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

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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).

Source

Schaefer, Peter. “Dematerialized Infrastructures: On the Ethereal Origins of Local Area Networks.” Amodern, no. 2 no. 2 (October 4, 2013): 1–14.

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Mark Wigley, “Network Fever”

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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.

Source

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

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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.