Bypassed: Rural Revival and Resistance in the Digital Economy

Where is the Internet? While visions of the digital “cloud” evoke something ethereal, virtual experiences are ultimately produced physically; by fiber optic cables, data centers, towers, antennas, and exchange points. For reasons economic, geographic, political, territorial, and environmental the where of the Internet is often someplace rural. This book will explore and compare the experiences of two rural communities that host and support core facilities that make the global Internet possible.

On the coast of Mendocino county sits a cable landing station which connects the West coast to Japan by suboceanic fiber optic cables. The landing station was moved there during the Cold War in an attempt to put distance between a critical communication facility and a dense population center (San Francisco). The backhaul cables that tentacle outward from the cable landing station run to nearby cities. They are buried underneath almost every major road in the rural and remote community. Yet, until recently, few people in the community had any access to this capacity something CA State legislator Jim Wood likened to, “having a candy store with huge windows and all the residents outside wanting to get in and get a piece of it and being told — no way.” When residents witness intensive work on the fiber optic cable infrastructure and suffer the hassles of co-existing with these cables, such as traffic jams during periods of cable laying, repair, and maintenance, their marginality is made apparent in a particularly powerful and tangible way.

In Central Oregon, the town of Prineville was selected by Facebook as the location for its first data center, promising family-wage jobs while producing a construction boom that employed the area’s contractors for years. On the outskirts of town there are now five of these Facebook data centers (with more planned) joined by one owned by Apple. This story would seem to be the polar opposite of the fiber optic cables in Mendocino county; Prineville was a place chosen by a tech sector juggernaut rather than bypassed. The data centers were nonetheless a source of contention and debate within the community which focused on whether the tax breaks granted Facebook were warranted, whether locals were actually securing the lucrative jobs Facebook offered, and what impact the high tech cityfolk the facilities brought into the community would have in a region that primarily identified historically with the logging industry and now with cattle ranching. For a subset of the population, there was a palpable fear that important dimensions of the local culture and community would be lost.

This book explores the relevance of the Internet in rural communities and challenges the way digital inequality is routinely framed and measured. Looking specifically at rural areas that host critical Internet infrastructure offers a distinctive view of these issues. Such infrastructure projects often spark conversation and debate within the communities that host them; specifically, about the relationship between rural communities and the high-tech sector and how rural residents might participate in the ‘information economy.’ In addition, by engaging with rurality through a cultural lens I consider how being connected may offer similar or quite different value for rural vs. urban populations. This project aims to identify the value (and hazards) of connectivity from the perspective of rural residents as it relates to their sense of what it means to live where they do.

Preliminary Publications:

Burrell, J. (2016) The Value of the Internet to Rural Populations: a case study from Mendocino County, CA

Burrell, J. (2018) Thinking Relationally About Digital Inequality in Rural America . First Monday, Vol 23(6). (open access!)