Angels and bionic ears – on the whereabouts of German media theory

Angels, viruses, the Greek alphabet, time tables anno 1900, chaos theory and huge ambitions; or just one attempt at summarizing a recent conference on so-called German Media Theory. Two weeks ago I went to the Media transatlantic conference in Vancouver, I admit, just as much for the city as for the conference in itself. Although the subtitle of the conference described it as being about “Media theory in North-America and German-Speaking Europe” it would have been more correct to replace the ‘North-American’ part with ‘Canadian theory’, or simply the ‘Toronto school’; that aside I went mostly for the ‘German-speaking part’, which also turned out to be the most represented side of the transatlantic endeavour. Here, I’ll just give a brief account of my impressions as to the whereabouts of German Media Theory as far as the conference goes.

First of all, there is a lot of interesting and inspiring stuff going on in German-speaking Europe, which only rarely reaches the shores of Norway, or any other non-German speaking country I suspect. Secondly, and probably needless to say, German media theory is much more than Friedrich Kittler, who does not even see himself as a media theorist (any more). Some of the most well-known German media-theorists were indeed present at the conference, giving fascinating keynotes, including:

  • Sybille Krämer : Krämer is professor of Philosophy at the Freie Universität of Berlin. Her work revolves around the philosophy of language and performativity and how it applies to media and particularly the computer, as well as to questions concerning mediality and the figure of the messenger as basis for a media theory. This latter aspect of her research and the topic of her latest book “Medium, Bote, Übertragung. Kleine Metaphysik der Medialität” was the focus of her talk at the conference as well. Krämer was concerned with developing a path for media philosophy beyond insisting on its a prioriness, arguing for a revisiting of the topi of transmission based on a messenger model of media. For Krämer the messenger embodies the structural properties of transmission. Messengers mediate between heterogeneous worlds, not through speaking but by making one side visible for the other. Messengers such as angels, money, viruses, psychoanalysis and witnesses according to Krämer must be seen as media in the sense that they, in acting as messengers, create the world by bridging something and making visible. Angels transmit or mediate holy messages, viruses transmit diseases and property is transmitted through money. The emphasis of the messenger and transmission allow for a media theory based on processes and thirdness (Mitte und Mittler) rather than on the technical apparatus as the condition of possibility as her other Berlin colleagues will have it.
  • Dieter Mersch : Mersch is a philosopher and professor of Media Studies at the University of Potsdam. Like Krämer he focuses on media philosophy, philosophy of language and performativity. He areas of research also include philosophy of art, aesthetics, hermeneutics and semiotics. As a media philosopher Mersch works with questions concerning the medium and its conceptualization as such; what media is, how media influence perception, communication and knowledge and the constitutive nature of the specific structures of media as they relate to the image, language and mathematics. In his talk, Mersch argued for a third way of approaching the question concerning the conditions of media. In sketching out two dominant modes of thinking about media that he regards as problematic, media as technical means and media as metaphor, he argued for a performative mode, or for the usefulness of approaching media as practices. Whereas the technical mode belongs to the Kittlerian realm, to calculation and mathematics, in short to pure instrumentality, media as metaphor is associated with the Swiss media theorist Christoph Tholen. By means of an etymological excursion, Mersch argued for a move from “meta” as in metaphor or the Greek metapharin (meaning transfer and transmission) to “dia”, or the Aristotelian diaphanis (meaning a through something, by means of light). For Mersch the move from meta to dia provides for a more useful approach in accounting for media, as meta always implies rupture or a leap, which needs to be accounted for, while dia accentuates a throughness and thereby does a way with an idea of an unbridgeable gap. A media theory based on dia rather than meta, highlights the performative and practice based approach that Mersch wants to end up with. Dia as in by using, or by doing, rather than media as rupture, better accounts for the conditions of media according to Mersch. Essentially what Mersch seems to suggest is that the medium cannot be grasped in itself and so we must attain to its practices instead.
  • Hartmut Winkler: Winkler is professor of Media Studies at the University of Paderborn and probably the most relevant theorist for my concerns, as he focuses on digital media and the computer. His talk revolved around the third and often neglected media function – processing.  Media for Kittler have basically three functions: transmission, storage and processing, but as Winkler observes, this third category of processing has been remarkably under-explored. Winkler argues that processing can be seen as a general media function, not just as an integral part of what the computer does. Processing plays a fundamental role in manufacturing media products of all kinds from video, photography to writing, all encompass a certain processing of the message. Winkler further explores the relation between processing and communication, by suggesting that what is now at stake is the relationship between a sender as producer and the product, rather than the senders relation to a receiver. As such, the concept of processing highlights how a communicator today intervenes with the message, or the product, through processing it (e.g. editing a YouTube video, formatting the content etc.). For Winkler, a focus on processing rather than communication prompts us to having to ask different sorts of questions regarding media, which have to do with the ‘logistics’ of media and the organizing principles of structuring certain worldviews. Processing ultimately deals with questions concerning translation and transformation, and Winkler thus proposes that processing can be understood as interfering modification on the one hand and as switching/forwarding on the other.

Performativity, Practice and Processing are the three P’s that seem to characterize a certain theoretical affinity between the different media theorists, all highlighting media’s capacity to act, of doing something. While there are certainly differences in opinion as to the extent to which media are instrumental or have causal power in themselves, terms like translation, transmission, messenger and process attest to understanding media as thirdness, middle and in-between. While Winkler seems to be working on a conceptualization of processing that synthesizes media’s capacity to both change by interfering and delivering without interfering, Mersch would like to distance himself from an instrumental approach to media all together. Both Krämer and Mersch efforts are drawn towards accounting for the invisibility of media in its transmission process, that is the making visible by being invisible. For both a solution seems to lie in aisthesis, which for Krämer is to be found in the logos of transmission and the figure of the messenger while or Mersch it implies a dealing with late Wittgensteinian concepts like practice and language-games.

However, as the only outside expert of German media theory present, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young stressed in his keynote, we must be vary about using a term such as German media theory as if it were some unified category. There is neither a theory to which most German media theorists subscribe to, nor is there a consensus as to what constitutes a medium. Not to mention the construct of ‘German’, which is in itself problematic, which is as Winthrop-Young reminds us just an observer construct. For who counts as German, and do I have to identify it as German if writing from elsewhere? He furthermore talked about the language problem and the academic bureaucracy of getting the works translated to English and disseminated to an international audience. In responding to what he saw as particularly pressing issues to discuss within the international context, Winthrop-Young mentioned the stakes of ‘post-humanism’, a broader reception of Luhmann and what exactly the Germans understand by ‘cultural techniques’.

The huge ambitions referred to in the beginning of the post can be said to characterize the recent project underway by the mythical ‘founding father’ of German media theory. Till Heilman briefly outlined Kittler’s new endeavour of presenting the entire cultural history of the Western world in four volumes. In what still remains a relatively unknown project outside Germany, “Musik und Mathematik” has still to move on and progress from dealing with the ancient Greeks and their alphabet. Although Kittler was remarkably absent from the papers presented, his presence was all the more recurring during the discussions in which several of the conference attendees expressed their disdain towards the equating of German media theory solely with Kittler and Berlin. The fact that the conference didn’t really attract many others than the few conference presenters and the Germans themselves attested to the relative unknown field of German media theory in the North American context.

Interestingly, the younger generation of the German presenters were quite representative of what Winkler saw as a tendency in German media theory of scholars concerning themselves increasingly with the theory and history of science and theories of cognition. Markus Krajewski presented a paper on the global transit system around 1900 as basis for a media theory of the time table while PhD candidates Mueggenburg and Samuel presented on bio-cybernetics in the 1960s as well as on Otto Rössler and Chaos theory respectively.

If we were to judge the whereabouts of German media theory by this conference alone some recurring concerns, theoretical affinities and approaches come to mind. One of the things that kept coming up in presentations and discussion was a concern with questions of the visibility and invisibility of media, and with the visual in general, even up to the point where conference co-organizer Richard Cavell remarked his surprise of this “turn” of attention to the visual. The non-German theorist mentioned most often as a point of reference was the French philosopher Michel Serres, maybe not so surprising taken into account his concepts of the parasite (as a third and as the appearance of the medium) and well as his theory of translation based in large on the figure of the angel as messenger. German media theory if I may still use this term seems more invested in media as they occurred 100 years ago, even with ancient Greece than with contemporary media, say with social media. Cybernetics, cognition and the computer linger strongly and debates about what really constitutes a medium and what they do are actively debated from philosophical and theoretical perspectives.

Web default to social

There is a lot of buzz out there right now about the “new” Facebook. Facebook just announced that they are starting their journey towards becoming the social center of the web at the Facebook developers’ conference in San Francisco two days ago. The new components to the Facebook platform show a move towards a connection-based Web, from being a destination site to a distributed site, and a gradual shift from search to more sharing (like Twitter’s retweet and Google’s buzz), and from lesser privacy to more personalization.

Basically three major changes were announced:

  • Like button: the social plugin allows website owners to embed a like button to their webpage. With one click users share their approval, or likes, with their friends on Facebook. Stories about the “likes” are published on the newsfeed and on the user profiles. Users don’t have to be logged in to Facebook, the likes are automatically syndicated to the users profile. Levis is one of the first companies to adopt this plugin right away. On its website Levis promotes the “friends store” for “like-minded shopping” with what has the potential to become the Web’s new slogan “Declare your likes”! Users can declare their likes towards a particular pair of Levis jeans, say the low skinny something jeans and see who else also shares that enthusiasm. But do I really care that a girl named Chloe Hanson also likes the same pair of jeans? Maybe, time will tell. At least it is taking the whole friend concept to another level. Surely many people care about what their friends like, and I guess even what strangers like. But what about products that nobody likes? And what kind of taste hierarchies will evolve out of it? As it looks right now, you can see how many people also like the same product but not who these people are unless they are your friends on Facebook. The like button is really a major effort to follow the users around the Web. Facebook isn’t satisfied with being the principal destination site of the web anymore, rightfully taking its measures of precaution. While many previous social networking sites had to see their users move on to the next big thing, introducing a like button for the entire web is Facebook’s way of franchising, or as Mashable puts it: “Rather than aiming to be the coolest bar in town — and losing its clientele when they leave for a hipper spot — Facebook plans to become the Starbucks of the web, with a Like button on every corner.” What’s more is the simplification of embedding such functionality by adding a simple iframe snippet to a line of html. This social plugin also plays a decisive role in the other major announcement of Facebook.
  • Open Graph: This protocol allows developers to see the social connection between people and their interests. The idea is that a person or object is defined by the other people/things they’re connected to. So what the open graph model aims for is not only to connect people with people but also people with things. Every web service does its own social mapping of its users. Pandora maps taste in music and Yelp maps business recommendations. Instead of creating multiple social graphs, the open graph allows for mapping the connections on top of each other, feeding participating services with social interest data across sites and back to Facebook. So whereas user tastes and interests previously would surface on the stream without Facebook holding on to it, now this data is stored and permanently available on Facebook, and maybe more importantly, also stored and accessible across the web. In the first instance the open graph protocol launches with 30 partners, including Pandora, Yelp, CNN and IMDB. For instance, clicking the like button on a movie page on IMDB makes it show up on Facebook’s user profiles, search results and news feed. So if you click like for the movie ‘The Rock’ on its IMDB page it will automatically show up as part of you favorite movies on your personal Facebook profile. Essentially Facebook is looking to become an identity aggregator for its users, or simply the user identity center of the web.
  • Graph API: This is a redesign of Facebook’s core API making it simpler for developers to use the Facebook platform.

It will remain to be seen what these changes actually mean for the users, publishers and the competition. However that Facebook is trying to move in the direction towards a semantic web, or at least a more semantically aware web is evident. In the competition for user eyeballs and user information, Facebook has taken a large step in pushing its biggest competitor Google aside. Whether Google or Facebook, the fact that we are dealing with companies that increasingly own and ever-expand on accumulating user data repositories should be worrisome.

Art and technology collaborations

On Saturday I attended a one-day event called Seven on Seven at the New Museum of Contemporary Art put on by Rhizome. Seven leading artists were paired with seven leading technologists and programmers to come up with something creative, a new art work, a social media piece etc. over the course of one day. Among these altogether 14 different people were Matt Mullenweg, a creator of WordPress who was paired with Evan Roth, a graffiti artist with a lot of interesting web projects going on, Jeff Hammerbacher, an early Facebook developer who was paired with Aaron Koblin, a data visualization artist who just won an award at this years Transmediale. Others included Tumbler’s David Karp, Delicious founder and Google engineer Joshua Schachter and artist Tauba Auerbach who’s work is exhibited at this years Whitney Biennial and who has even had a solo exhibition at one of my favourite galleries in Oslo, Standard.

I didn’t really know what to expect as there wasn’t much information about the event beforehand but I was pleasantly surprised by what the pairs had come up with during just one day of collaboration and intensive brainstorming. Although pitched as artists and technologists respectively, these lines, especially among these pairs, were increasingly blurred.

I really enjoyed Mullenweg and Roth’s presentation. Their project naturally revolved around blogging and the fact that blogging most often is regarded as quite a solitary experience. You sit there and write your blog-post and have really no idea who’s going to read it; when you’re finished all you do is to press the ‘publish’ button and that’s it. As Roth proclaimed, it’s like sending the bottle out to sea. So what they proposed was a ‘surprise me’ button that WordPress users can active on their admin system and which will generate random congratulation videos celebrating the bloggers efforts. In addition, playing around with the fact that the stats page are the most loaded page on WordPress, Mullenweg and Roth made a simple mashup using Google search, Wikipedia and Flickr to “humanize” the stats by automatic comparing the number of visitors to a “real life” example of that number, say “your page has been read as many times as there as people living in Cody, Wyoming” with a picture accompanying, adding a sense of community to that solitary blogging experience.

Joshua Schachter and artist Monica Narula came up with the idea of monetizing guilt by harnessing Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to allow users to collectively assign dollar values to various misdeeds that people had considered acts of guilt. The idea was to ask users on Mechanical Turk to name something that made them feel guilty and next to name something that people could do in order to compensate for the act for which one user suggested to give money to charity. The third question that Schachter and Narula therefore crowdsourced was just how many dollars for a number of guilty actions should be given to charitable causes so that guilt might be cleared through donations.  This experiment I think showed in an elegant way how even such abstract concepts as guilt can be monetized in a modern capitalist marketplace on the Internet.


“Books, like cats, do not wear watches”

-Jeanette Winterson

waiting for godot
waiting for godot

Media and waiting seem to be at odds. At least in times of so-called instantaneous communication. Reading Harold Schweizer’s book ‘On Waiting’ reminds me just how marginal or left out the topic of waiting is from media studies. And this is quite remarkable as waiting when one thinks about it constitutes an integral part of the phenomenology of everyday life. Waiting is not only an experience everyone shares, from waiting for the bus, in a queue or for the kettle to boil, but also an experience which affects are also shared by most people. Waiting is not something people tend to like. But how does waiting relate to new media technologies? What do faster and instant media do to waiting?  And how does waiting relate to time, boredom and attention in today’s digital economies?

As Schweizer remarks, “in waiting, time is slow”. Are we so obsessed with instantaneous media because we hate waiting? We get irritated and anxious when we have to wait on the phone line, we “expect” people to respond fast when we send a text message and responding to email should be done within the next day or so.

Living in a society that accentuates immediacy, waiting becomes the only temporal regime that we don’t desire. Everybody wants more time, with one exception, waiting – which means having time without wanting it. One definition of immediacy then, can be located in the exclusion of waiting.

Looking at media and waiting it becomes apparent how media are used to defer from waiting, that is, from experiencing a certain temporality of stretched out or prolonged time. Whenever we have to wait or have to “fill” time, media are used to assist this overcoming of “unwanted” time. Particular places, like the waiting rooms at the doctor’s office, are even designated for the particular experience of waiting. The paradox however is that even “waiting rooms” attempt at abolishing and emptying out the experience of waiting, of which the magazines are emblematic.

Time is money; it can be measured and valued. So too can waiting. Some things are deemed “worth waiting for”. Schweizer uses Penelope’s waiting for Odysseus as a case in point here. Penelope had to wait 20 years for her husband’s return, during which time she had to reject an extent of marriage proposals. Penelope’s faithfulness is a virtue manifested in the duration of waiting. But most of us don’t have to wait nearly this long, nor do I suspect we most of us would have the patience to do so today. Capitalist society has long since taught us there is little worth waiting for; if you desire it, why wait the slogans will have it. Indeed, what is worth waiting for? And why is some waiting worth it while most waiting is considered a waist of time? In times of instant communication and gratification, the question of waiting as an everyday temporal experience shouldn’t be neglected.