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Media archaeologies of networks and network artifacts have attended to historiographies and analyses of past or present experiences of network use, imaginations, and labor involved in constructing and maintaining active or once active networks.[i] But what is the cultural and technological work of an inactive network? Can we employ media archaeology to uncover and study telecommunication, transportation, and cultural networks that were built but never activated? What new stories can be told about a city, suburb, or rural environment by looking at dormant networks? What can “always off” connections demonstrate about relationships and power structures around place and digital media?
Through a study of dark fiber networks in rural and urban locations in the Midwestern United States, this paper considers how methods of “urban media archaeology” can be combined with ethnography and cartography to study under-investigated networks within infrastructure studies: networks of “always off” connection or networks that are purposefully constructed as dark or inactive. Passive networks that are built, buried and lay dormant until activated months or years after installation, or may remain “off” indefinitely. While an existing yet dormant network might describe evacuation routes, emergency, supplemental or backup infrastructures, this paper investigates dark fiber -- fiber optic cables that were built during the “dotcom boom” of the 1990s and are buried under streets and sidewalks but remain unlit. These are not networks that were once active and then extinguished; they are publicly or privately-owned fiber optic networks that are conceived as “dark.”
Mapping, ethnographies, and media archaeologies of dark fiber challenge established geopolitics of infrastructure and networked spaces rendering “in-between spaces” as nodes within alternate networks and re-figuring contexts and power structures of digital inequity. This analyses of “open access” dark fiber networks offers several unique moments where cultural geographies of infrastructure become visible and the creation of meaning, desire, and potential for networks are expressed.
[i] Shannon Mattern, Deep Mapping the Media City (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (University of California Press, 2011).