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"The History of Communication Media"

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Friedrich KittlerEdit

Friedrich Adolf Kittler is a German media and literary theorist (although he would certainly see those as the same). His work, along with Siegfried Zelinski's, is considered to be among the core texts of media archaeology.

Kittler's primary theoretical influences stem from French psychoanalysis and post-structuralism--Lacan, Foucault and Derrida. His critiques and literary context, however, largely employs the work of German writers and philosophers, particularly Nietzsche and Goethe.

Kittler's work is exceedingly deterministic--media have their own autonomy. They are not merely McLuhan's extensions of man--they go farther, producing man's technological a priori. Here one could map a fundamental disagreement in media archaeology (or, more simply put, non-progressivist accounts of media history) between thinkers like Kittler and thinkers like Lisa Gitelman or Carolyn Marvin who steadfastly oppose the notion that technology can reproduce their own conditions or manage their own dissemination.

The History of Communication Media [1996]Edit

In this article, Kittler delivers a brief essay in quintissential style on the history of communication media as in the form of information media. Kittler does his readers no favors, packing his essay rife with military examples, uncontextualized appeals to Claude Shannon and other thinkers, and condesning historical depth to the binary frames of information logic; Kittler reads the past in terms of the information networks of the present and at the conclusion, unleashes one of his most criticized statements: "The day is not far off when signal processing will reach the physical limits of feasibility. This absolute limit is where the history of communication technologies will literally come to an end." This colloborates with other famous Kittlerisms, such as in "There is No Software" when he argues that all media are bound to move toward unlimited binary convergence.

In this "History of Communication Media", Kittler offers his own chronologics of communication media. History can be divided into roughly two eras, Writing and Technical Media. Writing is further divided into the blocks of "Scripts" and "Printing" and Technical Media into "Analog" and "Digital".


Kittler begins with the aim of offering "the history of communication technologies - as far as this is humanly possible - in general terms. The objective is ultimately the outline of a scientific history of the media - an outline for the simple reason that media sciences is a new field of research which would not exist had it not been for the triumphal advance of modern information technologies". Usefully, Kittler notes that "One practical problem is that communications technologies themselves are documented to a far lesser extent or are far less accessible than their contents."

In collapsing communication media as an information system, Kittler writes: "Information systems in the narrowest sense of the word are, it is true, optimised in terms of the storage, processing and transmission of messages. Communication systems on the other hand because in addition to messages they also control the traffic of persons and goods comprise all kinds of media (in McLuhan's analysis) from road systems to language. There is nonetheless good reason to analyse communication systems in the same way as information systems because communication media are in the business of storing, processing and transmiting data. For Kittler, "the history of these technologies comes to an end when machines not only handle the transmission of addresses and data storage, but are also able, via mathematical algorithms, to control the processing of commands."

In information systems terms, Kittler concludes "the historical transition from orality to the written word equated to a decoupling of interaction and communication, and the transition from writing to the technical media indeed to a decoupling of communication and information. What we have here, therefore, is a process of evolution which has come to a conclusion only in the theory and practice of an information which corresponds to the exact opposite of the energetic concept of entropy."


"The history of the literate cultures, whose "medium" customarily also divides history from prehistory, is determined by two series of variables[ [...] the extent that the content of a medium is always another medium and that of writing (even for Aristotle) is speech [...] However to the extent that the medium of writing, probably for the first time, also couples storage and transmission, inscription and post, then physical variables relating to writing implements and writing surface decide as to the space and time frame of the communication. These variables dictate the time needed for transmitting and receiving, the permanence or erasability of what is written and, not least, whether the information is transportable or not."

While transmission reached speedy and secure heights in the Roman Empire, the durability of written information did not, as papyrus was a fragile substance. It was not until the codex made of parchment was developed that indexing, as well as a durable transportable media became possible. Books "decoupled increasingly cursory reading from the laboriousness and slowness of orality." According to Kittler, the development of paper (particularly rag linen) allows for universities to evolve in the 13th century (removing storage from the vestiage of the monestary), and also of particular importance is mathematical notations that did not require speech.

Later, with Gutenberg, the printing press is developed. Kittler writes:

"New media do not make old media obsolete; they assign them other places in the system. Thus because printing now reproduced the rhetorical-musical performances at tournaments as literature and fictions of the authors, the physical techniques of these tournaments appear (according to Gumbrecht's thesis) to have been transmuted into silent, measurable disciplines. Equally, it was only as a development within typography that the intrinsic value of handwriting emerged, the individuality of the hand taking the place of seals on letters and documents and which became the domain of a state system of post and police." The transition to the printing press is writing's industrial revolution.

Technical MediaEdit

Technical media are distinguished by their use of "processes which are faster than human perception". Kittler acknowledges that, "Self-evidently there must always have been technical media, because any sending of signals using acoustic or visual means is in itself technical. However in preindustrial times channels such as smoke signals or fire telegraphy which exploited the speed of light, or bush telegraphs and calling chains making use of the speed of sound were only subsystems of an everyday language."

The earliest form of this analog media, telegraphy, "had world-wide repercussions. For absolutely the first time, information was decoupled, in the form of a massless flow of electromagnetic waves, from communication [...] This detachment from the ground whose distances (as in synchronous mathematical topography) are, in contrast to all pre-modern postal systems, no longer calculated because only absolute speed counts, brought internationality."

Of particular note to Kittler are the events of 1906: "Since Christmas 1906, when Fessenden's radio transmitter broadcast low-frequency random events as they occur as amplitude or frequency modulation of a high frequency, there exist non-material channels. Since 1906, when de Forest developed, from Edison's light bulb, the controllable valve, information is open to any kind of amplification and manipulation. The valve radio, developed as wireless telephony for breaking the imperial cable monopoly, first of all made the new weapons systems of the first World War, the aeroplane and the tank, both mobile and dirigible by remote control, and after the end of the war, was applied to the civilian populations." "The electrification of sensory input data through transducers and sensors enabled the entertainments industry to couple analog storage media firstly with one another and secondly with transmission media. The sound film combined optical and acoustic memories; radio, before the introduction of the tape-recorder, largely transmitted gramophone records; the first television systems, prior to the development of electronic cameras, scanned feature films. Thus the content of entertainment media always remains another medium which, in this way, they serve to promote."

"there is no general standard which regulates their control and reciprocal translation. This is precisely the point at which the heroes and heroines of Benjamin's theory of media came to the rescue in the form of editors in film studios and sound engineers for tape with their celebrated but strictly manual montage techniques. The rendering obsolete of this human intervention and the automation of a general standard was reserved for digital technology." "Digital technology functions like an alphabet but on a numerical basis. It replaces the continuous functions into which the analog media transform input data, which are generally also continuous, with discrete scannings at points in time as equidistant as possible..."

"No matter whether their environment supplies alphabetic or numerical data, that is, writing or media-generated values, the commands, data and addresses are all represented internally by binary numbers. The classic distinction between functions and arguments, operators and numerical values has become permeable. However it is precisely this breakdown of the alphabet which also permits operations to be applied to operations, and ramifications to be automated. Which is why computers in principle comprehend all other media and can subject their data to the mathematical procedures of signal processing."

"However, for multi-dimensional signal processing in real time, such as is required for television pictures or computer animations, the von Neumann architecture becomes a bottleneck. For this reason large numbers of parallel computers are already in use, and biological and optical circuitry such as is required above all for the simulation of brain functions, is already under development. The day is not far off when signal processing will reach the physical limits of feasibility. This absolute limit is where the history of communication technologies will literally come to an end. [...] humanity which before of an indifferent or interferent natural world would have externalised first its motor and sensory interface, and finally its intelligence, in technical prosthetics."

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