Tag Archives: oceans

Around the World in Submarine Internet Cable

As we attempt to navigate the ever-expanding seas of data in the information economy, we can overlook the extent to which data streams run underneath the world’s seas to create a quite concrete sense of the interlinked.  For such cables underlie the increasing notion of geographical proximity we experience daily, from the world of big finance to mundane online transactions.  Ocean floor mapping had barely begun when the first cable was laid underneath the Atlantic, connecting England to the United States by being painstakingly laid by throwing thousands of kilometers of telegraph cable overboard ships from wooden beams loaded with cable, moving from the middle of the Atlantic in two opposite directions, to create a subaquatic bridge of metal wire, by 1858. “At last the great problem is solved,” Walt Whitman wrote in celebration of the achievement of the laying of the Atlantic Telegraph enterprise as a precedent that “set all doubts are forever at rest as to the practicability of spanning the world with telegraph wire–of joining Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Australia toegether by electric current.”

The globalization avant la letter that Whitman celebrated the “grandeur of this creates achievement of the Nineteenth Century” for confirming the “practicality of communicating across the Atlantic,” on the eve of America’s Civil War, was a triumphant enterprise whose “immensity” threw cold water on doublers was cast in disturbingly radicalized terms, to be sure, as a bond that liberalized a bond by which “Saxon extends the hand of amity to Saxon,” of an “all-conquering race that is always progressing and extending its power and influence, whether in the icy Arctic and Antarctic or in the tropical heats of India” by “lighting flashes from shore to shore: Whitman sung the “chord of communication” that would “vibrate forever with the peaceful messages of commernse, the lightning-winged words of the press, and the thousand anxious queries of individual affection to the health and happiness of the absent and the loved” in the Brooklyn Daily Times, as an ethnic triumphalism that “conquered time and space . . by man’s inventive power” as a sublime achievement. And the raptures into which the transatlantic cable set the poet who so desired worldly unity in 1858 saw the miracle of allowing the world to “reason together” “without the aid of palpable agencies” suggests a fascinating promotion of a discourse network uniting Old and New Worlds whose map was aptly chosen by Telegeography as a harbinger of a new horizon of information exchange in the twenty-first century.

The spans of privately funded fiber optic undersea cables that have been lain across oceans floors, some stretching over 28,000 kilometers, are a literalization of global circumnavigation. They provide an image of global networking as well as offering the most massive engineering feat on earth that is hidden to human sight–and are more an emblem of globlization, in many ways, than the contraction of global space.  And the rapidity with which further cable is being lain to link the world’s data flows along faster and more secure lines of communication mirrors global interconnectedness–senses of connectivity and warping past concepts of proximity, unifying the differently owned cables.

Conjuring of a surprising antiquated format of charting coyly suggests the increasing interconnectivity of the Information Age, and it also channels the extreme novelty of being interlinked. The retro iconography of a chat channels the very claims of modernity that TeleGeography, a global telecom, pioneered to channel information–and done so by familiarizing viewers with a distinctly concept of space by how we are increasingly interlinked on information highways often concealed far beneath the sea.  Rather than naturalize an image of high-speed connections, the clever choice to rehabilitate a slightly romanticized earlier mapping of oceanic expanse suggests the new space of online data.  And it takes the notion of the electronic frontier seriously, by seeking to orient viewers to the new mental space that such sunken data lines create.  If the map of the bridging of oceanic by sunken internet cables domesticizes the transcendence of distance through the increasing interconnectedness of information flows.

There is clear pleasure in the retrograde mode of mapping also reveals the actual distances that the physical substrate of the World Wide Web inhabits in so doing, and suggests that we would do well to remember the physical substrate by which the global financial economy is interlinked. To be sure, the format of the map echoes laying the first undersea cables across the Pacific, in the mid-nineteenth century in 1850, when the thrill of mapping the expanse of undersea cable was mapped for the first time enabled possibilities of direct communication networks in the Anglophone world that the poet Walt Whitman himself–he who asked readers ponder the image of a thousand acres, and the linkages among all Americans, and in older age would celebrate the inauguration of the first transcontinental railroad.

Whitman provided a vertiginous reaction that registered the excitement that the cable trigged in the United States in a rather short newspaper article of 1858 focussed on the “moral effect of the Atlantic cable” on the nation, which barely touched on its technological triumph: it is striking that Whitman, long practice in the material practices of setting type to mediate the human voice, celebrated the technology of the cables laid under the ocean by wooden boats as linking communication between England and the United States, as Anglophone nation, by a cutting edge technology of deeply spiritual significance by which he was fascinated. The piece is a sort of meditation on human geography, or the aesthetics of space that the cable changed in a profoundly deep historical–as well as submarine–manner, bridging distances of communication in new ways.

Whitman was long fascinated by the compilation of voices in type, and networks of communication that spanned nations as the railroad. In 1858, already an established poet, he celebrated the cable as as a material network for transporting semaphore, if not human voice, transcending space and binding England and America in truly inseparable ways as a sign of the fostering of global peace–attracting much popular celebration, even if he judged it would not “bring one iota of personal benefit” to the majority of American inhabitants, the electrification of “unbounded excitement” makes it seem as if the internet was introduced to all, in democratic fashion, generating a level of excitement, evoked in the map below of the Submarine Telegraph, worthy of “glorifying a grand scientific achievement” that outstripped any “merely material considerations” by its ability to “thrill every breast with admiration and triumph” in ecstatic terms: Whitman waxed poetic as he praised how “the sentiment of union that makes the popular heart beat and quiver,” more than its technological advantage, imagining that the network set a deep tie spanning the Anglophone world betwden two countries “no longer [able] to keep each other at arms-length.”

The role of technology in furthering the natural relations within or coherence of a nation–a point of fascination common to the institutional infrastructure of America Whitman also celebrated of his own poems–was almost cartographically conceived as a way of unveiling unities within the world able to bridge space, and even, at times, time, able to transport and convey messages that depended on oceanic travel.

Was the technology of the Submarine Cable an extension of the national unity Whitman already celebrated of the United States? The bond that the cable created was cast as a profound historical event, leading England and the United States to set aside any rivalries, having forged this deeper bond of both “heart and feeling”–the network was a deep-lying embodiment of shared purpose, even if it was not seen! Perhaps its very invisibility added to its power. Whitman had celebrated in the 1855 Leaves of Grass the very conceit of achieving such a “merge” through his poetic voice, a merge between peoples, races, and classes; he was open to the idea that the Cable achieved a merge between nations, allowing voices or at least semaphore to span space. Accordingly, he invested the transatlantic coupling of two nations with almost spiritual dimensions. The cable’s laying open new chapter of global history opened by triumphs of ingenuity, skill and technology was less of interest than the “exultation with which it has been greeted and the unbounded enthusiasm with which it has everywhere been received” to foster a sentiment “that makes the States throb with tumultuous emotions and thrills every breast with admiration and triumph.” The cable indeed became a form of sexual congress and intimacy between continents, for Whitman, as much as a communications network, the cable from Newfoundland a fundamentally triumph over international dissensus.

Can one imagine a better promoter of the sort of information highway that realizing poetic goals “material bond for the transmission of news of the rise and fall of stocks,” as Whitman seems to merge his role as newspaperman and poet to celebrate the mystical resonance of cable that would make the designers of the internet applaud. Whitman was amazed that the “mighty outburst of enthusiasm all over the land” that the laying of the cable provoked in the United States, greater than any in his recollection, beyond other celebrations of the nation: the apparent contradiction that “Probably to an immense majority, the Telegraph Cable will not bring one iota of personal benefit” would be outweighed by the “union of the Anglo-Saxon race, henceforth forever to be a unit.”

Whitman was almost anticipating how TeleGeography didn’t only borrow the antiquated iconography of marine charts to celebrate globalization, but found a precedent to celebrate relying high fiber optic cable across the ocean floor: a communications network has perhaps rarely been cast so openly in spiritually elevating terms by someone not its promoter. There was of course considerable physical effort, and much planning, now unseen, as well as the loss of thousands of cable underwater for several years, until warships, loaded with cable, divided the oceanic span by setting off from a point in the midst of the Atlantic in opposite directions, to create a subaquatic bridge, after having lost kilometers of metal wire, by 1858.

The first message took over sixteen hours to arrive in full from England’s Queen Victoria to U.S. President Buchanan, by undersea cable–

The shrinking of distances was a powerful breakthrough of the ability to map space in different metrics, however, than every seemed possible for transatlantic travel. And it’s hence quite apt that the antiquated techniques of mapping global relations were reprised by the folks at TeleGeography to remap the current global growth of internet cables by the syntax and aesthetics from an Age of Discovery.

The appealing charting of the hidden network of submarine cables designed by TeleGeography didn’t only borrow the antiquated iconography of marine charts from an Age of Discovery in order to promote the expanding spread of submarine fiber-optic cables in amusing ways.  For the image served to suggest the shifts in spatial connectedness that such increasingly rapid data flows have allowed, and to suggest a map that, in focussing on the seas–and the overlooked areas of marine space–returned to an interesting if somewhat overlooked spatial metaphor to consider and visualize the extent to which global financial networks and information systems move in particularly flexible ways across the permeable boundaries of nations, if not the degree to which national units have ceased to be the confines that matter, as cross-border flows are increasingly the primary sorts of traffic that matter to be mapped.

Phone Calls in 2012

A more familiar global remapping of phone calls,constructed on a study by students of business, Pankaj Ghemawat and Steven A. Altman, partly funded by the logistics firm DHL, an approximate quantification of globalization was made by the metrics of cross-border telephone calls in 2012 worldwide, in which the thickness corresponds to the minutes spent on the phone–and presumably the closeness of connections, if filtered through the relative costs of calls and the ability to pay them.

In a sense, the chart featured by TeleGeography openly incorporates less data, while noting the varied speeds of connections, in an image of interconnectedness, and positions itself less as a cutting edge snapshot of globalization or globalized than at the dawn of the possibilities of future interconnectedness that the laying of fiber-optic cables of greater speed can promote.  If the map of telephone calls raises questions of information flows, some 41 percent originating in what the authors identified as “advanced economies” to “emerging economies,” and only a small fraction (9%) originating in an “emerging economy,” the technology may also illustrate the precise demographic that continue to adopt telephony:  the authors observe that the dominant “calling patterns” reflect “interactions due to immigrants,” with most international calls being placed from the United States to Mexico and India, countries of first-generation immigrants–rather than reflecting actual information flows.

TeleGeography seems decidedly optimistic about the possibilities for global circumnavigation fibre-optic cables can promote.  In place of offering a map of actual flows of data, or a revealing look at where cables lie, the adoption of an aestheticized image and iconography of the nautical chart to map the ever-expanding web of cables that connect the world advances an argument about the sorts of ties cables facilitate, in order to illustrate and promote the ever-increasing multiplicity of ways information can travel across the globe without regard for the bounds of the nation-state.  Even as we bemoan NAFTA, or raise concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the networks of cables that currently span the terrestrial sphere divide into 285 separate privately owned segments show a coherent network has rapidly grown–its extent more than doubling in length over the past three years–and seems poised to only grow in coming years, to render national protectionism a thing of the past:  the map leaves viewers only to imagine its benefits.  While not seeking to quantify actual data flows, the scope of the map seems to be to naturalize the broad range of traffic lying such cables allows, if it is also jumps backwards over the many traditions of oceanogapahical mapping to show a seafloor that is not marked by drifting continental plates and scars of underwater earthquake activity–

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NOAA

–but a smooth surface of cables that seem to be lain without ever encountering natural obstructions or topographical variations in the ocean floor.

The expansion of transcontinental submarine travel was on the cutting edge of the 1850s, and the laying of miles of lost submarine cables the Atlantic floor may have led Thome de Gamonde to realize hopes for a tunnel between England and France that parallel the previous laying of cable–

–and project the first underwater tunnel linking England and France in 1855 for rail, a project stopped for “strategic reasons” though the idea of such a chunnel–imagined by Napoleon’s mining engineer of mines as conveying horse-drawn carriages–

–was only completed until Francois Mitterand was driven by Rolls Royce (a concession?) to board the inaugural train.

The linkage between the nations was a feet of boring a hole, but bridged the very question of territoriality that the first plans of the 1855 version, presented to both Napoleon III and Queen Victoria to be forged through undersea rock, as if piercing the earth’s mantle–

–posed to territorial bounds, and the definition of sovereignty.

The submarine network of cable now totals upwards of 550,000 miles.  Although it is never seen above ground, and lies concealed beneath the seas, it now seems to animate most international commerce.  There is a pleasant irony in adopting the decorative aspects of marine charts to map a contemporary image of global circumnavigation, since they gesture to deep shifts in the seas of information, but also evoke the marvel of rendering visible what is all but unseen.  The exact locations of such cables are not displayed, of course, but the stylized presence suggests a decidedly early modern form of boastfulness–“according to the best Authorities [and] with all the latest Discoveries to the PRESENT PERIOD,” the extent to which the infrastructure of the Information Age spans the seas.  What once was a site of marvels revealed by the officer turned conservationist Jacques Cousteau is a field for information carriers, even if monsters inhabit its depths.

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The “New Map” updates the recent rapid exponential expansion of the network fiber optic cables in recent years as a sort of corporate promotion, rehabilitating the marine chart to naturalize the submarine network that now carries a large share of global financial and administrative information worldwide.  Retrospectively mapping the expansion of this exoskeleton of the anthropocene ignores the technologies on which such mapping suggest, recalling the abilities to technologically harness steam, wind, and power to recreate the romance and adventure of global circumnavigation in an updating of the 1873 romance and fast-paced adventure Jules Verne told of a race against the mechanized clock by a constellation of transit networks.

Verne en 80 Jours

For much as Verne offered a quickly paced adventure mildly disguised celebration of technological unification of the globe, the retrograde if glorious map masking as an engraved superimposing high-fibre cables on image of the ocean as understood in days gone conceals the clear corporate interests or material technology that underpin the Information Age. And the recent expansion of a trans-continental high-tension submarine fiber network able to carry 26.2 terrabits/second of data across the undersea floor–which once took seventeen hours and forty minutes–is an awesome acceleration of time that unbinds us from all accustomed temporal constraints in a dizzying fashion. Even as Russian and other spy ships are operating in dangerously close proximity to the cables that carry an infrastructure of global communications that maintain the illusion of the open exchange of information across territorial bounds. (The safety of the antiqued map dispels any such fears of disruption of information exchange in its friendly presentation of a mysterious unknown underwater world.). And now that 99% of global internet traffic occurs thousands of feet undersea–from Netflix to now literally offshore financial transactions to email, the more black-boxing a map can perform, the better!

The appeal of the map not only is of an oceanic unknown–but an act of traversing the very national boundaries that seemed so solidly perpetuated in paper maps. The map of the oceanic unknown celebrates the laying of a material web of the world wide web as if it were another oceanographical detail, but masks the unseen nature of the cables that were lain in hidden fashion underneath the seas:  indeed, rather than the slightly earlier Verne-ian classic of 1870 with which it is often paired, the map doesn’t heaven to futuristic science, but sublimated a similar story of submarine itineraries.  Indeed, the map offers a picturesque recuperation of an aesthetics of global unity that serves to reframe the newly prominent submarine network that ships recently strung across the ocean floor.  It conceals the labor and mechanical drudgery of doing so–both the engineering or the fragility of the fibre-optic network, and the material basis of an electromagnetic carrier lurking deep under the seas.  In the Cable Map Greg Mahlknecht coded, the spans of current cables already connect hubs of communication across oceans at varied but increasing speeds, now approaching 26.2 terabits/sec across an astounding 6,6000 km from Virginia Beach to Bilbao, Spain. And while the depths of such cables is not apparent in most maps, the lodging of the cables on the ocean bedrock, 8,000 meters beneath sea-level, is argued to promise the “stability” of such an infrastructure that seem removed from the effects of human interventions from such old-fashioned addons to the seafloor as anchors or submarines.

Greg's Active

And the planned additions to the network, in part enabled by warming waters, are poised to greatly expand:

Greg's Transatlantic

Greg’s Cable Map

The work that the map modeled after an engraving of global seas does is serious, for it integrates the growing network of fiber-optic cable at the ocean’s floor into the seascape that nautical charts showed as a light blue watery expanse.  For as the price for fiber-optic cables precipitously dropped since 2000, this material infrastructure of global financial markets has not only grown, but kept up with the rapid improvement in network communication along a growing network of 250,000 km of submarine cable most folks have limited knowledge, and whose public image is in need of better PR, the more eye candy the better. The complex web of what Russ Fordyhce of Infinera has slyly called “the workhorse of the Internet” using fiber optic–a seemingly antiquated technology in an age of streaming and cellular towers, in a high-speed fiber network able to carry internet traffic that roots a virtual world. Such high-pressure sub-sea links expanded subsea capacity by an Intelligent Transport Network, expanding the network of undersea cables to meet broadband needs across the word by 100G flows.

The speed of such expanded capacity for submarine transport as a network of “intelligence transport” suggests a massive updating of our notions of transportation, by a restricted number of undersea fiber cables that seem staged to supersede cable networks in providing bandwidth. The pictorial addition of such fairly florid decorative detail from nautical charts to invest the routes of hidden submarine cables’ with an aesthetic that both caused it to be named one of the best maps of 2015 and exemplifies how to lie with maps, if the current expansion of fiber network capacities suggest that the network of just four years ago are indeed antiquated by the Infinera and other organizations promising to transport data at significantly greater and greater speeds.

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The 2015 map, published online, but emulating the paper map, seems to conceal the extent of work that went into not only laying the cable, but ensuring that it was not disrupted, but blended seamlessly into the surrounding submarine landscape.  FLAG–the Fiberoptic Link Around the Globe–after all offered a sort of modern updating of the boast of Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg.  For Fogg wagered £20,000 that the speed of the combination of trains and steamboats would allow him to travel around the globe so that he could return to the very same seat he occupied in the Reform Club in London in only eighty days–a boast based on his trust in the speed of modern conveyances of steam travel.  For Fogg’s image of interconnectedness was realized in the copper cables that conducted telegraphy traffic.

These telegraphy cables lain under the Atlantic by the 1880s by the Eastern Telegraph Company across the Atlantic and Pacific, which by 1901 linked England to North America, India and Malay in a network of communications that offers a vision of corporate interconnection spanning the expanse of the British Empire and providing it with an efficient communications system that was its administrative and commercial underpinning.

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Eastern Telegraph Company (1901), planned cables shown by dotted lines–Wikimedia

But rather than perform the feat of circumnavigation, the matrix of underwater internet cables is based on the creation of a submarine matrix to carry any message anywhere all the time–when it can be linked to an on-land cable–save, that is, in Antarctica, where the frigid waters, for now, would freeze the cable and disable it.  Fogg staked his wager after noticing a map showing the construction of British rail exchanges that allowed long-distance transit across India, believing in his ability to achieve global circumnavigation on a network of carriers, based on his trust as a passenger and subject of the British Empire–and the infrastructure the enabled news, commerce, and administrative connections to travel with velocity, leading twenty-four of the thirty ships capable of laying cable-laying to be owned by British firms by 1896.  The framed cartouche in the upper right of the 2015 Submarine Cable Map echoes the triumphalism of the “present day” in boasting of the achievements by which, since “the first intercontinental telephony submarine cable system TAT-1 connected North America to Europe in 1958 with an initial capacity of 640 Kbps, . . . . transatlantic cable capacity has compounded 38% per year to 27 Tbps in 2013,” as US-Latin American capacity has nearly quadrupled.

The map, revealing the material network to what most of us perceive as coursing through the air, less effectively places the course of cables in evidence than depicts their now naturalized course.  The seascape of the Information Age seems, indeed, to demand the naturalizing of the courses of submarine cables, shown as so many shipping lines, running across the Atlantic and to the Caribbean, around the coast of Africa, from India to Singapore and to Hong Kong and Japan, before coursing across the Pacific.  Is its quaint cartographical pastoralization of the courses of communication under the oceans, we see a reverse rendering of a materialized image of globalization, disguised by a faux nostalgia for the mapping of the as yet unknown world that will be revealed by the impending nature of an even greater increase of data flows.  Indeed, the breakneck speeds of data transport are noted prominently in some of the cartouches framed at the base of the map, which suggest the two-fold subject of the map itself:  both the routes of cables that were laid on the ocean floor, and the speed of data transport their different latency allowed.  The cartouche is a nice rendering of the corporate promise of delivering data that TeleGeography presumably makes to its customers, despite the different ownership of many of the stretches of cable that exist, and the lack of harmony, proportionality or geometric design in how the cables are in fact lain.

Latency of cables

That the network of submarine cable retains a curious focus on relays in England that is a telling relic of the nineteenth century.

The internet’s network still seems to start in England in Porthcurno, moving to Spain and through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean to Alexandria and then turn down the Gulf of Suez through the Red Sea, and around the Arabian Peninsula to Dubai, before moving across the Indian Ocean to Bombay and on to Malaysia and through the South China Sea to Hong Kong and up the coast of China, it creates an even more expansive set of exchanges and relays than Fogg faced.  For while Fogg was dependent on rail to traverse the United States as well as much of Europe, where he could pass through the Suez Canal to reach a steamer engine, and then cross India by train, before getting a ship at Calcutta to Hong Kong and Yokohama, the multiplicity of connections and switches that the submarine cables create disrupt any sense of linearity and carry information at unheard of speed–fiber-optic cables carry information at a velocity that satellite transmission cannot approach or rival.

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Voyage of Phineas Fogg by rail, steamship, and boat–Wikimedia

The relays of paired cables now enable the instantaneous transmission of information between continents realize a nineteenth century fantasy of an interlinked world in ways that expanded beyond contemplation, the possibility of visiting the countries that FLAG traces are actually verges on impossibility–if only since the network offers multiple pathways of simultaneous transit.

The ambitions of those earlier Telegraph cables in connecting the world far transcends Fogg’s plan to create a path by which he could move between transit hubs.  His plans are dwarfed by the ambitions of modernity of the range of active and future underwater cable revealed in Greg’s Cable Map in ways that suggest the ambitions of creating an ever-more intensely interlinked world, where increasing number cables have been laid to fashion the actual physical infrastructure of the internet.

Greg's Cable Map

Greg’s Cable Map (click here for detail on each lines)

We often render the “hidden world” of privately owned transatlantic and other cables as a separate underseas world of cables lying on the seabed, able to be disrupted at its nodes, but removed from alike the shoreline and terrestrial world.

Underseas World

In strong distinction from such an image, the recuperation of something like nautical engraving by TeleGeography makes the clever point of naturalizing the greatest infrastructure of the Information Age–one that sometimes seems to have outweighed investment in the visible infrastructures of our cities and roads–within the currents of our seas, and as colored by the very hues by which the land is mapped as if to show the seamlessness of the communicative bridges that they create.

Given the extreme overload of data that these maps reveal–and the eeriness of a world created by the extent of cable laid–It’s in fact quite apt that the telecom firm TeleGeography showcased the interconnected nature of global communications this year by adopting the style of nineteenth-century cartographical tools.  It’s probably not at all a coincidence that in this age of big data, there’s a deep romance in the symbolic reclaiming of the crisply engraved lines of nineteenth-century cartography that folks like Nathan C. Yau of FlowingData pioneered in the online publication of a Statistical Atlas of the United Sates with New Data, refiguring information of the 2010 Census and 2013 American Community Survey.  Although designed in bits, the maps emulate the engraved delineations created for Francis Amasa Walker’s first Atlas:  Yau announced he had done out of some disgust that budget cuts prevented the Bureau of the Census from creating the atlas displaying its data in a Census Atlas–despite its success in accumulating so much data.

A quite clever graphic designer, Yau has posted sequences of  detailed non-dynamic maps that evoke the lithographic detail and crisp objectivity with which Walker created multiple legible embodiments as the Director of the US Census from 1870, when his interest in data processing led a set of new maps of the nation to be printed in Harpers Magazine, and the Census to grow to 22 volumes.  So well are we trained in grasping information via elegant visual forms that Yau bemoaned the absence of a similarly set of stately maps by evoking the project Walker envisioned as a form of mapping serving the public good:  and his online images embody data lying in the repository of Census data, from geological records to the distribution of human populations–and digest data to recognizable form, whose individual snapshots seem a nostalgic embodiment of data available from the American Community Survey.

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FlowingData, “Map Showing the Area of Land Cover for Forests within the Territory of the Coterminous United States” (2015) from data compiled by American Community Survey (2013)

population-density

Flowing Data, “Map Showing Five Degrees of Density, the Distribution of Population” (2015) from American Community Survey (2013)

It is somewhat less expected that the format of an engraved or traditional map be showcased to reveal the system of submarine cables lying on the ocean’s floor:  few would consider the invisible network with nostalgia for the medium of the paper map.

To be sure, the very subject of internet cables are more appropriately rendered in an appropriately futuristic mode that habituates us to its ambitions by expanding the colors of a public transit map to reveal an image of an interlinked world–

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The decision to “go retro” breaks conspicuously with such a choice for the futuristic design, and accommodates the multiplying extent of fiber optic cables that have been laid across the world’s waters so as to network the globe.  Only in 2014, TeleGeography issued a staggering map of the improvements in linkages of relays in submarine cable systems, suggesting the extent of the interlinked world to which we have become familiar not only thanks to Edward Snowden, but to our reliance on global data flows that increasingly enable financial markets worldwide, surpassing material constraints.

2014 Telegeography

TeleGeography (2014)

Such a map is overly schematic, indeed, since many of the cables’ paths are not openly disclosed.  From the land, we cannot see the landing sites where such fiber-optic cables go underwater, as Trevor Paglen has recently reminded us, in a series of diptychs that contrast the cables barely concealed in NOAA maps and the otherwise placid landscapes of the beaches beneath which they run; few realize the extent to which the information that travels on them is likely to be monitored as a form of mass surveillance, which we are far more likely to associate with satellites or surveillance.

But the complexity of the how information is carried along such cables is as boggling to the mind as the awesomeness of its ambitions.  Perhaps recognizing the sense of overwhelming its readers with data overloads in its maps, the 2015 map of submarine cables from Telegeography updated the format of an engraved map, and put in online in a fully zoomable form, to allow one to examine its lovingly rendered detail in a map that harkens back to charts of nautical discoveries but celebrates the rapidity of delivering information in an updated version of the corporate triumphalism of the Eastern Telegraph Company.  That map, which boasts in evocative language to be revised “according to the best Authorities with all the latest Discoveries,” foregrounds the multiple linkages of fiber optic cables that carry the vast majority of communications–of which “oversea” satellites link but a fraction–so efficiently they at first carried upwards of a thousandfold as much data compared to the older copper cables that lay below the sea recently–280 Mbps of data per pair–and moved 100 Gbps across the Atlantic by 2012–and the prediction 39 Tbsp is even feared to barely satisfy demand.  For transatlantic cable have come to carry some 95% of international voice and data traffic, and are viewed as a fundamental–if unseen–part of our global infrastructure, potentially vulnerable to disastrous interruption or disruption.

The familiarity of the “New Map of the Submarine Cables connecting the World” is not only charming; it is a somewhat subtle naturalization of the  new materiality of information flows so that they are regarded as a part of our new lived environment.  To be sure, the paths of cables are highly stylized, as if they fit within the oceans’ currents, although they sacrifice accuracy even though they suggest their private ownership and considerable density.

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The open-ness of this mapping of submarine cables has been rare until recently–as recently as 2009, the location of the cable that arrives in the UK at Cornwall Beach was kept secret even on military maps, although commercial fishing trawlers and other boats are provided with access to them, somewhat paradoxically but unsurprisingly, lest they run across and damage the undersea cables that relay so many vital data flows across the globe under the seas, and whose severing could potentially come at a cost of as much as $1.5 million per hour.

America to three continents

The actual density of such cables laid at the bottom of the sea is not displayed on the above map, of course, which conceals their precise locations or the complexity of their routes, which are tantamount to secrets of state and off most maps.

interactive Map
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The map designed by TeleGeography is indeed a romanticized vision of the pathways that information courses around the world, undersea, in an information age; the recuperation of the iconography more familiar from a printed map of the seas than the layers of a web map or data visualization naturalize the presence of such submarine cables in an odd exercise of familiarization.  We might be more suspect of the cartographical tricks of rendering, naturalizing the courses that submarine cables take when we examine the definitive maps of actual submarine cables or study the extent of such offshore cables in an interactive map and more carefully scrutinize their actual expanse.  (Such maps are not actual renderings of their situation on the seabed, if the stark layers that chart these cables are decidedly less harmoniously balanced with the light shades of the mock-engraving, Submarine Cables Connecting the World.)

Decidedly fanciful if naturalistic sea monsters could denote the limits of the known world or the boundaries of secure navigation in many early modern charts, the inclusion of this most pictorial of cartographical iconographies familiar from early engraved maps are aptly appropriated to suggest the absence or gaps in the interlinked nature of space and of what passes as our sense of continuity in 2015–as well, on a not so subliminal level, to evoke the dangers of their disruption.

Transatlantic

So naturalized is its cartographical iconography that the map suggests the new environment of internet cables in which we live.  This naturalization might be nowhere more evident than in the exotic appearances of marine creatures included in its seas.  A longstanding historical association exists between sea monsters with the North Sea, after monsters were first rendered as crowding its overflowing oceans in glorious detail by the bishop-geographer Olaus Magnus in his 1539 map of the land and waters around Scandinavia, who seems to have borrowed from bestiaries to illustrate the dangers that sailors would face in its waters, and to delight his readers and attest to the variety of the created world.

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James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota

A strikingly similar sort of horned seal and spouting fish quite appropriately make an appearance in the 2015 Submarine Cable Map of  TeleGeography within the North Sea and Arctic Ocean, as if to suggest the frigid waters that restrict the services such cables deliver–the spouting animals and seal lifted from Olaus Magnus’ Marine Chart frolic just beyond the regions that are currently covered by the cables’ crowded course.

Is this a hidden representation of what actual spatial limits constrain where countries are able to lie further submarine cable?

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Mapping Populations in the Open Seas

Eric Carle commemorated the tragic story of the 1992 loss at sea of some 28,800 rubber ducks from a container ship in Day-Glo colors in “Ten Rubber Ducks Overboard.”   But rather than encountering multiple marine creatures in their adventures, the orange rubber children’s bath toys were in fact carried on quite circuitous routes of nautical travel:   after leaving Hong Kong, individual ducks migrated over fifteen years along ocean currents across the polar regions to as far West as the islands of the Hebrides and eastern France, or as far South as Peru’s coast.

 

Rubber Duckies

 

We don’t know the exact numbers, but at least several seem to have avoided, happily, the treacherous waters of the Northern Pacific Gyre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–which sadly remains the unfortunate fate of so much plastic substances and waste–where a large portion no doubt lie.

 

North_Pacific_Gyre_World_Map

 

Carle took poetic license to reduce the ducks to ten in his 2005 board book, leading them to meet  seagull, geese and whales on their picturesque voyages in the seas.

11470365

 

Whereas Carle offers readers a narrative of charting how the plastic bathtub toys encountered a live flamingo, pelican, sea turtle, seagull, whale and, of course, a group of live ducks, recent maps of ocean populations portray a population that churn beneath one’s feet so rapidly as to challenges a static mapping of the range of its inhabitants–and the changing nature of its populations of the waters, in a range of maps that leave behind the inhabited earth to foreground shifts in the inhabitation of the seas.

Digitized projections narrate the currents of marine biodynamics narrative in a far more three-dimensional fashion than the voyage that Carle charts in charming tissue collage.  Digitized projections of the shifts of ocean use similarly bright colors to visualize the shifts in oceanic populations tied both to global warming and atmospheric pollutants.  They offer dynamic tools to re-imagine the uses of maps, providing a less prosaic narrative of marine residents that the ducks encountered, and give new urgency to the informational (and narrative) content of oceanographic maps–even as they tracked a similar narrative of the scariness of the interaction between the “natural” and man-made.

 

Carle's Ten Ducks

 

The dynamic mapping of oceanic populations suggests ways of responding to the shifting climates of oceans–rooted less as bucolic preserves of nature or wildlife, than as spaces actively reshaped by the human presence and industries.

The visualizing the increasing ‘jellification’ of oceans, created by both global warning and the effects of modern industry, has gained increasing attention as the increasingly abundant populations of jellyfish  floating along the currents of ocean waters have begun to be mapped, and the permanence of their presence in the oceans begun to be assessed.  The overcrowding of jellyfish in the ocean waters have led oceanographers to worry about the impending ‘jellification’ of the seas that would only spare the Peruvian coasts, and a veritable swarming of jellyfish not only in China, where they might be eaten, the northeast waters of America, the Mediterranean, and Alaska but around the Antarctic:

 

Jellification

 

The wide blooms of the jellies bode not only bad news for swimmers’ jellyfish injuries, and led to record numbers of those treated for stings–in Barcelona, upwards of 400/day–but to fishing economies, as the proliferation of the stinging blobs that can cope with increased pollution, murky waters and algae blooms more than other ocean inhabitants, and threaten the food supplies of fish in overfished waters, by competing for zooplankton, as well as nets of fishermen.  They flock in large numbers to polluted waters  and overdeveloped shorelines with specific intensity.

Among the prime beneficiaries of global warming, jellyfish blooms lead to the release of toxins to oceanic areas and enclosures of farmed fish, jellyfish invasions are described by oceanographer Josep Maria Gili as a simple message of the oceans to mankind: “Your are destroying me.”  Driven by currents and carried in the ballast water of tankers and container ships, jellyfish not only displace local populations, but face reduced predators, including, potentially, the monster jellyfish Nemopilema nomurai, with its six-foot bell diameter.

 

JAPAN-JENVIRONMENT-CLIMATE-JELLYFISH

 

Despite considerable worries that there is actually more plastic than plankton in the ocean, suggesting less mutually convivial relations between synthetic objects and marine life than Eric Carle would have:  indeed, oceanic gyres where plastic products tend to be trapped–and some of the ducks no doubt resulted–swirling around in a region twice the size of the state of Texas, that might in time form a destination of disaster-tourism of its own.  In the gyre, plastic refuse often outnumbers marine plankton by an astounding and terrifying factor of six to one.

 

gyres

 

As much as mapping the distribution of plastics in the ocean, ‘mapping’ plankton populations provides a snapshot of varied distributions of these microscopic inhabitants of the ocean’s expanse.  The mapping of the larger plankton populations congregated on the poles, and pteropods in the most crowded seas–as well as huge “dead zones” where oceanic plankton recedes–in a complex mosaic of local ecosystems, evident in the computer-generated MAREDAT distribution of photosynthetic plankton, and showing the abundance of zooplankton, that do not use photosynthesis, in comparison to photosynthesizing phytoplankton, and a range of plankton varieties:

 

zooplankton

A smaller-grained image of a phytoplankton distribution creates a wonderfully iridescent map of plankton’s oceanic presence in this global distribution of chlorophyll producers–until one can read its legend, or grasp the low levels of populations in areas of the deepest blues, near to the equator.

 

phytoplankton-concentrations1-1

Fig14_83

 

This spectral map of plankton distributions conceals the  shifts with seasonal variation, but one can see in these images of plankton populations (based on data generated by NASA’s MODIS instrument) that the distribution of these mostly oxygen-producing microorganisms has higher presence in colder climes, removed from most human effects, where their higher quantities are registered as yellow–in contrast to the absence of dark blues.   (The entire plankton atlas database is available online.)  The shifts of phytoplankton is marked by a seasonal ebb and flow, however, almost echoing a tidal chart, whose annual flux is tracked in speeded-up time in this digitized “map” based on satellite registrations, in this holistic time-stop graphic of the oceans’ smallest inhabitants.

 

plankton-gifNASA/Goddard

The above visualization echoes the distribution of sea-surface chlorophyll, now averaged out from between 1998 and 2006, to reveal the rise of large “dead-zones” poor in plankton in the oceans, which bode poorly for waters furthest from land:


sea surface chlorophyll

 

Regionally, plankton favor colder waters, but its growth is stimulated and nourished, as this map of levels of chlorophyl worldwide in  September, 1988, which shows the autumn northern sun nourishing a band of chlorophyl plankton, when southern seas are just begun to bloom:

 

chlorow2NASA

The result is a visualization in which, even in a flat projection, one can see land and earth alike teeming with life, as a SeaWiFS instrument scans the world’s oceans for phytoplankton even as it scans the earth’s surface to look for plant life, by measuring the global circulation of carbon in order to track photosynthesis on land and sea like:

 

NAS MAPS PLANKTONNASA Scientific Visualization Studio (2001)–SeaWiFS (Stuart A. Snodgrass)

In this synthetic global view, the dark blue areas of low plankton are similar to the aridity of orange deserts, which also provide no chlorophyll–or oxygen–to the atmosphere.

Somewhat similar seasonal variations are nicely revealed in relatively recent visualizations charting their monthly distributions in the Mediterranean, whose warmer waters of the summer (from May to October) especially diminished the plankton populations in its southern edge, closer to the equator, when the north African coast seems to lose its populations, only to be replenished by January, in a set of images that reveal the variability and resilience of local populations:

 

chlorophyll med

 

The increased limits of oceanic zooplankton suggests the shifting nature of the oceans, and their close relationship to our atmosphere.

 

Zooplankton

 

 

But it does not measure their variability–or the specificity of distinct plankton populations that far off waters and streams hold, and their lack of discrimination weakens the effective understandings of oceanic biodiversity they communicate.  New tools for visualizing these unseen micro-populations that generate so much oxygen on our planet were developed to visualize specific plankton distributions, first prepared for San Francisco’s Exploratorium, based on plankton variety, producing a map of greater discriminating power.  The user-friendly map “Living Liquids” was planned by Jennifer Frazier with a computer scientist and help from the MIT’s Darwin Project and the Center for Visualization Interface and Design Group at UC Davis, to create a map of plankton distributions that visitors to the Exploratorium could explore.  Living Liquids began from a fluid base-map of varied regional phytoplankton distributions that focussed viewers’ attention on the oceans as a site of rich chromatic and ecological variations, without discriminating between them, to encourage exploration:

 

Plankton Visualization

Plankton Legend

The images of such large expanses of declining populations of plankton paint an unpretty picture of our oceans, that parallels the fear of jellification of ocean seas, but also allows us to “see” a richly variegated image of where plankton live–and what type of plankton live where–that provide a clearer holistic image of oceanic populations, using an interactive touch-screen to zoom in on close ups to reveal and explore qualitative diversity within the distribution of local plankton populations with more immediacy than a four- or five-color map allows, creating an illusion of being able to scoop up a handful of water at any place and view it under a microscope, switching registers of visual investigation and exploration.

Plankton View 4

Plankton Viewer 8

Plankton Viewer 6

The complex visualization of the nature of micropopulations is dramatically distinct from a static map; its actively  readable surface is a tool of independent investigation in itself.

Local maps of ocean populations also provide crucial tools to frame an exploration of causes for the local variability in such microscopic micro-organisms that examine the specific impact of local industrial change on the living landscape of the sea.  If not three-dimensional, such maps chart a nuanced picture of the biodynamics of marine diversity than the static maps of marine life, and powerful tools to register shifting temporal distributions and densities in the boundaries of specific oceanic populations.

To select but one example of oceanic maps of the impact of human life on biodiversity, let’s start from the dangerously low oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico–caused in part by marine pollution.  The massive changes in the Gulf’s waters afflict both deep sea populations and phytoplankton alike, has created a “dead zone” of diminished distributions that by 2009 increased worries that pollution–largely caused by fertilizer run-off that augments the presence of nitrogen in the waters and create algae blossoms–and may eventually lead to a local ecosystem collapse.  (The so-called “dead zone” came to occupy an area larger than the state of New Jersey, before ocean currents changed its shape.)  Similar “dead zones” threaten to expand near the habited shore world-wide, increased by global warming.

deadzone2

 

Yet concerns for the growth of oxygen-deprived regions worldwide, paralleling oceanic jellification, create conditions for the abandonment of waters by fish and shrimp alike in “hypoxic” regions, whose number has doubled every ten years since the 1960s, with huge economic consequences for regions as the Gulf of Mexico, whose hypoxic conditions are colorfully mapped by red below during the previous year:

 

gulfofmexico

 

Which brings us back, almost full-circle, to the rise of global populations of jellyfish, and maps onto a change in the population of the open seas.

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Filed under chlorophyl plankton blooms, hypoxic regions, Interactive Maps, jellification, Living Liquids, mapping hypoxic regions, mapping jelly fish, mapping sea surface populations, marine biodynamics, Marine mapping, oceans, oxygen-deprivation, phytoplankton, plankton maps, rubber ducks

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The narrated search for the whale Moby Dick takes readers almost vertiginously off the known map, in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of map, in the  apparently unreliable narrative on a quest for Moby-Dick to areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft.

‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael describes the mysterious origins of the real cannibal Queequeg in Moby Dick, who he calls “George Washington cannibalisticslly developed.   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure held by being “off” the map.  The concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course.    

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

image.png .

We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s main interpretive project in Melville’s book.

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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data