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 [1] [2] [3] [4]—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


Walter Ruttmann, Wochenende (1930)

Walther Ruttmann’s Weekend (Wochenende, 1930) is an early piece of musique concrète, a montage of raw sonic material. But the piece is hardly composed of “found sounds.” Ruttmann recorded the sounds using an optical sound film track with the newly developed Tri-Ergon process. In Weekend, he seems to be trying do the same thing with sound as Berlin: Symphony of a City did with images, presenting a cross-section of life in Berlin over the course of a weekend. (Another good intertext might be Menschen am Sonntag, 1930).

The first couple of minutes feature some excellent cross-cutting of language and noise for satirical effect. At one point, a little boy reads a couple of lines from “Der Erlkönig”—”Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der…”—only to be interrupted by the sound of a buzzing saw.

Listen to the first 11 minutes here:


Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball! (1928)

Fritz Walter Bischoff’s 1928 Hörspiel Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball! was one of the greatest of the Weimar Republic, and set the standard for the Neue Sachlichkeit style of reportage. Unlike most other Hörspiele, which were produced live, Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball! made use of edited material, making it a sort of forerunner of “quality” podcasts like This American LifeRadiolab, or 99% Invisible. Walther Ruttmann adopted a similar editing procedure in his more abstract Weekend (1930), but I still prefer Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball!‘s strangeness. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on a copy at some point. For now, here’s an excerpt from Irmela Schneider’s still essential Radio-Kultur in der Weimarer Republik (p. 124), followed by my own translation.

In the excerpt, the announcer presents the globalizing effects of radio as a “symphony of time” and a “symphony of space” through an imagined phone call from the “earth station” to radio listeners.

Hallo! Hier Welle Erdball! Symphonie der Zeit!
aus dem Äther schwingt sie, schwillt sie und donnert heran.
Es geht nicht um Himmel, Hölle und Ewigkeit,
aber Euch, die ihr hört, geht es an.

Bruchstücke, Wortfetzen, Augenblicke,
aufleuchtende, wieder verdämmernde Menschengeschicke.
Jagd nach Glück, Kampf um Geld und Besitz,
es klingt vorüber, zuckt auf Blitz um Blitz.

Bitte suchen Sie nicht nach Zusammenhängen.

Alles soll einfach sein, ohne Kunst, hörbares Leben,
aus dem ersten Knockout soll sich kein Drama ergeben,
aus dem zweiten kein Lustspiel, aus dem dritten kein rührsam Gedicht.

Empfangen Sie bitte das ganz wie einen Zeitungsbericht.

Wählen Sie aus, was Ihnen am besten gefällt,
der Erdball meldet sich! Symphonie der WeIt!

London – Fußballmatch, Japan – Urwaldkampf,
Ministerkrise, die Straße in Lärm und Gestampf,
Zwischendeckpassagiere, Amerikareise,
ruhlos dreht sich die Erde im Kreise.

Achtung! Einschalten zum ersten Bild:
Maschinen rasen! Das Telephon schrillt!
Gut so! Wir fangen an! Allesam Ort?
Hallo! Hier Welle Erdballl Wer dort?

“Hello! It’s Station Earth! Symphony of time!”
vibrates out of the ether, shrills, and thunders on.
It’s not about heaven, hell, and eternity,
it’s about you, the listeners.

Fragments, snatches, moments,
human destinies flashing up and fading away.
The pursuit of happiness, the fight for money and things,
all sound around, one flash after another.

Please don’t look for any connections.

All of it should be simple, artless, life make audible:
no drama should come from the first “knockout”;
no comedy from the second; no moving poem from the the third.

Please receive this just like a newspaper report.

“Pick whatever you like the most,”
the earth answers the call! Symphony of the world!

London – football match, Japan – fight in the rain forest,
government crisis, the streets noisy with stomping,
passengers between decks, voyage to America,
the earth turns without rest.

Achtung! Tune in to the first image:

Machines at full tilt! The telephone rings!
Alright then! Let’s begin! Everyone there?
“Hello! It’s Station Earth! Who’s there?”


Ericsson’s History of Wireless Communication


Ericsson, the communications company started by that Swedish inventor who may have created one of the first car telephone systems—which, if you can believe the above image, actually tapped into existing telegraph lines, has a neat little video about the history of wireless communication.

Some of the classic tropes are a little grating like the claim that wireless has been around forever (“In the beginning, man resorting to shouting…”). But a lot of the archival footage is pretty illuminating. There’s video of Chappes’ telegraph in action; optical morse code systems; Lee de Forest’s triode; walkie-talkies and radar; and of course, lots and lots early automobile radio systems.

There are some interesting predictions about the future of telephony at the end of the video, which, made in 2001, came right before the advent of smart phones


Eric Kluitenberg, “The Network of Waves: Living and Acting in a Hybrid Space”

flash mob? via YouTube

While the extent of the Internet’s impact on the conception of the public sphere remains debatable, traditional boundaries have certainly become blurred between the physical and the virtual as well as the public and the private. But if wireless technology is largely invisible, it largely eludes a politics of representation. Eric Kluitenberg, perhaps best known for his whimsical Book of Imaginary Media (Make sure to watch the DVD with Peter Blegvad’s unforgettable performance!), develops a critical approach to wireless politics in “The Network of Waves: Living and Acting in a Hybrid Space.”

Building on Manuel Castells’s formulation of the “network society,” Kluitenberg questions the dichotomy Castells proposes between two kinds of spatial logic: “the logic of material places and locations (space of place) and the logic of intangible flows of information, communication, services and capital (space of flows)” (9). Kluitenberg critiques the ahistoricity of Castells’ model, and contends that Castells’ binary of material “spaces of place” and immaterial “spaces of flows” hardly squares with the current tendency of information technologies to blur these very distinctions between materiality and immateriality. As a corrective, Kluitenberg proposes the concept of “hybrid space:” “the hybridity of this spatial concept refers not only to the stratified nature of physical space and the electronic communication networks it contains, but every bit as much to the discontinuity of the ‘connectivity’ or degree of connection between the multiplicity of communication networks” (10). Not all networks are created equal, and each network links up with another at a different scale: local, regional, or global.

In tandem with this critique of network studies, Kluitenberg develops a critique of the limits of visual culture studies. The “Diktat of Visibility” excludes the invisible operations of wireless technologies, and tends to frame the limits of visual culture in terms of the “screen” (11). Beyond the visible public sphere, wireless transmitters and receivers play a key role in the creation of “augmented space” (e.g., wearables, sensors, remote activation). As a result, new regimes of controlling public and private space have come about: RFID cards are used for public transportation; ID chips are implanted in pets and workers; all of which allows for data collection. According to Kluitenberg, whenever technology becomes invisible, we stop being aware of it and considering it as a construct, which opens up the possibility of authoritarianism. Initiatives are increasingly distributed between producers and consumers; and more and more decisions are made at the nodes of  networks, rather than at the hubs, which creates a space in which a sovereign subject can shape his or her own autonomy.

To intervene in the creation of these hybrid spaces, Kluitenberg proposes eight main strategies (14-16):

  1. “tactical cartography,” a form of psychogeography that makes local area networks visible;
  2. “disconnectivity,” or “the right and power to be shut out, to have the option, for a longer or shorter time, to be disconnected from the network of waves,” as Evgeny Morozov will also insist on;
  3. “sabotage,” or intentionally disrupting public and private infrastructures;
  4. “legal provisions, prohibitions,” presumably governing wireless networks and spectrum sharing;
  5. a “reduction in economic scale” designed to prevent continued increases in economic scale;
  6. shifting our focus from privacy to “accountability and public transparency”;
  7. “deliberate violation of an imposed spatial programme,“ meaning mass-scale civil disobedience;
  8. “the creation of new social and political players – public action,” or using public spaces for strategic purposes.

One main implication of Kluitenberg’s treatment of these strategies and practices is that the politics of wireless networks depends largely on non-technical interventions. His examples of flash mobs, the “Reclaim the Streets” movement, and perhaps even the Xchange network differ strikingly from Jussi Parikka’s discussion of hardware modifications. For Kluitenberg, even in a wireless world, “presence” remains the main catalyst of political change.


Kluitenberg, Eric. “The Network of Waves: Living and Acting in a Hybrid Space,” Open 11: Hybrid Space (2006).


Jussi Parikka, “Critically Engineered Wireless Politics”

"Packetbrücke" via Flickr (
The Weise7’s “Packetbrücke” via Flickr

Media studies often assumes a naive attitude toward its objects of study, taking concepts like “communication,” “circulation,” and “access” as ideals. In “Critically Engineered Wireless Politics,” Jussi Parikka challenges this common attitude through an engagement with contemporary media theory and an extended discussion of a 2011 exhibition at the Transmediale by the Berlin-based Weise7 group.

The aim of Parikka’s article is partly to demonstrate an alternative, more critical stance toward media, which he designates with the umbrella term “evil media.” In the same turn, Parikka prefers the particular term “critical engineering” to the more common “hacktivism” due to the former’s resonance with the main concerns of modernity (3). This critical, engineering stance toward evil media requires shifting our attention from “the idealistic discourse of media as communication” to “interruption, hijacking and the engineered parasitical event” (2). In contrast to what might be termed the “benevolent media” of communication studies, evil media designates a field of opacity, “trickery, deception, and manipulation” (ibid.). Significantly, the field of evil media is not exclusively the domain of media theory and written texts, but also encompasses engineering practices, such as writing code, creating devices, and intervening in network services. At one point, Parikka even refers to these practices, just as Brian Holmes might, “as an exercise in the psychogeography of code: it is to do with mapping the architectures in which mind and body control work” (13).

Interestingly, the “wireless politics” under discussion here are framed as a part of the field of “network and platform politics” (4; my emphasis). Conceiving of wireless as a “platform” means taking into account hardware, software, and networking protocols. While the theory of affordances would have it that wireless networks are “for” creating real-time communications, the critical engineering approach to wireless networks would highlight the disjunctures and gaps inherent in establishing these connections. To establish the significance of this alternative approach to wireless networks, Parikka paraphrases Adrian Mackenzie’s work on “wirelessness:” “Despite that [i.e., people’s lack of interest in, or experience of, wireless technology], their sensations of connection, their awareness of service availability, and their sometimes conscious preoccupation with connecting their wireless devices via service agreements or other devices all derive from the handling of conjunctive relations in data streams implemented in wireless signal processing chips” (6-7). Hacking, or “critically engineering,” wireless devices can make these processes more tangible.

Several Weise7 projects focus explicitly on re-engineering wireless technology (e.g., “Packetbrücke,” Vasiliev’s “Netless,” a wireless book, and the group’s “Networkshop”).  In doing so, they attempt to create an experience of imperceptible phenomena, “an imperceptibility that connects to the ontological regime of wireless communication, part of the discourse of wirelessness since the 19th century. Imperceptibility relates to the sphere of secrecy and paranoia” (12-13). Critical engineering “exposes how infrastructure is in most cases less stable than it seems. It also leaks data on many fronts, intervening in negotiations of public and private, also more broadly in wireless infrastructures across cities” (15). A critically engineered wireless politics would expose the invisible operations that inform network infrastructures, just as critical theory exposes the invisible forces of society, history, and ideology that constitute culture.


Parikka, Jussi. “Critically Engineered Wireless Politics.” Culture Machine 14 (2013).


Nicole Starosielski, Braxton Soderman, Cris Cheek, “Network Archaeology”


Despite its fundamental gestures of expansiveness and openness, media archaeology might itself become a restrictive approach, if the “media” under analysis are taken to refer exclusively to artifacts related to the traditionally dominant mass media of film, radio, and television. In their introduction to a special issue of Amodern on “Network Archaeology,” Nicole Starosielski, Braxton Soderman, and Cris Cheek make a plea for expanding the field of media archaeology to include the study of networks and the “history of connection.”

As support for this argument, the editors present five main claims for establishing a field of network archaeology:

  1. Network archaeology can disrupt assumptions about the synchronicity, presentism, or atemporality of networks.
  2. Network archaeology, as opposed to media archaeology, can redirect our attention from artifacts to connections.
  3. Network archaeology can highlight media archaeology’s own reliance on strategies of networking, nomadism, and non-linear practices of mapping.
  4. Network archaeology can create an interdisciplinary field for studies of scholars of media studies, network theory, and the history of telecommunications.
  5. Network archaeology can serve as a reminder of the politics of networks, whether they are used for emancipation and democratization or for containment, surveillance, and control.

“We do not intend to create a new field of study or discipline under the rubric of network archaeology that differs essentially from media archaeology,” the editors admit. Still, expanding media archaeology’s typical focus on objects and artifacts to account for the history of connection is definitely a promising endeavor.


Starosielski, Nicole, Braxton Soderman, and Cris Cheek, eds. “Network Archaeology.” Special Issue, Amodern 2 (2013).


Lisa Parks, “Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Visibility”


Visualizations of networks in the form of “flow diagrams” usually place more visual emphasis on the paths in these networks than on their nodes, thereby creating a representation of spatial relations without any sense of what elements the infrastructure is actually composed of. For Lisa Parks, the main consequence of this approach to network infrastructures is a trade-off between an overview of the entire network, and a more local understanding of the nodes in that network. To return our attention to this overlooked aspect of network infrastructures, Parks uses the antenna tree as a model for a “node-centric and materialist approach to the study of infrastructure” (1).

An antenna tree is more than a communication tower; it is a “symptom of processes of fabrication and installation, state and local regulation, community deliberation, and spatial transformation.” Specifically, disguising modern technology so that it blends in with nature not only conceals the communications infrastructure from view, but even more significantly, “keep[s] citizens naive and uniformed about the network technologies they subsidize and use each day” (ibid.). While Hannah Arendt would define modern technology through the layman’s ignorance of its inner workings, Parks deplores the tendency toward infrastructure illiteracy—which, admittedly, may not necessarily be the same as ignorance about technological hardware. “We describe ourselves as a “networked society” and yet most members of the public know very little about the infrastructures that support such a designation – whether broadcasting, web or wireless systems” (ibid.).

Park’s brief history of antenna trees frames them as a response to public debates about the installation of more traditional antenna towers in the 1990s. Presumably to increase coverage and handle cellular network traffic, the growth of cellular services required the installation of new antenna towers. In response, groups of concerned citizens protested the perceived harm to neighborhood aesthetics and the potential health risks of wireless transmissions. In addition to these residential disputes, groups protested the installation of cellular towers in public spaces like Yellowstone National Park. As Parks observes, these developments complicate the usual rhetoric of wireless advertising (“You can talk anytime anywhere”) by highlighting the conditions of possibility for increased signal coverage: “the (re)allocation of publicly owned natural resources, the installation of new equipment on private and public properties, and the restructuring of lifestyles and communities” (2). All of these are visible for traditional antenna towers.

Antenna trees, on the other hand, conceal these debates, which tend to arise due to the visibility of cellular towers, and they attempt to appease citizens by making communications infrastructures invisible. As Parks admits, some urban infrastructures are commonly, and perhaps necessarily concealed from the public, as is the case with sewer, electricity, and water. However, any practice of concealment raise questions about how to promote infrastructure literacy: “Are there ways of representing cell towers that will encourage citizens to participate in sustained discussions and decisions about network ownership, development, and access? What is it about infrastructure that is aesthetically unappealing? What form should infrastructure sites assume? Should they be visible or invisible?” (3)

As a possible remedy to the common governmental practices of concealing infrastructures, Parks places hope in the work of artists like the German photographer Robert Voit, who produced a series of photographs of antenna trees under the title “Enchanted Wood” in 2005. Beyond this example, the form for infrastructure literacy to take remains open. While they rarely admit as much, scholars of media studies often take for granted that more knowledge about technology would necessary enrich our experience of it. Though I generally agree with this position, I still tend to question its assumption about representations. More visibility may not necessarily promote greater knowledge, and uncovering the invisible politics negotiations that go into the formation of antenna trees may not necessarily put citizens in a better position to make informed decisions about them.


Parks, Lisa. “Around the Antenna Tree: the Politics of Infrastructural Visibility.” Flow, 2009.


Peter Schaefer, “Dematerialized Infrastructures: On the Ethereal Origins of Local Area Networks”


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.


Mark Wigley, “Network Fever”


In spite of its title, Mark Wigley’s “Network Fever” bears little resemblance to Derrida’s Archive Fever. For Derrida, catching “archive fever” means having “a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (91). Basically, Derrida equates a desire for the “archive” with a desire to return to a point of origin, as evident in his etymology of the term “archive” (arkhē”). Wigley’s “network fever,” on the other hand, is a more general symptom of modern information technologies. To historicize then current hype about networks (in 2001), Wigley suggests that “we are actually at the end point of the network logic,” and more specifically, that “contemporary discourse about the net simply realizes nineteenth-century fantasies that were acted out throughout most of the last century” (84).

To some extent, Wigley is also concerned with the problems of origins—namely, the origins of thinking about networks. Significantly, Wigley does not locate these origins in cybernetics but rather in architecture at two main historical moments: Constantinos Apostolou Doxiadis’s foundation of “ekistics,” the science of human settlement, in the 1960s; and the establishment of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne (CIAM) in the late 1920s. Siegfried Giedion was one figure who provided symbolic “continuity” between the two moments, holding a closing speech at a renowned 1963 boat trip Doxiadis had organized. This boat trip, from Marseilles to Athens and back, was itself an operation in social networking, bringing together leading intellectuals, including Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, to discuss the problem of global settlements.

Much of the thinking about networks at the Delos meetings and in the Ekistics journal drew on organicism. For example, Kenzo Tange compared organic urban growth in Japan to the central nervous system (Are there parallels here with Fritz Kahn’s image of the city as a central nervous system from the 1920s, some forty years earlier!?), and Doxiadis himself presented two photographs that created an analogy between the “chaos of networks” in urban Detroit and a spider’s web that had been created after it was drugged with amphetamines.

Ultimately, Wigley’s point is that the media studies discourse of networks in the 1960s, exemplified here by McLuhan, paralleled, or perhaps even followed from, the architectural discourse from the same period, exemplified by Doxiadis’s circle. Furthermore, the origins of this way of thinking about global networks can be traced back to an earlier generation of architects and designers from the late 1920s. Still, I wonder whether Wigley might be overstating the case for architecture as “first philosophy,” or leading science. His arguments could probably be extended by comparing thinking about networks across further disciplines, or “Wissenskulturen,” during one specific swath of time.

As for wireless technology, it surprised me to see it described here as a “mode” of information technology: “Everyone has become a kind of expert, ready to discuss the different types of nets (computer, television, telephone, airline, radio, beeper, bank . . . ) or scales (global, national, infra, local, home . . . ) or modes (cable, wireless, digital, optical . . . ).” What surprised me even more, though, is that Wigley perceives everyone to be an “expert” about this wireless mode, whereas Lisa Parks claims the exact opposite—that nobody talks about wireless technology because we lack knowledge about it.


Wigley, Mark. “Network Fever.” Grey Room 4, no. 4 (2001): 82–122.