“Weaving Networks From Valentia Slate to Silicon Docks”: Workshop with Visiting Newman fellow Hunter Vaughan

March 2024. This term, the Centre for Digital Policy welcomed Visiting Newman Fellow Hunter Vaughan (@drhuntervaughan) , Senior Research Associate at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, University of Cambridge. Dr. Vaughan is an environmental media scholar and cultural historian, critically researching policy and infrastructures for digital growth and sustainable futures at the centre of climate crisis and environmental justice.

While at UCD, Hunter was able to build upon interdisciplinary research into the growth of digital infrastructures and corporate presence in Ireland, the relationship between this growth and urgent issues around climate destabilization and energy crisis, and local values regarding cultural and ecological heritage. Hunter’s fellowship culminated in a workshop, “Weaving Networks From Valentia Slate to Silicon Docks: The Cultural Heritage and Environmental Stakes of Ireland’s Subsea Communication Infrastructures”.

The workshop built upon Dr. Vaughan’s work with the Sustainable Subsea Networks project, including multidisciplinary community-based and site research on subsea telecommunications cable network history and futures in County Mayo and Valentia Island. It brought together stakeholders and experts from the tech sector, heritage activism, and scholarly research across the arts, humanities, and social science. It engaged with the ongoing national bid for UNESCO World Heritage designation for the original transatlantic cable landing station in Valentia Island, as well as ongoing grant and research projects around coastal communities and climate adaptation, energy futures and digital growth.

Welcoming an audience that included industry members, faculty, and graduate students, Dr. Vaughan gave a summary introduction to the world of subsea cables and their history and present entanglements in Ireland’s specific coastal ecosystems, communities, and national heritage. Aiming to forge dialogues across disciplinary aisles and build policy collaborations between scholarship and industry, the event was also designed to engage postgraduate students in the master’s program in Digital Policy, and to offer this upcoming generation diverse perspectives and experiences on the reality of scholarly work at the intersection of empowering community agency and pushing for positive industry change.

They event was kicked off by Leonard Hobbes (@LenHobbs) of the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation, who discussed Valentia Island and the history of subsea heritage which revolutionized cross-oceanic communication capabilities and our collectively smaller world. Leonard’s narrative of Valentia from the 1860s to today offered a sweeping backdrop for understanding how the birth of global communications infrastructures helped to facilitate the establishment and multi-generational community and workforce of this island off the west coast of Ireland. It also charted the gradual population decline of the community as the founding international corporation moved away and competing networks pushed the decline of the Valentia station – a rollercoaster history connecting social sustainability and technological heritage.

This was followed by the Centre for Digital Policy’s (@DigitalPolicyIE’s) own Patrick Brodie (@patbrodie337), who transitioned the focus from cables under the sea to transatlantic radio stations in Ireland’s bog, to energy parks. Building upon the connections between colonial expansion, communications infrastructure, and local heritage, Pat considered how imperial pasts and presents shape the tech sector’s role in emerging green economies development and the role Ireland plays as a crucial case study for the socioecological ramifications of green capitalism.

Dr. Brodie continued on to discuss the IE-Narr project and introduce fellow researchers, Treasa de Loughry (@treasadel at @UCD_Hum_Inst and @UCDEarth) and Tomas Buitendijk at @UCDEarth and @iCRAGcentre, who discussed extractive energy pasts, contemporary local actions, and desired energy futures. They provided the innovative methods and localized case studies their team has designed to explore how energy transition frictions and disenfranchisement can be navigated through community led engagements and arts practices.

As part of a further tech transformation project, Dr. Buitendijk discussed the iCRAG initiative to highlight the importance of effective community engagement for connecting the meaning of the landscape to the material reality, in particular connecting community participation for coastal transformation to infrastructural growth from subsea cables to offshore energy. Dr. Geertje Schuitema built upon this and closed the event describing how EU carbon neutrality policy initiatives require us to consider policy around the transformation of landscape and the frictions therein, stressing that a human-centred approach to sustainable policy making requires community engagement at the outset.

Diligent student participation fostered a lively and constructive discussion that expanded upon the event’s themes to a diverse range of global contexts, and the scholarly collaborations built through event development facilitated creative conversations up to and beyond the event’s end – the only downside of the entire outing being that it had to capped at the two hour mark!

Dr. Hunter Vaughan

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