Inside the machine: Hidden technologies from sea to sky
The cloud isn't in the sky. It's at the bottom of the ocean.
Originally published on Sept. 13, 2019.
As users of technology, we are used to being surrounded by information—and having access to that information at the click of a mouse or the tap of a screen.
But most of us have no idea how much machinery and infrastructure support that instant information, because we never see it.
We can be forgiven for thinking that the internet is this ethereal thing that surrounds us, but is wireless and disconnected. It's easier to think of an actual cloud than an unremarkable warehouse when we think of where our data is actually stored.
But in reality, the internet still runs on wires. And many of those wires run, somewhat precariously, along the bottom of the ocean.
"The only time that the internet really is in the air is in that last hop when it goes from your router to your computer or from a cell tower to your phone."
Most people assume that the internet is mostly carried by satellites. And while they do transmit and receive some information, it's a tiny fraction of the data carried by the network of undersea cables.
And it's a complicated network. The fibre-optic cables that carry data through the deepest trenches in the ocean are barely the size of a garden hose, she said, so that they're small enough to be coiled on the decks of the ships that lay them down.
There are about 300 cable systems that make up the backbone of the internet. And because they go from one country to another, they're notoriously difficult to protect.
The cloud is in the ocean. It's on the bottom of the sea floor. It goes through deep sea trenches. It goes through reefs amongst fish. It's subject to undersea landslides. That's where the internet is.- Nicole Starosielski
"You're out on your ship and you drop your anchor, and all of a sudden a country's internet is off and you don't necessarily know," she said. There are some protections afforded the cables—as they approach land they are often buried to prevent being broken by anchors or fishing—but they are notoriously fragile, she said.
There is a group called the International Cable Protection Committee, but individual countries and governments don't always recognize the importance of the cables, and therefore don't take adequate measures to ensure that there isn't any fishing around the cables, for example.
"Cables are not as protected as they could be, and therefore the internet isn't as protected as it could be," Starosielski said.
In some cases, politics actually hinders the integrity of the cable network, she said. Recently, there was a report about how Google's plan to lay a cable directly between the U.S. and Hong Kong was opposed by the U.S. Justice Department because of the connection to China and Huawei.
Many developed countries like the U.S. and Canada have multiple cables coming onshore, so if one is damaged, there are redundancies. But smaller countries, especially island nations like Tahiti, are connected by just a single cable, so, if that is damaged, the internet for the whole country goes down.
Wealth plays into the location of the cables as well. "You get a lot of patterns where cables are laid in places that are kind of economically preferable or where they've been laid before."
And this is bad for everyone, she argues. "Finding a way to create a more diverse network would in the end benefit the internet as a whole."
From the Cloud to the clouds
Another area where most people have little idea how much technology is used is in weather forecasting. We're used to opening an app or checking a website and finding out, often down to the minute, when we're going to need an umbrella or a sweater.
Hurricane prediction is accurate enough now that people get ample warning to get out of the storms. But none of this would be possible without incredibly sophisticated algorithms that analyze millions of terabytes of weather data points instantly and create models that allow meteorologists to make predictions.
"In the 1980s meteorologists were using computer weather models as what they like to call 'guidance' today, said Andrew Blum, the author of The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast.
"That 'guidance' has become so good that it really has become the forecast. Meteorologists still have an enormous part to play in communication and our understanding of what's going to happen. But when it comes to sort of thinking about you know the conditions in a given place a few days from now you're not going to outsmart the computer," he said.
"The role of humans in the system has really shifted from the sort of technical act of saying what the weather will be, to the more sort of social science act of saying what the impacts will be and helping us all make decisions based on that."
Weather forecasting first become possible around 150 years ago with the invention of the telegraph, he said. Using telegraph, various places around the world could simultaneously report on weather conditions, and from those reports a larger picture of weather patterns and models could be built.
The role of humans in the system has really shifted from the sort of technical act of saying what the weather will be, to the more sort of social science act of saying what the impacts will be- Andrew Blum
Land-based weather stations are still critically important, he said, but today most of the work is done by polar-orbiting satellites that collect huge amounts of information. As computing power increases, forecasts get more accurate (even if it doesn't always seem that way, as Blum pointed out).
"Today's five day forecast is as good as a four day forecast 10 years ago, and is as good as a three day forecast 20 years ago."