What’s Digital About Digital Media?

Cover Working Paper What's Digital about Digital Media?In this working paper we explore an alternative thread in the early development of media and medium as concepts: the origins of the idea of the storage medium in digital computing practices and communities of the 1940s and 1950s. While such practices were obscure at the time, they laid the technological foundation for today’s range of digital media. We discuss digitality as a feature of the practices used to read and write symbols from a medium, not a physical property of the medium itself.

We then move on to a discussion of the alphabet as itself digital, grounded in the work of Nelson Goodman. Engaging with the contributions of Matthew Kirschenbaum, we explore the limited interchangeability of representations between different encodings of the same symbols, connecting the purported immateriality of digitality to this actual fungibility of material representations.

This is a draft chapter of a book on “Defining Digitalities.” Comments are highly welcome!

What’s Digital About Digital Communication?

Cover Working Paper What's Digital About Digital Communication?Although the distinction between digital and analog was first made in the context of automatic computers, the concepts were quickly broadened to apply to media and communication systems of all kinds. This working paper continues work on both fronts by looking at the historical broadening of the concept of digitality to include non-numerical systems of representation such as those used to encode text and pictures. This conception underlies the ability of computers to deal with things other than numbers, but it has its roots in communications theory, most famously in the work of Claude Shannon.

In parallel with our historical description of the emergence of non-numerical conceptions of digitality we broaden our analytical treatment of digitality to encompass more historical technologies and reading practices: not only adding machines and punched cards, but also musical boxes, weaving systems, movable type, and even alphabets and hand gestures.

This is a draft chapter of a book on “Defining Digitalities.” Comments are highly welcome!

The Practice Turn in Media Studies

Cover Connect and Divide The Practice Turn in Media Studies


“Connect and Divide” took a long time to be published, but now the book is finally here. Bringing practice theory/praxeology and media studies together seems like an endeavour that needs time for deliberation. My own contribution “How to Coordinate Digital Accounting? Infrastructuring Payment and Credit with the Eurocard” is a business history from the lost 1970s/1980s social world of an European credit card called the Eurocard. It focuses on practices of coordination, and combines these with a framework of thinking about practices of delegation, and registration/identification.

Within the volume’s long production time, the reproduction of images somehow took a strange trajectory. This is why I republish them in this blog post for your viewing and reading pleasure. And do not forget to check out the other excellent contributations to this publication of the German Research Foundation’s third Media Studies symposium! It is also the first time that this has been a transatlantic event. I am very grateful to have been a part of it. „The Practice Turn in Media Studies“ weiterlesen

Your Computer Is on Fire


„Techno-utopianism is dead: Now is the time to pay attention to the inequality, marginalization, and biases woven into our technological systems.“ This quote on the MIT Press website is an excellent motto for this provocative collection.

I am very glad to co-host the European book launch of YOUR COMPUTER IS ON FIRE together with Armin Beverungen. Feel free to join us on April 28, 7pm CET, via Zoom! Please register via email at cdcforum [/at/] leuphana.de for videoconferencing details.  And yes, this is a joint event of Siegen University’s CRC „Media of Cooperation“ and Leuphana University’s „Centre for Digital Cultures“ .

Die Botschaft des InterNjet

Am ersten Oktober 1970 fiel die politische Entscheidung, kein gesamtsowjetisches Computernetzwerk aufzubauen. Die Geschichte dieses „InterNjet“ ist mittlerweile aus den USA heraus rekonstruiert worden, u.a. von Slava Gerovitch und Ben Peters. In Deutschland sind die sowjetischen Netzwerkprojekte und ihre Protagonisten Anatolij Kitov und Wiktor Gluschkow nur wenigen bekannt.

Mein Artikel zum 50-jährigen Nicht-Jubiläum ist heute in der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung erschienen (30. September, S. N4, online bei faz.net). Die US-amerikanischen Arpanet-Entwicklungen hatten bereits im letzten Jahr ihren 50. Geburtstag. Im kommenden Siegener Seminar Medienkulturen des Kalten Krieges: „The Americans“ werden die digitalen Medientechnologien und kybernetischen Infrastrukturen auf – und zwischen – beiden Seiten des Eisernen Vorhangs analysiert.

Karte des Einheitlichen Staatlichen Netzwerks von Rechenzentren EGSVT, Plan für das Jahr 1990. Datiert auf 1964 in Peters, Ben: How Not To Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, Cambridge, MA/London 2016, S. 112.

Digital Network Technologies between Specialization and Generalization

Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web to delegates at the Hypertext 1991 conference in San Antonio, Texas [CERN-IT-9112021-01]
Tim Berners-Lee demonstrates the World Wide Web to delegates at the Hypertext 1991 conference in San Antonio, Texas [CERN-IT-9112021-01]

Based on historical case studies focused on media and data practices, the project reconstructs the co-operative creation of networked media since 1989. From a media-historical perspective, it aims to provide a contribution to the European and transatlantic history of the Internet and the World Wide Web. From a media-theoretical perspective, the project aims to develop and specify a concept of digitality that takes into account its cooperative emergence, its infrastructural maintenance, universalization, and its specific publics. 

We thereby focus on the constitutive role of a) interchangeability of representations and the growth of digital systems, b) cooperative production of interoperability and modularity, and c) elementary practices of reading, writing and algorithmic control. The three work packages of the project explore

  1. the constitution of the World Wide Web via its situated work constitution (Gießmann, Schüttpelz, Taha, Volmar),
  2. the development of intranets using the example of German corporate networks (Taha) and
  3. the emergence and spread of IP-based real-time communication via instant messaging (Volmar).

We assume that the establishment of the Internet and especially the World Wide Web as a public general-purpose infrastructure has lead to a remediation of cooperative practices of local working contexts. The project therefore therefore reconstructs the emergence and proliferation of web applications as a software- and data-oriented infrastructural history of cooperative media. We focus on the mutual production of cooperative conditions from collective, locally limited as well as translocally distributed work contexts and the corresponding situated data practices and arrangements (such as format usage, user administration, file sharing, collaborative processing of files, programming, error correction, patenting, standardization, etc.). 

We are particularly interested in the interactions between work practices and the specific requirements for cooperation they produce, and in the materializations and affordances of digital micro-practices, through which cooperative conditions are ultimately realized in the form of digitally networked applications. We analyze these dynamics before the background of a longue durée of bureaucratic and administrative processes. These form the underlying socio-technical conditions that determine the materiality of cooperative computing, networking and data processing.

This research project is a part of the Collaborative Research Center „Media of Cooperation“ at Siegen University. Feel free to contact us anytime! Up to date publications can be found at our Media of Cooperation homepage.

Principal Investigators: Dr. Sebastian Gießmann | Prof. Dr. Erhard Schüttpelz
Researchers: Dipl. Medienwirtin Nadine Taha | Dr. Axel Volmar
Comenius Visiting Professor: Thomas Haigh
Mercator Fellow: Valérie Schafer

Happy Birthday, ARPANET!

Am 29. Oktober 2019 feiert das Arpanet seinen 50. Geburtstag. Mein Geburtstagsständchen zu dieser zweiten Mondlandung des Jahres 1969 ist in der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung erschienen (23. Oktober, S. N4).

Alexander McKenzie (Bolt, Beranek and Newman): ARPANET-Topologie im Dezember 1969. Kreise verzeichnen die Interface Message Processors an UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, UCSB und der University of Utah. Rechtecke bezeichnen die angeschlossenen Computer XDS Sigma-7, XDS 940, IBM 360/75 und DEC PDP-10. Zeichnung, undatiert.

Paranoia inklusive – Yasha Levines „Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet“

Die dreckige Wäsche wird immer zum Schluss gewaschen. Yasha Levines furiose Abrechnung mit dem Surveillance Valley setzt auf den letzten Seiten zum Rundumschlag an. Egal ob Edward Snowden, Jacob Applebaum, Roger Dingledine oder die Electronic Frontier Foundation: Für Levine spielen die Aktivisten rund um die Verschlüsselungssoftware Tor allzu naiv das Spiel von Geheimdiensten und Militärs mit, ohne sich kritisch mit der Herkunft ihrer favorisierten Technologien auseinander zu setzen. Levine, Sohn russischer Einwanderer und investigativer Journalist, hält sich hingegen an die Devise follow the money. Er beginnt sein Buch mit der bekannten Geschichte von Sputnik-Schock und Vietnamkrieg, die in den USA der 1960er-Jahre staatliche Forschungsgelder im ungeahnten Umfang mobilisierten. Er widmet sich der Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), die auf dieser Basis als Forschungsagentur des US-Verteidigungsministeriums gegründet wird.

Yasha Levine: Surveillance Valley - The Secret Military History of the Internet

Als Urszene der digitalen Überwachung fungieren in Surveillance Valley die strategischen Aktivitäten der ARPA zur Aufstandsbekämpfung im Project Agile. Sie beruhten auf einer Analyse des Militärgeheimdienstmanns William Godel: Angesichts der militärischen Fehler der französischen Kolonialmacht in Vietnam lautete dessen Schlussfolgerung, dass zukünftige counterinsurgency kleinteiliger, verdeckt, mit mehr High-Tech und psychologischer Kriegsführung operieren müsse. Noch vor Ausbruch des Vietnamkrieges baute die ARPA daher für das Pentagon gezielt Überwachungsstationen in Vietnam auf. Im Rahmen von Operation Igloo White wurden ­– weitestgehend ohne Erfolg – tausende Sensoren und Mikrofone im Dschungel platziert.

„Paranoia inklusive – Yasha Levines „Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet““ weiterlesen

Standards Revisited

Thursday, 24 January 2019, University of Siegen
Herrengarten 3, 57072 Siegen, room AH 217/218

13:15 Opening Remarks: Standards Revisited
Sebastian Gießmann (University of Siegen) / Nadine Taha (University of Siegen)

13:30 Anna Echterhölter (University of Vienna)
Red and Black Boxes: Standardization as Mesuroclasm in German New Guinea

14:30 Nadine Taha (University of Siegen)
George Eastman and the Calendar Reform

16:00 Geoffrey C. Bowker (University of California, Irvine)
Standard Time: Computers, Clocks and Turtles – via Zoom Conference

17:00 Lawrence Busch (Michigan State University)
Markets and Standards – via Zoom Conference

Friday, 25 January 2019

10:00 JoAnne Yates (MIT, Sloan School of Management)
A New Model for Standard Setting: How IETF became the Standards Body for the Internet

11:00 Thomas Haigh
(University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee / University of Siegen)
The Accidental Standard: How a Box Became an Industry

13:00 Sebastian Gießmann (University of Siegen)
Standardizing Digital Payments

14:00 Anne Helmond (University of Amsterdam)/ Fernando van der Vlist (University of Amsterdam / University of Siegen)
‘It’s Graphs All the Way Down’

Standards are not easy to come by. As infrastructural media they coordinate the social to an ever-growing extent, thus creating conditions of cooperation. Standards do so not just by their sociotechnical power, but also by public uptake and controversies that put their accountability into question. They can also be understood as engineering and bureaucratic media that form a basis and condition for cooperation.

Historically, practices of standardization can be traced back to antiquity, especially in the history of coins, writing, and measurements. But pre-modern standards were bound to flounder and dissipate. Early modern knowledge cultures – partly – realized standardization via hand-made scientific instruments that extended metrological chains. While pre-industrial attempts to standardize the aggregation of information in administrative forms have been limited in scale and scope, 19th century industrialization interconnected with nationalized politics extended the territories of standardization. Media infrastructures such as the postal service and telegraphy became transnational through their administration in international organizations and a legal foundation via international treaties. Scale and scope of – inherently political and normative – standards and metrologies were at the same time constitutive for colonial prospection and rule.

Computing has given rise to its own regimes and obsessions of non-governmental standardizing. While early digital computers were unique, the trajectories of standardization were then tied to governmental contract research, commercialization and its coordinative and delegative practices. Serial production and the diffusion of architectural norms became a matter of economic competition in the era of mainframe computing in organizations. In multiple ways both the networking of heterogeneous computers and the success of the IBM-compatible PC did create a pathway to “open standards” that made computers publicly accessible. In the transpacific and global arena of hardware and software production, hyper-standardization has been an issue ever since. This also involves the questions of formats that mediate bureaucratic processes, textual representation, visual and auditory perception, and digital audiovisuality. Formats thus have become standards that mediate digital practices in their own right, just like network protocols and Internet standards. In many ways, the ecology of the World Wide Web is an ecology due to its standardizing bodies, communities of practice, and institutions like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Our aim is to understand how standards generalize and universalize media technologies, and to ask: How do metrology, industrialization, and imperialism/colonialism intersect with standards? What is the relation between standards, digital media, and coordination? How to explain the longue durée, ecology, and the enduring power of standards to configure cooperation? What is the relation between standards, delegative power, scale, and scope of media?

Collaborative Research Center Media of Cooperation, University of Siegen CRC project A01: “Digital Network Technologies between Specialization and Generalization