Media calculate

Imagine this.

Wars have been fought for as long as humans have sought to get together in groups occupy territory. To mark out and defend a space, and within that space to construct a kind of technocultural habitat. An atmosphere in which to live.

How to represent that territory though?

At first, territory is marked and defined in lived practices. The understanding of where territory begins and ends is carried in the living bodies, brains and practices of people. Features in a landscape are known to inhabitants. Over time, humans develop symbolic methods for drawing territory. Think of a map. A map represents territory. It draws in the features, it marks borders.

In warfare, from ancient times to through till the early twentieth century the commander of an Army sees the territory they are invading or defending as it appears to their own two eyes, with their feet on the ground, or as it is drawn on a handmade map. Imagine the moment then when territory is first seen, like a bird, out of an airplane.

In his Optical Media lectures the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler takes up this moment. I’m riffing here a bit on his account. In 1914 the French and Germans are engaged in trench warfare on the Western front. Trenches are dug into the ground, partly so that opposing army cannot see the enemy lines clearly.

Imagine though you can see the trenches like a bird, fly over them and see their exact formation in the landscape. This happens for the first time in 1914. Aircrafts are used to undertake reconnaissance of enemy lines. In August 1914, the French led a successful counter-strike on the Germans using photographic records made by reconnaissance aircraft. Coupling an aircraft with a camera enabled armies to view territory from the sky, to disclose invisible soldiers, camouflaged artillery positions, and unnoticed rearward connections to the enemy.

The Germans urgently needed to respond. What emerged was an experimental interplay between aircraft engineers, photographers and cinematographers. We often think of cinema playing a role in the two World Wars of propaganda machine. Cinema was used to induce in mass populations fear of the enemy and support for national the war effort. But, here at the same time, we can see that the camera was always too an instrument of reconnaissance, surveillance and data collection.

Kittler explains to us that in 1916,one of the founding directors of the German film industry, Oskar Messter, who had been charged by the government with filming propaganda newsreels on the War front, ‘constructed and patented his target practice device for the detection of deviations by means of photographic records.’ Simply, he mounted a camera in the machine gun turret of a plane, and used a clock mechanism, to make the camera take an automatic sequence of photos of the ground below. The planes would fly the same route day after day, taking the same sequence of photos, in order to produce detailed surveys of changes in enemy lines. The fact that the camera was mounted in the gun turret of the plane is a crucial detail.
Kittler writes, ‘Messter’s ingenious construction… could only be improved by combining shooting and filming, serial death, and serial photography, into a single act’.

What does he mean?

Well, of course, in warfare Kittler is pre-empting autonomous weapons like drones. Weapons that can ‘see’ the target and then shoot it. But, beyond the specific illustration of warfare, there is a fundamental conceptual point being made here about what media are. The camera mounted in the plane is a device that collects and stores information. The plane goes up, collects footage, comes back down. A photographer develops the film in the camera. Army commanders view the photographs, compare them to previous reconnaissance. They make a plan on how to attack enemy lines.

That’s a relatively convoluted process. What if, the camera in the plane was linked to some kind of device that could ‘read’ the image in real time and then shoot? That is, if the media device didn’t just collect and store information, it could also then process that information and execute an action. Think here of the line of technological development that stretches from these first camera-enabled planes in 1914 to the autonomous drones used by the US in warfare today. This process of development is what began to unfold during World War I.

Another German filmmaker drafted into the war effort, Guido Seeber, constructed a machine gun sight for fighter planes, which was combined with a small film camera that shot frames whenever the gun fired. Filming and flying coincide. World War I produced ‘a new kind of film director’. A film director whose visual perception had been ‘technologically altered’. That is, once you’ve seen landscape, territory, human habitat from the birds eye view, you never forget it, you imagine human territory differently.

The bird’s eye shot we are familiar with as viewers of film and television is created in the reconnaissance flights above German and French lines in 1914. Kittler explains that the ‘experimental and entertainment films made with a camera that was’ now mobile and airborne ‘converted the perceptual world of World War I’ – it’s reconnaissance vision – into ‘mass entertainment’. Kittler shows us the technical role that cameras and cinema played in warfare. There is widespread awareness of the use of cinema as war propaganda during the twentieth century, but less attention to its use as a reconnaissance tool. Media technologies, like film, develop not just out of cultural or artistic interest but as part of the technical requirements of other industries and activities.

As an aside, this historical description of the use of planes for reconnaissance in World War I reminds me of Jesse Lecavalier’s account of Walmart in The Rule of Logistics. Lecavalier explains that Walmart founder Sam Walton would use a plane to fly around the outskirts of regional towns and cities to scout for Walmart locations. He was looking for the patterns of urban expansion, in order to find land ahead of time for future Walmart stores. This was from the 1970s. So, you can see here the logic of using aircraft and cameras for surveillance extends beyond military uses. By the 1980s, Walmart became one of the first retailers to invest in their own satellites, which they could use to manage their distribution network of stores, trucks and warehouses; but also to scout for new locations, to track urban expansion – in the way that we might do now on Google Maps.

For Kittler, war is a critical incubator of new media technologies. The relationship between media as promotional or entertainment technology, and as reconnaissance technologies, is a dynamic one. Kittler quips that ‘all media are a misuse of military equipment’. By which he means that many aspects of our everyday media culture, are products of the military-industrial complex. The ‘perspective’ created in the reconnaissance flights of World War I inform the cinematic narratives and images on our screens. He describes cinemas as ‘churches of state propaganda’ that praised ‘war technology and electrification’.

This argument is a familiar one. Think how many Hollywood blockbusters celebrate violence, war, military dominance. How many of our cinematic experience place us in the perspective of the omnipotent soldier of fighter pilot unleashing firepower upon the enemy. Perhaps my favourite example Kittler offers of the ‘misuse of military equipment’ is the strobe light in discos, concerts and clubs. The strobe light mimics the flashing light of machine gun fire, was used to distract and disorient the enemy. And, for Kittler, one way to make sense of the dark, pulsating, strobing club is that it is the simulation of the fantasies and pleasures of warfare. Soldiers and clubbers alike mangled on amphetamines.

OK. So, where are we headed with this?

Kittler shows us how a media technology – the camera, the cinema, the strobe light – can be placed in a longer history. Media technologies are used for both promotion and reconnaissance. Promotion and persuasion via symbolic narratives and sensory stimulation. When we sit in the cinema and what films the world is represented to us, when the strobe light pulses the club our body is aroused. But, media technologies are also always invented, experimented with and used as technologies for data collection, storage and processing.

The big point, and this really matters, is that media are calculative and symbolic technologies. Too often, much of our attention focuses on their symbolic capacities. Think of how we often talk about Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. Our accounts of them focus on how they enable new forms of participatory expression. But, they are also technologies of calculation. They collect, store and process data. And, I’d argue, if we follow the investment of resources and the logic of the business models they are much more driven by calculative rather than symbolic control. That is, while the cinema of the twentieth century is central to symbolic modes of control. The creation of narratives that inform, promote and persuade. That represent the world to populations, and make certain ways of life appear desirable.

If we look at a platform like Facebook or Google, well – they seem much more fundamentally organised around the logic of calculation. Facebook or Google don’t make symbolic narratives, they build media technologies that collect, store and process data. That’s why Kittler’s account of the technical data collection, storage and processing capacity of media from the 19th century matters so much. It enables us to ‘revisit’ the media technologies and cultures of the twentieth century and recognise that they were never just symbolic.

So, what do media technologies and platforms do? Well, they have symbolic and calculative functions. They create symbols like images, sounds, and narratives that convey the meanings out of which shared ways of life are constructed. And, they calculative by collecting, storing, and processing information.