Accumulation - Nicole Starosielski and Iago Bojczuk - Southern Imaginaries of Digital Infrastructures

Southern Imaginaries of Digital Infrastructures

Nicole Starosielski and Iago Bojczuk

Geographic map of cloud servers, December 30, 2022. Source: Data Center Map’s Cloud Infrastructure Map.

December 2023

The infrastructure of the “global” internet has long been concentrated in the geographic North. Data centers—the warehouses of the internet where content is often stored—have historically been located in the United States and Western Europe. The largest internet exchanges in the world by traffic are DE-CIX (in Frankfurt, Germany) and AMS-IX (in Amsterdam, Netherlands). A multitude of submarine cables crisscross the North Atlantic, with only three spanning the South Atlantic.

Submarine cable map showing the relative concentration of routes across the North Atlantic and South Atlantic, December 30, 2022. Source: TeleGeography’s Submarine Cable Map.

The proliferation smartphones and the Internet of Things in the recent past have expanded digital media infrastructures in the Global South. Increased data traffic generated by these new internet users and uses also corresponds to an increase in demand for routing, storing, and processing of information. Despite this, digital infrastructures—especially data centers and subsea cables—and their capital drivers are still controlled mainly by the “North.” Disparities between centers of information storage and network “peripheries” persist, even with lighter and more contemporary infrastructures such as 5G towers, which have been installed around the world since 2019.

Geographic map of 5G towers, February 9, 2022. Source: Speedtest’s Ookla 5G Map.

As major digital infrastructure companies commit to net-zero and renewable energy targets, this northern concentration may only increase. Cooling is currently much cheaper and environmentally sustainable on the renewable grids of Nordic countries than many other places. Companies seek to draw internet traffic further north to locations including Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as these countries offer competitive advantage in terms of temperature, a surplus of renewable energy such as hydropower, and often easier-to-navigate regulatory frameworks. Peder Nærbø, of data center and fiber-optic network owner Bulk Infrastructure, says:

One of the biggest steps we can take to reduce our environmental impact is to follow the power and build fiber networks to places where there is an abundance of sustainable energy. This is particularly beneficial in the Nordics, as they already have an extensive power supply. By building data centers in these locations and utilizing the power there as opposed to transmitting it across the grid, we can reduce the average grid loss, which is currently around 8% in Europe.1

Additionally, Nærbø points out that the size of the Nordic surplus of renewable energy can feed as much as 10% of the global data center industry, which could “actually reduce the global CO2 emission from data centers by 21 million tons per year.”2 Schemes such as these could easily exacerbate the already existing lopsidedness of the internet. If all digital infrastructures migrate to “naturally” cool locations, then information flow—and, in turn, some digital investment—would be routed away from tropical, humid environments. As Mexican media scholar Paola Ricuerte suggests, “data extraction, storage, processing, and analysis are all part of a much larger process that is ripe for decolonial analysis.”3

There are Southern imaginaries of global digital infrastructures that counter these images and stories, and their seemingly inevitable (or at least logical) northern hold. They can engage with and resist the God’s-eye view of digital infrastructure and what Brazilian geographer Milton Santos referred to as the “tyranny of information” orchestrated by global elites.4 They do not situate, as so many digital infrastructure maps do, the Global South as terra nullius to be simply populated by existing companies. Instead, they situate technical links in relation to other vectors of connection, from the interaction between the environmental and human systems to the complexities of access.

Ruy Cézar Campos, Entangled Landing Points, 2017.

In Pontos Terminais Emaranhados (Entangled Landing Points, 2017), Ruy Cézar Campos covers his body in fiber-optic cable and photographs himself at subsea cable landing points in Fortaleza (Brazil), Sangano (Angola), and Puerto Colombia-Salgar (Colombia).5 Adorned in optical cable, Campos hovers over the beach manholes through which cables are routed. His body encounters what is invisible not only in global maps, but in narratives of connectivity: the tangible material base of these digital infrastructures.

Kneeling down on the beaches where the cables land, waves lapping on the shore behind him, Campos’s body becomes an interface, both for the actual cables that he wears and for the invisible cables present on site. By slowly walking towards and eventually into the sea, the artist enacts the movement of cable layers, ships, and cables themselves, using his own body to bridge land and sea. Alongside this televisual imagery, data transmission noises and alternating high and low sounds pervade Campos’s film, generating an aural sensation of signals crisscrossing the world, translating the inaudible for the human sensory apparatus.

Ruy Cézar Campos, Entangled Landing Points, 2017.

In this embodiment of signal traffic, Campos draws attention to the materiality of media: to the sand that covers and composes the cables, and into which his feet sink; to the impenetrability of manholes that he can only encircle, almost robotically; to barbed wire and fences alongside cable landing sites. In several scenes, the artist divides the screen into quadrants that highlight the presence of cable structures such as manhole covers, the semi-urban, rural, and coastal surroundings, and the artist’s body. Each quadrant represents a different perspective of the same geographical space: one where cables remain invisible; another where their static presence is visible over the manhole cover; one with aerial drone imagery; and finally, another where the artist moves, reproducing a symbol of infinity on the ground.

In situating his body in relation to these cable sites, Campos draws global digital infrastructures into a connection with their surrounding material environments: sand, water, and architecture. By entangling through his body and the motion of his camera, Campos grounds the network, while at the same time dramatizes its inaccessibility.

This is a nodal narrative—a story focused on individual, demarcated nodes in a network. This network is not just any network, however. Campos is tracking the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS), the first fiber-optic system to cross the South Atlantic between South America and Africa. Prior to the establishment of this system, internet traffic between the two continents would have had to transit north—through the United States and Europe. The SACS cable, however, made possible a Southern connection and Southern exchange of signals, data, and technical collaboration. By tracking this cable from Fortaleza to Angola and Colombia, the film generates a movement that transcends the local and produces a sense of embodied unity among distant Southern territories.

Ruy Cézar Campos, Pontos Terminais Emaranhados, 2016.

Pontos Terminais Emaranhados is but one of many infrastructural visions offered in Campos’s work. In Um Porto Invisível (An Invisible Port, 2016), Campos mediates a walking tour of Fortaleza’s terminal stations and landing points, capturing images of participants’ feet atop manhole covers that again stage both encounter and inaccessibility. He writes that these mediations “involved attention to the skin, touch, and speculative consideration of which affects could emerge from physical contact with an infrastructural space.”6 In another project, Sinais Submersos (Submerged Signals, 2022), Campos offers a speculative vision of a flooded, technological landscape. People stand in waves, looking out to the alien presence of 5G towers on the ocean’s horizon. Environment, body, and global infrastructures are again brought into the same frame.

Ruy Cézar Campos, Sinais Submersos, 2022.

Campos’s work offers sensory impressions of global digital infrastructure, which he describes as “activating the friction between the banal space and the network, the global and local reasons in their entanglement.”7 It offers aesthetic possibilities for global digital infrastructure. In their resistance to classical maps, they prompt us to think about how Southern infrastructural encounters might diverge from the northern accumulation of networks. Southern infrastructural encounters demand accessibility. Both people and companies are struggling to participate, locked out of manholes, left out of systems. Campos asks us to turn to the environment, to capture what we can, to look at the sand, the water, the flood; to adopt a multi-perspectival view and speculate about the network even when it is hidden.

The operations of subsea cable networks, data centers, and 5G towers are part of a broader existing media-technical matrix that spans the globe and is incredibly difficult to capture even in a God’s eye view. But physical contact with infrastructural space is nonetheless possible, and encounters registered through visual, aural, or corporeal means can speculatively generate a Southern imaginary. As Campos’s work shows, looking through embodied encounters can foster a more nuanced understanding of possible relationships between ever-evolving digital infrastructures and the bodies they purport to serve.


Data Center Dynamics, “Peder Nærbø talks Nordic investment in infrastructure,” YouTube, 2019. See .


Bulk Infrastructure, “The Lowest C02 Emissions on the Planet,” YouTube, 2022. See .


Paola Ricaurte, “Data epistemologies, the coloniality of power, and resistance,” Television & New Media 20, no. 4 (2019): 350-365. See, for instance, Marcela Suárez Estrada and Sebastián Lehuedé’s special issue devoted to the politics of data in Latin America. “What we call the Terrestrial Internet is emerging from Indigenous, Afrodescendant, feminist and worker groups in Abya Yala (Latin America) envisioning alternative imaginaries as digital infrastructures expand in their contexts.” Marcela Suárez Estrada and Sebastián Lehuedé, “Towards a Terrestrial Internet: re-imagining digital networks from the ground up,” Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society 5, no. 1 (2022), 1.


Milton Santos, Por Uma Outra Globalização: do Pensamento Único ao Pensamento Universal (Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2001), 38.


rczrcmps, “entgnlndpnts,” Vimeo, 2017. See .


Ruy Cézar Campos Figueiredo, “Um Porto Invisível,” 2016. See .


Ruy Cézar Campos Figueiredo, “Pontos Terminais Emaranhados: uma narrativa nodal sobre cabos submarinos no Atlântico Sul,” 32o Encontro Anual da Compós, Universidade de São Paulo (USP), São Paulo-SP, 2023.

Accumulation is a project by e-flux Architecture and Daniel A. Barber produced in cooperation with the University of Technology Sydney (2023); the PhD Program in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design (2020); the Princeton School of Architecture (2018); and the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, the Speculative Life Lab at the Milieux Institute, Concordia University Montréal (2017).

Architecture, Urbanism, Internet
Infrastructure, Climate change, Media theory, Global South
Return to Accumulation

Nicole Starosielski is the Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication and Director of Undergraduate Studies at New York University. Her research focuses on the global distribution of digital media, and the relationship between technology, society, and the aquatic environment.

Iago Bojczuk is a PhD student from Brazil in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He is broadly interested in exploring the intersections of digital technologies and sustainable development, especially in the context of Global South countries.


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