This image has always bothered me. Under a network of cables so dense as to block out the sky, several Victorian passersby are frozen in mid-stride, gazing up at the infrastructural spectacle and perhaps contemplating how their world come to be wired this way. The image is centered on the telephone pole—and the trunk supporting the wires is bent, seeming to be pulled in multiple directions at once by the tautness of the cables. Someone has climbed to the third rung of the pole, perhaps to install yet another cable.
(There are plenty of similar period illustrations and even some photos    —that of “Disorderly Wires On Lower Broadway About To Be Cut Down” from Harper’s being the most iconic—but the image above is unique for reasons that should soon become apparent.)
The image is displayed prominently in the Introduction to Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter with the laconic caption “Telefonverkabelung. New York 1888” (p. 14; “Telephone lines, New York, 1888.” p. 6). There are no image credits anywhere in the book.
The use of the word “Verkabelung” in the caption resonates with the opening lines of the Introduction, which , is arguably more important though far less known than the Preface (“Vorwort”) due to Kittler’s infamous line “Media determine our situation” (“Medien bestimmen unsere Lage”). In fact, the epigraph for the Preface, drawn from Pynchon (“Tape my head and mike my brain, / Stick that needle in my vein”) seems to resonate more with the Kittler’s main concern in the Introduction with the idea of “Verkabelung:”
Verkabelung. Die Leute werden an einem Nachrichtenkanal hängen, der für beliebige Medien gut ist — zum erstmal in der Geschichte oder als ihr Ende. Wenn Filme und Musiken, Anrufe und Text über Glasfaserkabel ins Haus kommen, fallen die getrennten Medien Fernsehen, Radio, Telefon und Briefpost zusammen, standardisiert nach Übertragungsfrequenz und Bitformat. Vor allem der optoelektrische Kanal wird gegen Störungen immun sein, die die schönen Bitmuster hinter Bildern und Klängen randomisieren kännten. Immun, heißt das, gegen die Bombe. Denn bekanntlich streuen Nuklearexplosionen in die Induktivität üblicher Kupferkabel einen elektromagnetischen Puls (EMP) ein, der fatalerweise auch angeschlossene Computer verseuchen würde. (p. 7)
In other words, the introduction of fiber optic cables signals the end of media history insofar as a fiber optic cable is indifferent to the information it transmits and immune to electromagnetic weaponry. Historically, film, radio, telephone, and the post office all depended on distinct information channels. But all of them have now been standardized, in the form of information, and can be transmitted over the same channel. Furthermore, the channel that transports them has a sinister military advantage: while copper cables are vulnerable to electromagnetic disturbances, fiber optic cables are immune to the risk of electromagnetic warfare, since they depend on an optical/electrical channel. (Remember when your antenna would get struck by lightning and fry your computer?).
Putting aside this somewhat dated (Cold War!) concern about mutually assured annihilation and the over-belabored question of “media convergence” (Will we? or Won’t we?), I think that Kittler still has something important to say about our tendency toward “Verkabelung,” which I’ll try to spell out more in a later post. For now, take a look at how Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz render the passage in the Stanford University Press edition (1999):
Optical fiber networks. People will be hooked to an information channel that can be used for any medium—for the first time in history, or for its end. Once movies and music, phone calls and texts reach households via optical fiber cables, the formerly distinct media of television, radio, telephone, and mail converge, standardized by transmission frequencies and bit format. The optoelectronic channel in particular will be immune to disturbances that might randomize the pretty bit patterns behind the im ages and sounds. Immune, that is, to the bomb. As is well known, nuclear blasts send an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) through the usual copper cables, which would infect all connected computers.
Here’s how Dorothea von Mücke and Philippe L. Similon render the same passage (October 41 (Summer 1987), p. 101):
Optical fiber networks. Soon people will be connected to a communication channel which can be used for any kind of media—for the first time in history or for the end of history. When films, music, phone calls, and texts are able to reach the individual household via optical fiber cables, the previously separate media of television, radio, telephone, and mail will become a single medium, standardized according to transmission frequency and bit format. Above all, the optoelectronic channel will be immunized against disturbances that might randomize the beautiful patterns of bits behind the images and sounds. Immunized, that is, against the bomb. For it is well known that nuclear explosions may send a high intensity electromagnetic pulse through traditional copper cables and cripple the connected computer network.
I definitely appreciate these reader-friendly translations, but I think that something gets lost in rendering “Verkabelung” as “Optical fiber networks,” especially since the term seems to have been so important for Kittler that he italicized it—which I think is a pretty rare move for him! (I wonder whether any of the translators consulted him about this…) One thing that gets lost in translation is the obvious resonance with the image of the telephone wires (“Telefonverkabelung“), an image of excessive copper wiring—visible and above ground—that points ahead to the transcendence of wires in the form of fiber optic cables (“Verkabelung“)—invisible and underground. Verkabelung is more than just fiber optics, more than just a technical practice or a material support for telecommunications. It almost seems to be description of a Kulturtechnik.
But where did this image come from?
Trying to source the original image through a Google reverse-image search, I was only able to turn up two hits: a Japanese artist who uses the image as one in a series of three; and more productively, the same image in Wolfgang Bock’s Bild – Schrift – Cyberspace with the surprising caption “Französische Karikatur der Vernetzung in den USA,” dated to 1855 in the text and 1885 in the footnote, and an image credit for the book Alchimie des Alltags. Das Werkbund Archiv. Museum der Alltagskultur (Berlin 1978). [This definitely seems promising, since an artist’s signature is visible in the lower-left corner with a French sounding name, “F. Tourn…” And Google Books has a Limited Preview of the Werkbund book, but I need to get my hands on the physical edition to check the actual credit, and to figure out how the date might have gotten so mixed up—1855? 1885? 1888?]
Compare Kittler’s almost factual description, “Telephone lines, New York” to the original “French caricature of networking in the USA.” In the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from a satire to a menacing fact, and from Vernetzung to Verkabelung…