Infrastructural History of the Internet: Media Transitions and Violence in 1990s Cambodia

Authors: Margaret Jack*, Cornell University
Topics: Cyberinfrastructure, Asia, Development
Keywords: digital geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Palladian, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper historicizes “emerging economic dimensions of digital geospatial data” through a study of media infrastructure transition in Cambodia in the 1990s. Under Cold War conditions, the UN backed a coalition that included the Khmer Rouge until the Paris Peace Accords in October 1991, when borders opened to Western trade and the country moved from a socialist to neoliberal economic system. In early 1992, over 20,000 foreign personnel entered the country as part of the United Nations Transitional Authority Cambodia (UNTAC) to run an election in May 1993. Based on archival research at the Cambodian National Archive and the UNTAC archive at the University of Wisconsin, as well as interviews, the first case in this paper concerns the construction of the UNTAC radio broadcasting station, the first non-state media outlet since the Khmer Rouge came to power. Building the radio transmitter and disseminating radio donations brought social divisions to a head and led to literal violence including grenade attacks. The second case describes the 1999 construction of the Cambodian portion of Alcatel fibre optic cable, the first laid in Southeast Asia. Working from Rithy Panh’s film The Land of Wandering Souls, this case focuses on the migrant worker families who constructed the cable, digging up bones and bombs from the war period along the way. This paper describes the violence and cultural frictions which emerged in the process of reconstructing the material, social, and ideological infrastructures of independent media and concludes by tying these historical processes to contemporary Internet culture.

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