Digital Materiality and . . . an Earthquake

This is more personal anecdote than a scholarly discussion, but it relates to the materiality of digital media and was an event that escaped most Western media outlets.

Six years ago, in April, there was a large earthquake off the Southern coast of Taiwan that severed almost all of the data cables linking East Asia to the West. At the time, I was living in Ji’nan, China at the time, a fairly large industrial city. What I remember being particularly strange about it was that the internet “worked” but I was suddenly very aware of where the data was being housed. For example, Google.com was inaccessible (as was my Gmail account), but Google.com.cn worked beautifully. International calls to the U.S. didn’t work, but a call to anywhere in Asia was reasonably easy. Business and the media got back online after a few days but I didn’t have much access at all to anything in the U.S. for several months. At the time, I don’t think anyone I knew had any knowledge of these deep-sea cables or that they were so fragile. I remember having almost no access to anything written in English which was hard at the time since my Chinese wasn’t so good yet and reading the NYTimes (when it was still free) was stress-free morning routine for me. Anyone who’s ever read the Chinese-printed China Daily knows it’s a small tabloid. I read articles about how businesses could use MSN Messenger, which was in wide-spread use, and works were reporting being “bored.”  It was a lesson for me in the intricacies and physicality of the World Wide Web.

For those interested some articles:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/29/business/worldbusiness/29connect.html?_r=0

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2006-12/28/content_769251.htm

http://www.pekingduck.org/2006/12/netless-in-china/

One Response to Digital Materiality and . . . an Earthquake

  1. Avatar of Jenn Gapetz
    Jenn Gapetz November 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    This is interesting. I (vaguely) remember reading about school records in a smaller town/village in China being destroyed. That combined with bureaucracy resulted in those students being unable to pursue higher education.

    A classmate in another class told me all of her family’s medical records were destroyed in the Sandy flooding in New Jersey. (Both the medical office and its storage unit were severely flooded.) Another one of the many stories of post-Sandy data lost I know about is a small, Downtown Manhattan based nonprofit I work with lost all of their emails. It sounds like a small issue, but it left the organization in a three-week communication tail spin.

    Another China example I find interesting about how/where data is stored–and its cultural effect–is Google based in Hong Kong rather than mainland China, and the issues of freedom of speech that arise from that.

    I say all this just to say I found your experience interesting (and important to scholarship). Where data is stored is important for practicality, security, communication, politics, and (maybe arguably) human rights.

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