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The Invisible Truth: Friedrich Kittler vs. Marshall McLuhan

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Friedrich Kittler vs. Marshall McLuhan

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Why the typewriter and not the keyboard?

The typewriter itself was not a revolutionary invention: it was the material interface between human subject and textual production that was revolutionary. The keyboard was the most important modular carry-over from the typewriter to the computer (and the cell phone!), and therefore, it is more important to the history of communications than the typewriter. Kittler, and McLuhan before him, are subdued by a synechdochial dyslexia, whereby they mistake the whole as a revolutionary innovation for the part that was more properly revolutionary. And, perhaps unfortunately, I mean revolutionary with regards to change: its apolitical meaning. In other words, this meaning indicates the revolution of technique has eclipsed the real revolution of socio-political reorganization and the liberation of human potential. The typewriter might have partially democratized print type production, but it was not the cybernetic module that really provided the interface between human and machine that the keyboard did until the intervention of the touch screen. Therefore, it is the keyboard that deserves the theoretical attention, NOT the typewriter.

Why Edison and not Tesla?

Here is where McLuhan was more on point than Kittler. He identified electrification as one of the key developments in modernity and technological history. Calling a stream of electrons a medium in itself was radically accurate. Who cares about the electric lightbulb when you have no means to distribute the very force that operates it? Tesla was the one who invented the transformer, and it was the single most important invention in the creation of technological modernity. I would contend that it was he, not Edison, who "invented invention," partially for the fact that Edison did not invent many of the things he is credited with. There is a popular misconception that because you patented something, you invented it. Any historian of film will tell you that the motion picture was the result of several different innovations combined, including George Eastman's Kodak celluloid filmstrip for photography. And it was Edison's assistant William Dickson who put in the lion's share of labour in developing the kinetoscope at Menlo Park. Edison really didn't have faith in the motion picture, either. He thought the public would soon tire of it as a novelty.

Furthermore, Kittler's focus on the Grammophone, the film, and the typewriter excludes a detailed consideration of radio, which as a medium has had a polemic history, but whose technology has been vital to many other developments like cell phones and wi-fi. Radio has shown a great capacity to build community, but unfortunately this community is often of the genocidal kind. The Nazis and the Hutus both used radio to spread hatred of Jews and Tutsis in Germany and Rwanda. Therefore, it seems a little puzzling to me why a work of medium theory and technological modernity would not include Marconi and and the other developers of radio in the mix. I realize that three is a nice number, and it is symmetrical to his analysis of media in terms of Lacan's sacred triangle of Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic, but radio is vital to the whole wireless phenomenon.

Fibre Optics and Computation

Kittler really flies high here. I really like his examination of fibre optics as a "bottleneck" for information networking, and his insights on Turing's theoretical contributions to the history of the computer are cogent. The notion of the simplest code for mathematical operations, binary code, or base 2, becoming the lingua franca of computation validates the central insight of non-linear mathematics that nigh-infinite complexity can easily be generated by the endless repetition and variation of simple signs. Leibniz, despite being lambasted by Voltaire in Candide for his concept of optimism, has been ultimately validated by his development of binary code. I don't think his optimism has been validated, however. Whoever concludes from simple, thorough observation that we live in the best of all possible worlds is probably sociopathic. Returning to Turing, we can be thankful that he visualized his universal discrete machine as using binary code (hole, absence of hole: signifying 0 and 1) rather than Base 26, which would have approximated the English alphabet!

On a related note, Did ticker tape give birth to the computer?

  • Kittler's Introduction to Grammaphone, Film, Typewriter
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