Friedrich Kittler, “The City is a Medium”

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It has become a commonplace in media studies to point out the visual similarities between cities and circuit boards. In “The City is a Medium,” Friedrich Kittler highlights a more conceptual link between urban infrastructures and information technologies.

According to Kittler, “a network made up of intersecting networks dissects and connects the city—in particular its fringes, peripheries, and tangents” (718). These networks can be communications infrastructures or energy infrastructures. In either case, they transmit forms of information and require a parallel control network to monitor them.

Kittler also sees networks in the architecture of cities—presumably, the glass, concrete, and stone style office buildings that reveal their contents to passersby. Yet, in a surprising analogy, he underscores the invisibility of infrastructures: to find your way out of a labyrinth, you don’t need to sketch the visible walls, but rather the invisible passages between the path and the doors. In a similar sense, one must extrapolate, you don’t need to sketch the nodes of networks, only the invisible pathways that connect these nodes.

Visualizing a network in this way creates a network “tree.” Operationalizing this process leads to the practice of putting mice into labyrinths, and subsequently, as Claude Shannon did, creating a mechanical mouse to navigate the labyrinth, an experiment that helped him optimize the telephone network in the practice of “routing” packages.

Lastly, networks were incorporated into mathematics (topology and graph theory) as early as 1770. For Kittler, this marks the beginning of modernity in the sense that “Euler’s proof” disregarded concrete topographic data about Königsberg in favor of abstracting to a system of coordinate points and connecting lines.

At several points in the essay, Kittler suggests that there is no “outside” to a network. Just as the content of any medium is another medium, the content of any network is another network, at least “in capitals, networks between cities overlap upon other networks between other cities” (720). This will be a running theme in studies of network infrastructures.

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Erik Born

I’m an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Society for the Humanities and the Department of German Studies at Cornell University. My research and teaching focuses broadly speaking on relations between old media and new media, and particularly on questions of mobility.

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