Media are symbolic, technical, digital

Media are technologies that organise human life and experience. They symbolically represent reality and they also collect information about reality.

How did they come to do this? First up, we often think of digital media as ‘new’. We register this most clearly in the advertising and corporate rhetoric of technology companies. Go and trace the history of Apple advertisements and product launches from their Macintosh personal computer in 1984 through to their iPod and iPhone launches. Listen to Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook when he tells us about the artificial intelligence he built, named Jarvis, that runs his house. Or, Facebook engineers when they tell us that they want to build a brain machine interface that will enable us to type from our brain. Or, Jeff Bezos from Amazon when he tells us that his AI Alexa will run our homes by listening in to our conversations.

Over and over the digital media industries present their technologies within a narrative of straightforward, linear progress. The next technology we build will be better than the last. And, implied in that sense of better, is what we might call a ‘technological imaginary’.

If we build all the cool gadgets, all the human problems will go away!

Here, I think of John Durham-Peters’ in Speaking into the Air, ‘’Communication’ whatever it might mean, is not a matter of improved wiring or freer self-disclosure but involves a permanent kink in the human condition. That we can never communicate like angels is a tragic fact, but also a blessed one.’

The kinks of human experience cannot be solved with technologies. And, new technologies are not ‘better’ than the last ones. As in, they don’t automatically make for a ‘better’ human experience. One way we can think about media technologies then is how they emerge out of the experimental effort of humans to exercise power in the world. This is not a straight-forward process.

That means we should listen carefully to Apple, Facebook and Google when they tell us what they are experimenting with, and where they think they are headed – not because this enable us to ‘narrate’ the development of technology, but because it offers us a way of thinking carefully about the kind of human experience they are imagining and creating.

With that in mind, let’s turn back to Kittler who takes this ‘genealogical’ approach to a history of media technology. Genealogy is a method inspired by Nietzsche and Foucault, a way of doing history that pays attention to how material technologies emerge as part of historically-conditioned discourses, social formations and modes of power.

Kittler identifies three historically significant media systems.


The first is a symbolic media system. In this system, writing, physical speech sounds, or musical tones are transposed by a human into visual symbols, which are then re-translated by users into a sound, word, or idea in the mind. Think the alphabet, musical notation, or paintings and drawings. These systems work because the human users create and follow rules. Alphabets and musical notation have technical specifications that the users have to follow if they are going to work. For example, the alphabet is a media system, with visible symbols and rules for how sounds in speech are to be captured, stored, and processed. This symbolic media system dominated until about 1900 and allowed for the development of new forms of social, cultural, and political life.


A second system, technical media, emerged during the 19th century and into the 20th century. While writing transposed physical sensations into symbols, technical media could capture physical sensations directly as impressions on a medium. The difference between symbolic and technical is crucial here. With a symbolic system the physical sensation – sound or light – has to pass through the human body to be transposed into a symbol. The human ear hears a word, and transposes it into letter from an alphabet. With a technical system that physical sensation is recorded directly as an impression in another medium, without the human body having to turn it into a symbol. Photographs, which capture light, and phonographs, which capture sound, are the key technologies. Both emerge in the 19th century, and become mass technologies in the early 29th century. Photography is a process where film records a physical impression of light on a media. Phonography records the physical impression of sound on a record or tape. Those impressions can then be ‘converted’ back via the medium into an accurate representation of the original image or sound.

The first phase of the age of technical media was the capacity to ‘capture’ and ‘store’ images and sound, while the second phase was the transmission of those images and sounds over distance, via radio and later, television. This system is analogue. Think about a vinyl LP where the physical grooves in the record are ‘impressions’ of a sound that are read and converted into an audio signal you can hear via the technical device of the record player. Analogue devices, such as record players and tapes, read the media by scanning the physical data off the device.


By the end of the twentieth century, the age of technical media gave way to our present epoch - the age of digital media. Rather than record data as a ‘physical’ trace, a digital system converts all data into a numerical system. The really important point Kittler makes here is that the digital system collapses all ‘senses’ into one medium. This enables media to calculate, process, and simulate. In the mid-1980s, Kittler predicts that sooner or later we will be hooked into an information channel that can be used for any medium. Movies, music, phone calls, and mail will reach households via fibre optic cables. Once any medium can be translated into 1s and 0s, and passed through the one infrastructure of digital computers and networks, the capacity of media to experiment with reality dramatically explodes in scale.

With digital media the physical properties of the input data are converted into numbers. Media processes are coded into the symbolic realm of mathematics, which can then be ‘immediately subjected to the mathematical processes of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division through algorithms contained within software.’

Think of the present moment.

Our bodies permanently tethered to, and integrated with, digital devices like smartphones. These devices convert human experience into data. They store, they calculate, they predict as much as they represent. Our imagination is entangled with the data-driven, algorithmic, flows of images, sounds and texts streaming via their screens. This genealogy of this kind of human experience can be traced back, at least, to the mid-nineteenth century.

In the mid-1800s the technologies for storing reality emerge. The phonograph stores sound, the photograph stores light, the typewriter standardises the storage of alphabet, numbers and code. From the early 1900s, the technologies for electronic transmission of sound, light and code over distance emerges in the form of telegraph, radio and television. In the mid-1900s, around the schema of the typewriter, the capacity of media to calculate and predict emerges. For Kittler, Turing’s mathematical definition of computability, and the codebreaker he built during World War II mark the moment where media become first and foremost calculative devices for intervening in reality.