3) of purified glass hairs irrigating thousands of volts of power and 80 TB of data per second (thats like seeing 18.26 years of your life on video(4) or 1.25 times the Library of Alexandria(5)). Nearly 300(6) undersea fibre optic cables link the world’s telecommunications.

A little bit more than a decade ago, Internet was this “thing” that some dudes were working on in labs, funded by governments because of the panic and paranoia around possible war.

Then personal computers came in, it started to seem profitable so money started to flow in, the dot com boom, 3.0, social network platforms, mobile devices, balloons and drones, big data, zero-rating… Oh, it goes so fast.

14 years after the launch of the first web site, more than half is owned by private companies. There’s approximately one billion web sites now(7) hosted in 10 monopolies. Amazon hosts a fifth part(8). 67% of the data centers are concentrated alone in U.S.A, Canada and Europe.

Approximately one billion web sites are now hosted in 10 monopolies. Amazon hosts a fifth part. 67% of the data centers are concentrated alone in U.S.A, Canada and Europe.

Let’s say that 4 out of 10 people in the world have access to the internet(9). This is an average so it is a cold fact. I’ll put it into context. AWID forum 2016 was in Brazil. Brazil’s internet penetration is 66.4%(10) and it is the 4th country in the world with most number of internet users (after China, India and the U.S).

There is a huge buzz of internet activity in Asia Pacific and Latin America, yet in their territories scarcely a quarter of the data is stored(11): China(1.8%), India(2.7%), Brazil (0.9%)(12).

And if you cross reference with where the physical part of the internet is produced(13), these countries are also the hot spots of electronic industry, generally under devastating conditions of labour exploitation and appalling environmental impact.

Wait, let’s go one step back in the chain, to the source: minerals are extracted and sucked up from places like Eastern Congo and passed through a variety of intermediaries before being purchased by multinational electronic companies.

But in Congo itself, only 3.9% of the population has access to internet(14).

Obviously, all these telecommunication and electronic monopolies have their headquarters in the “global north” where there is, with exceptions, favourable laws for digital communication and expression (15).

While in the “backyard” of the global South, countless information leaks reveal multimillion dollar budgets are invested in surveillance(16) and bots(17) (computer programs), which sharpens the already vulnerable context human right defenders (18), journalists(19) and activists are immersed in, as well as manipulating information and communication streams as a whole.

Remember the submarine cables we were talking about? Each one of them has owners. There’s a lot of money put into laying down even one of those. Let’s take Brazil as an example again: it has 16 landing points and 13 different submarine cables connected with 20 countries (concentrated in Latin America, Africa and the U.S)(20). This makes it the most branched territory of Latin America and the Caribbean and in the whole world in fact. Who has a stake in this data nervous system? AT&T, América Móvil, Verizon, Level 3 and dozens more of companies. We were struggling to snatch a bit of internet all the days in the AWID Forum and we were 100km away from one of those giant submarine cables (there is a landing point in Salvador).

We were struggling to snatch a bit of internet all the days in the AWID Forum and we were 100km away from one of those giant submarine cables (there is a landing point in Salvador).

That’s ironic and an indicator of how it all works.

And since most of these cables cross the U.S.A, wiretapping becomes irresistible for their secret agencies and federal government. Edward Snowden’s document leak reveals to what extent they intercept foreign data. There is a historical tendency to eavesdrop: the United States Navy and National Security Agency (NSA) succeeded in placing wire taps on Soviet underwater communication lines during the years of the Cold War(21).

Dilma Rousseff, former Brazilian president, was outraged by the snooping eye of the U.S, and announced a $185 million cable project called EulaLink, a joint venture between Brazilian telecoms provider Telebras and Spain’s IslaLink. This will connect Brazil’s Fortaleza with Cabo Verde, Spain’s Gran Canaria and Portugal’s Lisbon. It was expected to start end of next year, but now let’s see how that turns out after Brazil’s political turmoil.

And, of course, megalomaniac projects like Free Basics and Project Loon are leading a third wave of colonialism, in the name of “global access”, intending to replace the welfare state with apps (mobile phone applications) for health, education, employment and local information.

Let’s just recall that both Facebook (head of Free Basics) and Google (which founded “X”, the “semi-secret research-and-development facility” that cooked up Project Loon) are not just knee deep in all sorts of scandals that violate basic human rights(22) but monstrously evolve into this diffuse omnipresence that fiddles with the invisible puppet strings through lobbying, and is always willing to cynically collaborate with the highest bidder.

We need interstices to touch each other

You may be overwhelmed at this point with so much information. I don’t intend to freak you out or give you a headache. This whole preface is to emphasize the importance of not just addressing but intersecting technologies with our social and political lives.

We are all on the internet. You’re on it now. And even if you don’t directly have access to it, that surveillance camera that filmed you today is on-line, as well as your hospital record, just to give some examples.

The internet can seem so sumptuous but let us not forget the fascinating complexity of life in all it’s extent. Networks are everywhere. They are not just merely digital. There is billions of bits of data flowing around us in each instant. A network is nothing more and nothing less than devices (a machine, a body) that share a common language (protocols), and that are seeking to exchange data. A complicity embedded in all species.

On one hand, we face the challenge to defend internet as a common good, beyond the claws of Capitalism and Patriarchy; on the other, we encounter the possibility of creating and engaging in other landscapes. Bringing to life places (though sometimes ephemeral) like the Feminist Internet Exchange FixHub in AWID Forum is of extreme relevance.

We need seedbeds to nurture our curiosities, compost our anxieties, sprout trust and confidence, trigger our agency, pollinate our revolts. We need to question who programs our quantified lives, how we interact with the code that embeds our everyday.

The term “interface” means surface of contact. So how do we touch each other? What is the texture of our encounter?

Programming is weaving variables. Come experiment with us. Let’s paint our own landscapes, our own networks. We’ll break things apart and patch them up again. We’ll create our own protocols and policies. We can’t all agree. We don’t have to agree. There will be thousand of seeds that intertwine and articulate.

And we also need to understand how internet works, so we can really get hands on the core, the kernel. Not at a stereotypical technical level, but in a more significant and embodied sense from where we can infect others and conspire.

If I were to imagine a village

During this AWID Forum (2016), we were all invited to imagine together a feminist village. I’d like to share my brush-strokes:

In our village, we would build our own machines in deep respect with Nature and share all our recipes and blueprints, thrilled with the drifts yet to be sketched. Our data centers would be powered by renewable energy and take naps. There would be no waste because we would return to the Earth, the minerals we have taken from it.

Instead of big data mining and processing, there would be technomagic rituals of collective memory and storytelling.

Instead of social network platforms, there would be delirious playgrounds in which we could weave ideas and dreams.

Instead of black box algorithms and hegemonic search engines, there would be Cheshire bots posing provocative questions and riddles to guide us through libre(23) databases.

Instead of telecommunication service providers, there would be community managed ecosystems.

Instead of artificial intelligence there would be organic intuition and synaesthesia.

Instead of augmented reality, there would be consciousness and receptiveness. We would experience unsuspected dimensions, not through apps but through mutant home-brewed archives.

In our village, technologies wouldn’t be this steel corpse, a blinking electronic thingy that is worshiped or hated, or a useful tool made more and more invisible, but the intersection of prosthesis and bodies aware of it’s collective synapsis.

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Footnotes

1 One example is the Egyptian government cut off case in 2011. A follow up here.

2 “Submarine communications cable” | Wikipedia »» Source

3 “Watch: This map shows the 885,000 km of Internet cable hidden under the ocean” | Science Alert »» Source

4 Calculation based on 500MB/1 hour of video.

5The Library of Alexandria, claimed to be the largest library of ancient times, harbored 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes »» Source

6 “10 facts about Internet undersea cables” | Mental Floss »» Source

7 Número de sitios web »» Source: Internet Live Stats

8 Nota sobre hosting »» Source: Built With

9 Definition of internet access »» Source: Internet Live Stats

10 Usuarixs en Internet »» Source: Internet Live Stats

11 “2014 Data Center Industry Survey” | Uptime Institute »» Source

12 Data Center Map »» Source

13Growth in electronics production by country »» [Source]: (https://www.electronics.ca/growth-in-electronics-production-by-country.html)

14 Internet users by country »» Source: Internet Live Stats

15 DLA Piper Data Protection web site »» Source

16 For more information, check sources like EFF and Motherboard

17 “Green Party seeks trolls” »» Source

18“Latin America: A Dangerous Environment for Human Rights Advocates” | Latin America Working Group »» Source

19 “What are the world’s deadliest countries for reporters?” | Al Jazeera »» Source

20 Submarine internet cable map

21 Submarine communications cable” | Wikipedia »» Source

22 For example the Prism Surveillance Program

23 “To emphasize that “free software” refers to freedom and not to price, we sometimes write or say “free (libre) software,” adding the French or Spanish word that means free in the sense of freedom.” Extract from “FLOSS and FOSS.

 

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