Friedrich Kittler – “The History of Communication Media”

In this article, Friedrich Kittler attempts to give a detailed but also brief account of the history of communication media, which he analyses in terms of, and compares to, information systems. Although Kittler states that his purpose is to “to discuss the history of communication technologies ­ as far as this is humanly possible ­ in general terms,” he packs his essay with military example and some appeals to other critics and theorist – such as Shannon, Locke and Freud – that sometimes seem to be uncontextualized. However, simply put, Kittler divides the history of communication technologies in two main eras: the Writing and the Technical Media. These two eras are further divided into two blocks: “Scripts” and “Printing” under Writing, and “Analog” and “Digital” under Technical.

Kittler begins by pointing out two main problems at the moment of historicizing the evolution of communication. First, he talks about the practical problem, the fact that the evolution of communication is not well documented. Second, the methodological problem, trying to define communication in relation to particular time periods and spaces. He also criticizes Shannon’s elegant model of information, saying that it is better to look at the actually evolution of communication and how these communication technologies actually proceeded in the first place. Kittler focuses in the transition from orality to the written word, and the transition between writing to technical media, looking at how the former results in the decoupling of interaction and communication and the latter in a decoupling of communication and information. Beside looking at the different advantages brought by the development of these technologies in terms of communication, Kittler is concerned about how these technologies were/are used to preserve the information being transmitted.

The first era of communication, Writing, is divided in “Script” and “Printing”. Kittler details the first mediums of communication and information storage in the “Script” period – manual writing and copying – starting with transportable writing surfaces such as bamboo in China, unfired clay in Mesopotamia, and papyrus in Egypt. The papyrus was a much easier method of communication due to its lightness, which made it easily transportable. However, it was fragile and impermanent, unlike the previous bamboo and surfaces. Also, it was rather difficult and time consuming to look up information in papyrus rolls. The arrival of the codex in 140 AD not only made indexing and thus reading easier, but it also proved to be a more durable medium. In the 13th century, paper arrived in Europe from China, which quickly was adopted by universities and scribers as their preferable writing surface due mostly to their durability.

The “Printing” period begins with Gutenberg’s invention of printing. Printing already existed in China and Korea. However, Gutenberg’s innovation was creating a stamp with movable letters. Kittler remarks that the development of new media does not make old media obsolete, but rather reassigns the old media to other places. In the case of printing, this new media made copying books easier and faster, and allowed for easier data processing by numbering pages and having identical copies of the same edition of a particular book. Handwriting, however, was not discontinued but used for state and other official documents, as well as letters and seals. Later, Kittler points out, the creation of typewriters in 1880 leveled out the difference between writing and printing.

The era of Technical Media is distinguishable from the Writing era in how the mediums and processes used are faster than human perception and are formed through the code of modern mathematics. Starting with analog technologies such as telegraphy, Kittler explains how this media had world-wide repercussions. Telegraphy substantiated the decoupling of information from communication by using electromagnetic waves. The remote telegraphic control via landline made possible for a faster traffic of goods. Once detached from the ground, however, the traffic of goods and information was not only even more accelerated, but became international and resulted in information time made discrete. It is this detachment from the ground what also led to inventions of media such as the telephone, film, gramophone, and the radio. These technologies allowed for the amplification and manipulation of information at a greater scale. However, it was the radio what had the effect of standardizing unwritten languages and creating a sort of “secondary orality”.

With the development of digital technologies comes a transformation of the input of data. The digital era properly starts with the Turing machine, the predecessor of computers, created in 1936. Turing’s computer was able to storage, index, and process both numerical and alphabetical data using a binary system of data input. Although at the beginning the Turing machine was slow, his technology served as a base for the development of new machines. It was John von Neumann who managed to design a microsecond-fast computer in 1945. Von Neumann’s system – which included a central processing unit, a write-read memory, and a system for sequential transmission – articulated the fundamental structure of automatic hardware technology used today. Digital data, with its signal processing and ability of transmission, allows for information to break physical parameters. However, Kittler concludes his essay by exclaiming that “the day is not far off when signal processing will reach the physical limits of feasibility,” and this is where the history of communication will end, when the artificial intelligences overhauls each other and no longer reference the individual and mankind, using mathematical algorithms to control the processing of commands by themselves.

Overall, Kittler’s article is pretty straightforward. Since it is an outline of the evolution of communication technologies, there was no much space to disagree with him. However, one of the main questions that came up while reading Kittler’s article is the idea of safeguarding information. Kittler recognizes that those earlier mediums, the pictographs written on clay tablets, remained intact through time while later mediums such as papyrus proved to be less durable. However, he also seems to suggest that the further we go – the creation of the codex, using paper, the analog technology, and the digital technologies that can storage relatively big amounts of data –, our media becomes more durable and safe. He doesn’t seem concerned about the possible loss of information saved through digital technologies. Can we truly conclude that the digitalization of information is the cure to the disintegration of information? It is true that it does last longer than newspapers, for example. However, digital data constantly require software updates and maintenance, and sometimes these updates delete data/information and/or make it obsolete. Also, there is always the debate about cultural memory and the fear that digitalizing everything will make us lose or damage our cultural memory – not that I particularly share that fear, but it is worth discussing.