Peter Schaefer’s concise take on “Dematerialized Infrastructures” is a little history of the “ether,” from its origins as a concept in nineteenth-century physics to its incorporation into the portmanteaux “Ethernet” (“Ether Network”) in the 1970s. In either case, the ether functions as a material metaphor for the immaterial properties of wireless networking, thereby serving as a reminder of both the material substrate of wireless technology and the problem of sharing the medium of electromagnetic waves for multiple simultaneous transmissions.
The bulk of Schaefer’s archaeological analysis is concerned with the creation of local area networks, or “LANs,” from the 1960s to the present. In his media archaeology of LANs, Schaefer complicates the standard historical narrative of a transition from wired to wireless systems occurring in the 2000s by pointing out that networks from the 60s and 70s already used wireless modes of transmission. Histories of computer networks have tended to focus on wired infrastructures, which, in Schaefer’s analysis, “helps to promote a teleological narrative of physically connected data transfer systems progressing to lighter, cleaner networks that are increasingly disconnected from the natural world” (2). Interestingly, Schaefer shifts the blame for this teleological view from media historians to early computer engineers, who revived the term ether “to erase the physical components of the infrastructures they designed” (ibid.).
In 1973, Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs, two American electrical engineers working at Xerox PARC, coined the term “Ethernet” as a replacement for “Alto ALOHA Network,” the Hawaiian network created to connect universities on various islands through radio technology. According to Metcalfe, the Ethernet was coined in reference to Victorian physicists experiments with the ether, especially the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, which had been designed to detect the motion of matter relative to the stationary medium of the ether. In this respect, the ether metaphor referred not only to dematerialization—viz., the mysterious connotations of ether as an invisible substance—“but also to empirical efforts to uncover a hidden material reality” (3). Just like other physical substances (e.g., air, water, etc.), as Schaefer points out, the ether was believed to be capable of being polluted by too many signals. (A precursor of debates about “electrosmog“?!). Lastly, insofar as the ether was understood as a universal substance, it was considered as a candidate for “universal communication” (5), an ideal that would resurface in the New Communalist movement of the 1960s, which “turned away from the agonistic politics of the New Left…toward what they imagined to be a world interlinked by invisible systems” (11, quoting Fred Turner).
In tandem with this historical linguistic analysis of how the term “ether” was revived and adapted in the term “Ethernet,” Schaefer examines the concrete practices that informed that creation of computer networks in the 1960s and 70s. Taking a cue from Alexander Galloway’s exhortation to study information protocols, Schaefer examines the development of wireless LAN protocols and the formation of network topologies. As Schaefer explains, two main network topologies were developed in the 1970s: in a ring topology, the packet gets passed between stations, creating a continuous circuit; in a branching bus topology, on the other hand, the packet gets randomly retransmitted, linking all the computers to one connecting medium. A protocol was required to address the problem of sharing the communication medium of the electromagnetic spectrum—by creating an algorithm, on the one hand, and by establishing transmission policies, on the other. In handling the problem of network traffic, the Ethernet protocol detected conflicts among signals by making transmitters and receivers into “transceivers,” an operation similar to that of “full break-in keying,” common among radio amateurs.
Ultimately, Schafer urges media historians to reject the common linear narrative of “dematerialization” in favor of a more nuanced media archaeology of sites of conflict over the medium of wireless communications. These conflicts boil down to a tension between the ideal of perfect communication and the reality of the material substrate of wireless data transfer. One main implication of Schaefer’s treatment of the ether metaphor is that the symbolic dimension of language compensates for the real dimension of computer hardware. To put it somewhat reductively, historical negotiations of the term “Ethernet” amount to a recurring conflict between theory and practice: “the language used to describe communication infrastructure reflects both the utopian hope for communication that transcends the natural world as well as the practical reality of sending signals across time and space” (11).
Schaefer, Peter. “Dematerialized Infrastructures: On the Ethereal Origins of Local Area Networks.” Amodern, no. 2 no. 2 (October 4, 2013): 1–14.