Hands on the Water
From the Series: HandsOn: Touching the Digital Planet
Every time out at sea the weather seemed a little colder. The men’s tempers shorter. Per was a jointer on the cable repair ship Faith for many years, until he could no longer fold his hands without them hurting badly. He strokes them as we talk. Of course, not all days were chilly. The hot sandstorms blowing out to sea from North Africa thawed the bones, but then his hands felt as if they were melting through his protective gloves. Hands are more honest than faces, Per says, “They tell you something about the soul.” He did not think much about his hands until the pain in his fingers became so excruciating that he had to retire early.
Working on the Faith was physically demanding and often required spending long stretches away from home on stormy seas. Morale was sometimes difficult to keep up on the open sea. Even seasoned seamen sometimes couldn’t shake the sea sickness when caught up in a raging storm. But most captains he worked with instilled a sense of fun and enough respect to keep the men composed. Dreadful weather is inevitable. Sometimes the squalls were so threatening, the captain would order the ship back to safer waters, other times they battered through the storms. Once the storm passed, the men would pick up their work, “fixing the problem and reconnecting people to email.” Mending the digital world is intensive labor. The ways the internet is produced, consumed, and repaired requires a balance between digital traffic and the hands that keep us connected.
Fiber-optic cables, a maze at the bottom of the world´s oceans, chart human communication at the speed of light. In The Undersea Network, Nicole Starosielski follows the cable infrastructure along the ocean floor through which our signals to each other pass. World finance and global affairs depend on these subsea tubes that connect every continent other than Antarctica to the internet. Over ninety percent of our digital planet is connected via undersea cables. They carry our data, voice, and social media feeds across the world (Starosielski 2015).
Crisscrossing the world, the cables are about the thickness of a garden hose. While they mostly lie on the seabed—ideally undisturbed—they’re delicate and they get broken, in shallower waters mostly by sharks that bite through the cables, at greater depths by underwater earthquakes, and by anchors and trawlers that rip the cables open. Patching up is needed somewhere in the world every three days or so. Special cable mending vessels like the Faith have to get to where the breakage is under the ocean. There are cable repair and maintenance agreements, but there are not so many vessels to service them, Per says. The vessels have to cross the ocean to reach the breaks. And if meanwhile there is another cable break somewhere else, it has to wait until the vessel is available. Cable repair ships rely on accurate information about the seafloor, currents, seafaring life, and the precise location of the fiber-optics on the seafloor in order to retrieve and repair the cables. The repair of the cables is done by hand. Grappling hooks retrieve both ends of the severed cable and pull them up onto repair vessels, an operation that requires seven or eight men, according to Per. They have to physically grab the cable, and the jointer then lays the cable across the work benches and splices the endpoints together. Per speaks with modest authority, “When the cables are fixed, people don’t actually think it’s the hands of humans that repair them. They go ‘oh finally the internet is working.’”
There is magic in the twenty-seven bones that give the human hand structure and the thirty-five muscles that control it. Since I last spoke with Per, I have been learning the ropes on a utility boat. On cool days I think of how his hands must have hurt fixing the cables. Per is doing Route 66, the highway that loops across the United States, from Chicago to Los Angeles, his boyhood dream. He’s cruising in a rented Cadillac convertible, gloved hands on the steering wheel, listening to Deep Purple on Spotify. His favorite song, “Smoke on the Water,” brings back good moments with his mates on the Faith. I use my iPhone to take snapshots of my boating knots, with blue skies and azure sea in the background. He sends back emojis of a cowboy hat, a car, glasses of beer, and smiley faces with sunglasses.
All you do is you take your rope over the top and then over the top again, through there like that, I mutter to myself as I practice “the king of knots”: the bowline. The bowline is a fixed loop on the end of a rope that is used for hitching, mooring, and lifting. It tightens when stressed, gets tighter when pulled, and is easy to undo. There is nothing inevitable about becoming skilled in bowline. Just as there is nothing mindlessly mechanical about how we guide our hands. Our hands are from the body—primary, corporeal, pulsating. The tactile and the relational are materialized in the act of fingers and palms patching undersea cables and in mooring with a bowline knot. Taking a couple of detours from Route 66, Per has decided to linger and keep his hands toasty in Southern California. I responded with a snap of my sou’wester, and emojis of rain and hands.
Our very conversations are carried at the speed of light on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The world at our fingertips.
 Not his real name for relative anonymity.
 The name given to the repair ship by Per for relative anonymity
I am very grateful to Per for sharing his Faith years and patching up my knowledge of undersea cables. To my husband, Bjørn, thank you again for bringing along your camera.
Starosielski, Nicole. 2015, The Undersea Network. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.