Subaquatic Frames
Nicole Starosielski / Miami University

life aquatic
1-2: The Jaguar shark (left) and the undersea community (right)
in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).

The Mediterranean films Respiro (2002) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) culminate with a movement – of camera, characters, and viewers – under the surface of the ocean. In her essay contrasting the films, Elena Past argues that this cinematic submergence is correlated with a movement past “earthly concerns” into a more inclusive space where characters can commune with aquatic others. ((Past, Elena. “Lives Aquatic: Mediterranean Cinema and an Ethics of Underwater Existence,” Cinema Journal no. 3, 48 (Spring 2009): 52-65.)) As the crew descends to find the Jaguar shark, Past notes that they are brought together, beyond their terrestrially based conflicts, and the undersea environment becomes a place where they can consider ecological ethics. In this scene, as they gaze out the submersible’s window, they are united for the first time in a shared vision of the undersea world (Figures 1-2).

3-4: Immersive aquarium exhibits in Okinawa, Japan (left) and Atlanta, Georgia (right).

This essay tracks the origins of the cinematic framing of undersea environments in order to draw attention to the historical specificity of this view. The Life Aquatic’s framing of underwater space as a de-politicized sphere apart from historical conflict is a trope present across aquatic film and television, from the The Abyss (1989) to the Blue Planet series (2002). In recent films, the movement underwater is often linked with a multiplication or expansion of the frame itself. Aquaria and museums are similarly moving toward large-scale, immersive, and apparently unframed underwater exhibits (Figures 3-4). ((Doordan, Dennis. “Simulated Seas: Exhibition Design in Contemporary Aquariums,” Design Issues 11, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 3-10.)) Together, these discursive sites situate the movement underwater as a progression beyond social (and particularly racial) differences and a step towards interconnection with others around the world in preserving the ocean, the common heritage of all mankind.

Here, I chart how early popular underwater film envisioned the ocean, not as a place to escape earthly concerns, but as a territory to be exploited, an area of contestation and battle, and a zone imbricated in the interactions of white explorers with coastal islanders. The sea was not a site to be communed with, but one that was inhabited by racialized (and often dangerous) others. It was not until the 1960s that American film and television “whitewashed” the ocean, erasing indigenous peoples from the narratives and depicting it as a region beyond territorial concerns. It was at this point that the undersea environment became a safe place for a middle class American family to explore and to reconcile their internal differences.

5: The Williamson Photosphere.

The first popular underwater cinema was produced by the Williamson Brothers between the early 1910s and the 1930s. They developed the “Photosphere,” a submerged tube that extended to the seafloor from a boat, and in which a cameraman could photograph the aquatic landscape through a round glass window (Figure 5). Both underwater and surface shots at times included this round frame, eliciting the perspective of the periscope or the porthole (Figure 6). The films often included reverse shots of onlookers inside the sphere, who would comment on the beauty of the scene via intertitles (and later through voice over). Structured into this view, audiences were encouraged to gaze out onto the seafloor as a foreign terrain, but they nonetheless remained safely distanced from it.

Narratively, the films of this period depicted the undersea landscape as an exotic space navigated by dark-skinned islanders. Islanders both helped to facilitate film production and became some of the films’ main subjects. In the Williamson pictures, they caught fish, battled sharks, and freed (white) helmet divers from the perils of the ocean (Figure 7). Some of these stories, such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1916), went further to portray the ocean as a site where a racialized aquatic other might subvert colonial authority. In this film, true to the Jules Verne story, Captain Nemo is an Indian and his undersea journey is in part an effort to escape British colonization (Figure 8).

6-8: The round frame of early aquatic cinema (left); dark bodies stand out against sandy coastal seas (middle); and Captain Nemo as an exotic, colonial other in
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1916) (right).

In the post-war era, a new set of narratives emerged that projected the ocean as a space of danger, a site where conflicts played out both between nations and between humans and monsters. There were two distinct cycles of submarine films at the beginning and end of the 1950s (beginning with Mystery Submarine (1950) and extending to Up Periscope (1959)) as well as a cycle of undersea Creature films, including The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). In these narratives, the indigenous people who had formerly helped with the production of undersea cinema were displaced either to the coastline or to the figure of the undersea monster.

Parallel to this narrative shift, a new underwater aesthetic emerged. During World War II, the aqua-lung was developed, a technology that meant that divers were no longer tethered to the surface for air. They could now swim freely into the depths and they took the underwater camera with them. In this process, the cinematic images of the ocean become much more mobile. Cameras moved up and down, from surface to seafloor, and travelled laterally along with the currents. In addition, the underwater scenes often lacked both dialogue and voice over. Instead, intense and overwhelming scores exaggerated the sense of danger in the aquatic environment. In the racially charged stalking scene of Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), for example, the camera floats around the undersea environment and even adopts the point-of-view of a Creature looking up from the deep. The sound takes on a narrative role and, alongside the mobile framing, heightens our perception of undersea danger. As the underwater cinema of the 1950s “immersed” viewers in the ocean, they brought this audience into a zone of social and territorial struggle, rather than providing an escape from it.


9: Underwater stalking in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

By the 1960s, the undersea monster and submarine warfare cycles had run their course. A new genre of underwater films, ranging from Jacques Cousteau’s documentary World Without Sun (1964) to the underwater domestic comedy Hello Down There (1969), focused on aquanauts in undersea habitats. The seascape was now captured within square windows that resembled the frame of the television screen, and it ceased to be an immersive and threatening space. While there were occasional battles against sea monsters, these were often alien monsters. White explorers were no longer under threat from racialized Others originating in coastal territories, but inhuman ones from distant planets. The coastal islanders that had previously been important to undersea narratives were excluded from the frame. From within the domestic habitat, aquanauts began to look out into the ocean as their own neighborhood, and in many films, characters’ dialogue serves to familiarize the undersea view. As underwater imagery expanded onto television, in shows including Flipper (1964-1967), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68), and The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1966-73), the ocean became a backyard, a site safe for an audience to navigate and explore.

10-11: Looking out from the undersea habitat in Destination Inner Space (1969) (left)
and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) (right).

With the transition to a domesticated ocean, undersea film and television sidelined the coastal politics and conflicts that had permeated many of the previous films. Underwater environments became a natural landscape that could be inhabited by an American family. They were no longer the domain of coastal peoples, but a “blank” without history. It is in the undersea film and television of the 1960s that the contemporary view of the ocean originated: a site where we could move beyond social differences and explore our interconnections with others via a shared gaze out onto the subaquatic world.

A longer version of this essay is forthcoming in Ecocinema Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2012). Thanks to Meredith Bak for comments on this version of the article.

Image Credits:
1. Screen shots from the film.
2. Okinawa Aquarium; Georgia Aquarium
3. The Williamson Photosphere
4. Left and center images are screen shots from With Williamson Beneath the Sea (1932); the right image is a frame grab from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1916).
5. Screen shots from the films.

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Digital Media: Hot or Cool?
Nicole Starosielski / Miami University

Facebook Arctic

Facebook’s planned data center near the Arctic Circle

As I settle in for the Ohio winter after a decade in Southern California, it is hard not to think about temperature. Much of my time is spent putting on and taking off layers of clothing as I move between house, car, coffee shop, and classroom. I’m surprised at how much effort and expense it takes to keep a building warm (in the United States, half of all the energy we use in our homes is for heating and cooling). ((U.S. Department of Energy, “Chapter 2: Residential Sector,” Buildings Energy Data Book (2011), (last accessed, January 2012). )) When I was living in Santa Barbara, I rarely thought about these things, not only because the weather tended to stay within a twenty degree range, but because my job and social standing kept me within easy reach of heated and air-conditioned environments. In Ohio, I still think about temperature far less than I might in many other places, where technologies of warming and cooling are completely inaccessible. As is true for much of the infrastructure supporting modern life, we rarely perceive systems of temperature control, noticing them only in their absence.

As media scholars, our object of study appeals more directly to our senses of sight and hearing than to that of thermoception. Nonetheless, temperature has been important not only to the discourse of our field (in large part due to the influence of McLuhan’s work on “hot” and “cool” media), but also to the material development of media technologies. In this article, I sketch out some of the critical insights to be gained from an analysis of the seemingly banal processes of temperature manipulation. This investigation takes on more weight today as digital media generate an unprecedented amount of heat – a shift with infrastructural, geographic, and environmental consequences. ((For a discussion of the environmental dimensions of cinematic and digital materialities, and their relation to the energy economy, see Nadia Bozak, The Cinematic Footprint: Lights, Camera, Natural Resources (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012).))

Like us, media technologies operate best within a specific temperature range and require mechanisms for warming and cooling their environments. The first modern air-conditioning system was designed not for cooling people, but for cooling media. Constructed by Willis Carrier in 1902, it was used to stabilize changes in temperature and humidity in a Brooklyn printing plant (which were causing the printed pages to expand and contract, and as a result, their colors to blur). Archives, whether preserving documents, films, or photographs, go to great lengths to reduce heat and humidity (both of which speed up deterioration). Temperature manipulation has also helped to open up new viewing environments and extend the paths of media circulation. Air-conditioning, for example, has been critical to the marketing of summer movies and the success of the summer blockbuster (prior to its introduction, cinemas in hot and humid climates had to close in the summer). In fact, movie theaters were among the first places that people encountered artificially cool air. Systems that stabilize temperature, like numerous other technologies of modernity, have made consistent reproduction possible, enhanced media durability, and expanded zones of consumption.

Tampa Theater

Using air conditioning to market movies

These systems rarely attract the attention of users or viewers, in part because media’s required temperature range is typically much broader than that required for consumption. For example, my Sony television’s ideal operating conditions are between 32º-95º Fahrenheit, but luckily, the temperature in my house has never dipped below 32 degrees. Exceeding 95º is a similarly rare occurrence, and overheating is likely to happen only if the television is placed in a location with little ventilation and many other electronics. In other words, media have historically been less demanding than humans about the temperature of their environments, and as a result, they can usually go most places that we do.


Overheating generates distortion

We are currently undergoing a fundamental shift in the temperature requirements of our media technologies. Digital media relies on heat-generating computer processors, and as a result, is much hotter than its analog counterparts. If we were to include all of the cables, servers, and operations centers required to distribute it, the internet would be the hottest medium thus far. Apple TVs are more likely to overheat than analog television. The overheating of video game consoles, such as the Xbox 360, can limit the amount of time one dedicates to gameplay. To get a sense of this shift, you can download programs such as Temperature Monitor which display exactly how much heat is being emitted at each part of your computer, and in doing so, reveal the direct correlation between digital media use and the warming up of the environment.

Temperature Monitor

Temperature Monitor reveals a thermogeography of my computer

Without cooling technologies, digital media exhibit a death wish. They will generate so much excess heat that they inhibit their own operation. Without the heat sink in a computer, the processor would quickly overheat and burn out (if you wanted to, you could cook bologna on it before it does, see video below). If one were to shut off the air-conditioning at a data center (where our internet content is stored), the servers would overheat and our information would disappear. At times more energy is needed to cool the systems – to offset the production of heat by computer processors – than is needed to operate the computers themselves. Indeed, it is this cooling process, and something as seemingly unimportant as air conditioning, that constitutes a significant part of digital media’s environmental impact. ((Data centers were responsible for approximately 2% of all electricity use in the United States in 2010. See Jonathan Koomey. 2011. Growth in Data center electricity use 2005 to 2010. Oakland, CA: Analytics Press. August 1.; see also Sean Cubbitt, Robert Hassan, and Ingrid Volkmer, “Does Cloud Computing Have a Silver Lining?” Media, Culture & Society 33, no. 1 (2011): 149-158.))


Cooking with a computer processor

The need for cooling is shaping the geography of global internet distribution. All other factors being equal, it is more difficult and expensive to extend digital media infrastructure in places that are hot than those that are cool. During my visits to undersea cable landing stations (the sites through which internet content gets funneled on its way out of the country), a point of focus and discussion is almost always the air-conditioning system (the bill for this can run tens of thousands of dollars a month). The transition to the “cloud” means that we increasingly depend on groups of computers in data centers, which concentrate heat emissions, and thus require cooler and cooler environments. For this reason, server farms are being located in colder climates. Facebook is building a data center in Sweden, which despite the cold weather will still cost $72 million a year to power. Google has a new seawater-cooled center in Finland. When I visited internet companies in New Zealand, they suggested that their country could also be a possible site for data centers, in part because of their climate. As our media exchanges increase and continue to heat up (literally), this could be accompanied by a move of content to the northern and southern latitudes.

While much of the discourse about the move to a post-industrial society charts a path to a cleaner, information-based mediasphere, dominated by an aesthetic of “cool,” the total heat emitted by computers is steadily increasing. ((For more on the aesthetic of “cool” and its relationship to digital media, see Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).)) Taking digital media’s temperature makes clear that as the virtual worlds we engage apparently multiply without end, they do so alongside processors, servers, fans, and air-conditioning, technologies that are in turn dependent on finite (and primarily carbon based) energy supplies.

Thanks to Jeff Scheible, Rahul Muhkerjee, and Ethan Tussey for their insight and suggestions on this essay.

Image Credits:

1. Facebook’s planned data center near the Arctic Circle
2. Using air conditioning to market movies
3. Temperature Monitor (Screenshot by the author)

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Underwater Flow
Nicole Starosielski / Miami University


Computer and undersea fiber-optic cable

If you are viewing this article outside of the continental United States, it has likely been transmitted to you via undersea cable. While satellites are still used for a significant portion of television distribution, almost all of the texts, images, and videos on the internet are transformed into light and transported by fiber-optic cables. To travel to New Zealand, this article would probably leave the United States at Morro Bay, California (a hub for cable traffic located between Los Angeles and San Francisco), move along the very bottom of the seafloor to Hawai‘i, and then south to a beach on Auckland’s north shore. Alternatively, it might go the long way: departing the United States at Nedonna Beach in Oregon, stopping next to the tent cities on O‘ahu’s west shore, surfacing near a rifle range in Fiji, routing through Sydney, Australia, and then looping back across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Given the speed of cable systems, the difference between these paths would not be noticeable to ordinary users. If you comment on this page from a computer in New Zealand, your words will most likely travel along one of these routes underneath the ocean. Though we tend to think of the internet as less and less wired, in many cases it is only in the last hop between mobile devices, routers, and cell phone towers that the signal becomes wireless.

Questions about internet distribution are often framed in terms of users’ access and examined primarily at the point of consumption. This approach provides only a partial understanding of digital media flows, as it fails to register how the infrastructures that support these signals matter and the ways that cable routing makes a difference. Cable routes are places where media systems can be disrupted or delayed, as infrastructures become imbricated within local politics. There is a major problem with landing new cables in California, for example, because of historical conflicts with environmentalists and fishermen. Cable paths are also zones where local media uses can come to shape infrastructure development (and are influenced by them).


Route of the Southern Cross Cable Network

The routing of undersea cables has a critical impact on media geographies in part because they are relatively scarce infrastructures. All western-bound internet traffic on cables is funneled from the Americas to Asia through less than ten points on the United States’ Pacific coast (some of which have been in operation since the 1960s). The above routes on the Southern Cross Cable Network comprise the only cable links between New Zealand and the rest of the world (though negotiations are forthcoming for a possible second system). They are landed at the same points as the two British telegraph lines that were established almost a hundred years ago. The small number of cables does not necessarily limit the information flow out of the country, however, since each can support an enormous amount of capacity. One new cable between Australia and Guam, for example, has enough capacity for everyone in Australia to make a phone call at the same time (over 20 million people). These systems are few and far between in part due to their extraordinary expense: they can cost over a billion dollars to establish and maintain.

Tracking signals as they extend through the air, under ground, and under water can help us to grasp the fundamental materiality of our media systems. Locating the technologies that carry them and documenting their pathways contributes to a politics of infrastructural visibility – the effort to reveal the hidden systems underlying our network society. It can also help to explain how patterns in media creation, circulation, and use are intertwined with developments in infrastructure. This column takes up the latter issue, charting three of the ways that undersea cables inflect (and are impacted by) the more visible practices of media production and consumption.

New Zealand cable

Signals depart from a cable landing point in New Zealand

1. Fiber-optic cables are a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for bandwidth-intensive global industries, and as such, they shape possibilities for transnational media collaboration. At the most basic level, immediate and reliable access to the internet is critical for cities that want to gain a foothold in the market for on-location Hollywood productions, or which aspire to become media capitals. Cables are especially important for work that depends on digitization, including digital animation and special effects, since high-speed links render the frequent and instantaneous sharing of high-resolution video effective and economical. For example, the collaborations on Avatar ((Cameron, 2009)) between Weta Digital in New Zealand and Industrial Light & Magic in California would not have be possible without the Southern Cross Cable Network. As a result, Weta Digital has a major stake in the smooth operation of Southern Cross and generates a sizeable stream of traffic that helps to sustain their network. Media industries can be jeopardized if cable networks are not reliable. Likewise, some cable networks depend on media industries and transnational collaboration as a significant source of revenue.

Fiji cable

Fiji’s cable landing

2. Because of their scarcity and their historical sedimentation in particular locations, undersea cables can exhibit a gravity that pulls in other kinds of (media) flows. Cables are at times seen by governments as a resource to be leveraged in the creation of new media industries and practices. The Fijian Government, having contributed a large amount of money for the Southern Cross Network, subsequently looked for a way to generate traffic and pay off their investment. They created Information and Communication Technology parks, call centers, and a new initiative, “Bulawood: The Hollywood of the South Pacific,” all of which depend on the cable for transnational exchange and which prominently feature the cable’s capacity in their marketing. Cable infrastructures, however, can also have unintended effects on the mediasphere. The relative accessibility of the internet via this same cable has invigorated Fiji’s illegal DVD distribution networks, which in turn compromises the government’s efforts to develop a media industry. Though zones at the periphery of international cable networks often gain a disproportionate potential for media-related development, this potential is rarely realized in the intended ways.


Arriving in the United States at an Oregon beach

3. Changes in media content and consumption also influence the expansion and geographies of undersea cables. The move to high bandwidth visual media (driven by a growth in online video and gaming) forms a rationale for the construction of new networks. Cloud media applications, such as movie streaming via Netflix, Facebook games, and Google Docs, can generate new forms of traffic that make further cable development viable. However, the content shift from local cable distribution to internet distribution, and from local computer email to email based in the “cloud,” has significant impacts on the dispersion of media consumption. This tends not to be as much of a factor in the United States, since cloud-based content is often relatively accessible, stored domestically (in places like Oregon) and linked to the user via diverse underground cable routes. In many locations (such as Fiji), the shift means an increasing reliance on undersea cables (and other international communications infrastructure) to connect to content that may have previously been locally available. And yet, given the scarcity and expense of undersea cables, not every location will get one and many will be lucky to have two. Pricing often remains high, especially along thin routes, and these systems are expensive to maintain. Transitions in the mediasphere that require more international traffic (such as cloud computing), could contribute to inequality and dependence at the level of media access even as they stimulate the expansion of infrastructure.

As our culture pushes onwards towards higher-definition visual content, the distribution of film, television, and other media via undersea cables is set to increase. By following the routes of these transmissions we might better understand how cables are intertwined with the industries that use them, the content that is transmitted over them, and the everyday practices media users engage in. Moreover, tracking media flows as they extend underwater draws our attention to the ways that seemingly nebulous digital circulations are always anchored in material coordinates. While infrastructure sites do not determine the direction of the flows they carry, they nonetheless contort and deform the media landscape.

Image Credits:
1. Taken by the author
2. Southern Cross Cable Network
3. Taken by the author
4. Taken by the author
5. Taken by the author

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