Kittler’s “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter”

Kittler begins by describing a system of optical fiber networks that will eventually allow people to “be connected to a communication channel which can be used for any kind of media” (101). He uses this metaphor to segue into a discussion of how the “general digitization of information” (102) has vitally erased the differences between individual media.

For example, the telephone and the radio separate the auditory from the other senses; the TV separates combines audio and visual, but presents them in isolation from touch, smell, and spacial sense. According to Kittler, we are moving towards a channel in which all mediums can be combined into one communication experience, thus the “digital base erases the notion of medium itself” (102).

Kittler uses the example of the jumbo jet as an enclosed space where media are more densely connected than in most places. Inside the airplane, passengers are served a “canned mixture” of media that is experiences all at once, yet separate. You can listen to music on your earphones, watch a movie, eat the microwaved meals food they serve in their cart.

Ever wonder why the safety videos insist that you turn off all other electronics during take off and landing, regardless of whether they are in “airplane mode”? (This observation isn’t part of Kittler’s article, but it in a sense contributes to the idea of the airplane as a space of partially connected media systems that can be turned on and off at will).

 

Kittler makes an important point about they way in which we judge the quality of media. We see a media as “individual windows for one’s sense perception” (103)and we judge the quality of the medium based on the degree to which the medium accurately represents the content it attempts to convey. We have to “compromise” on how far the content can stray from the clarity of our own senses based on the limitations of the media technology.

Media, however, does not just channel the experience of our senses through different mediums. Spanning back to early machines like the phonograph, mediums have also been used to “store time” (Kittler 104).

“Time, however, is what determines the limits of all art. Data flow must be arrested before it can become image or sign” (104).

Texts and scores, Kittler notes, used to be Europe’s only way of archiving the progression of society. Before information can be stored in time, it first must be reduced to a series of symbols, encoded in time.

“This is why anything that every happened ended up in libraries” (105).

Libraries catalogue, group, and encode information for later use. In the most basic sense, we use our alphabet and grammar to encode information. Kittler suggests that writing naturally came out of oral history as a way to document human knowledge. So, oral culture was subverted by written culture and written culture was “additionally homogenized by the state apparatus” (107). Writing became a means not only of documenting and archiving, but the standardization of alphabet and grammar became a means of expediting the extrication of meaning from its signifiers.

“In order to naturalize writing, writing has to be made painless, and reading had to become silent. Educated people who could skim letters were provided with sights and sounds” (108).

To expand on Kittler’s point, much of the online written mediums today are designed to make the process of extricating information more efficient, and therefore, “painless.”

Kittler also discusses the role of storing information in our concept of death. The cemetery is a sort of “family archive,” while writing, voice recordings, videos, allow us to perceive a person even after they are no longer physically producing more content. Thus, “in the media landscape immortals have come to exist again” (112).

Finally, Kittler discusses the typewriter as a machine that documents information and places it into a standardized series of symbols. The typewriter prescribes the symbols that can be used and expedites the process of writing on a trajectory that has progressed from etching in stone to handwriting to the typewriter machine to the modern computer keyboards of today. The symbols provided by the typewriter are a “finite and ordered stock” (115).

Coming full circle back to his original point about the digitization of information, Kittler explains that information, history, content etc. used to be encoded laboriously and with little standardization. The homogenization of writing allows us to skim writing and derive meaning from it relatively quickly (say, in comparison to Egyptian hieroglyphics). The machine of today seem to allow us virtually limitless possibilities in terms of creating content and projecting it through media, yet behind the smoke and mirrors we really have reduced the information-encoding process to a series of 1’s and 0’s. No longer do human eyes even need to scan the symbols (as they skim a text) – the computer scans this symbols for us.

Machine can keep signs, erase signs, or leave a blank space in the place of a sign. However, in Kittler’s words, “no computer that will ever be built can do more” (117). We will continue to create and store data and then revisit it and recall its meaning.

Kittler ends with this powerful statement, so I will not attempt to dilute its effect with paraprashing: “All data flows in a state n of Turing’s universal machine; numbers and figures become (in spite of romanticism) the key to all creatures.”

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2 thoughts on “Kittler’s “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter”

  1. I wonder what an updated version of Kittler’s essay would be. It seems to me that technology has developed in ways he didn’t entirely expect. The rise of social media is certainly a gamechanger, and the rapidity with which content is both created and lost certainly seems to challenge the comparison to libraries. I also wonder how his contention that media store time would interact with sites that are in constant flux, like the dissertation being posted letter-by-letter. (http://t.co/fBiryLmz4Y)

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