Thesis ID: CBB941740740

Seafloor Machina: Aging Technologies in the Depths of the Pacific Ocean (2023)


Everyone is talking about, reporting on, and studying the ocean, focusing on issues from sea level rise and pollution to coral reefs and algae blooms. Yet the piece we are missing in our study of the sea is understanding how we are industrializing the ocean floor, how the marine environment is responding to that industrialization, and how our present-day society cannot function without the manipulation, engineering, and management of machines on the seabed. By combining historical, primary source research with present-day marine science, this study offers one of the first environmental histories of the ocean floor. The dissertation analyzes the development of three seafloor industries in the northeast Pacific Ocean from the 1890s into the present day, including oil and gas drilling in the shoreline, telecommunications cables on the continental shelf, and cabled observatories in the abyss. These industries have become indispensable to onshore society: offshore drilling accounts for approximately 30 percent of the globe’s supply of oil; undersea cables facilitate 98 percent of all Internet and international phone traffic; and cabled observatories are scientific instruments at the forefront of collecting marine data that can help to prepare society for earthquakes, tsunamis, and the effects of climate change. Fixed seabed infrastructure has become one of the most important ways that humans are interacting with the ocean, just as fisheries have been to previous generations. I argue that the industrialization of the northeast Pacific’s seabed has resulted in a persistent interaction between marine life and machines. Within months of entering the seawater, marine life colonizes seafloor technologies and transforms them into habitat, a transition I refer to as the machine’s biotic afterlife. The biotic afterlife marks not only the decades or centuries the machine will spend in the sea but also its integration into the seafloor’s ecology. Once these machines have spent years, decades, and now centuries in the ocean, what to do with them—to remove, or not to remove?—is the underlying question that drives this dissertation. Ultimately, as this research shows, the removal of machines from the seabed is often a political decision, rather than an ecological one.

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Authors & Contributors
Bennett, Jim
Benson, Keith Rodney
Bluma, Lars
Brinson, Susan L.
Cookson, Gillian
Cushman, Gregory Todd
American Antiquity
American Historical Review
European Physical Journal H
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
History and Technology
Icon: Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology
Oxford University Press
Cambridge University Press
Duke University Press
Kluwer Academic
Cable, submarine
Telegraphs; telephones
Hennock, Frieda Barkin
Whitehouse, Edward Orange Wildman
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
21st century
20th century, early
20th century, late
18th century
Pacific Ocean
United States
California (U.S.)
Southeast Asia
United States Federal Communications Commission

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