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<nettime> Interview with German media theorist Sebastian Giessmann
Geert Lovink on Mon, 25 Jul 2016 13:53:48 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Interview with German media theorist Sebastian Giessmann


   See also: http://www.necsus-ejms.org/philosophy-weaving-web-interview-media-theorist-sebastian-giessmann/

   A Philosophy of Weaving the Web:
   An Interview with German Media Theorist Sebastian Giessmann
   By Geert Lovink
   Unlike predictions `networks' are on their way out. The reason for this
   is the unprecedented concentration of money, power and infrastructures
   in the hands of a few monopoly players. Instead of `social networks' we
   speak of `social media', and that's no coincidence. In fact, `network
   theory' has followed this trend for some time and has been in relative
   decline for longer than we might be aware of. We can consider the 1990s
   the golden period of network theory, dominated by a
   scientific-mathematical method on the one hand (Barabasi, Watts) and a
   social science approach on the other (Castells). However, ever since
   the crisis of the rhizomatic and productivist Deleuze, and the
   subsequent rise of `dark Deleuze' (Culp), the question has become: why
   connect, if machines will connect us regardless?
   Traditionally, networks have not been an object of interest for media
   studies. One of many beginnings could be located in sociology where
   `social networking' became an object of studies in the 1970s in order
   to understand social dynamics (such as inequality) and `networks of
   power' (amongst elites and multinationals). Even though networks played
   an important role in the understanding of infrastructures such as
   railroads, highways and electricity grids, social theory and
   infrastructural history mostly remained in separate fields.
   Architectures of computer networks emerged since the late 1960s but
   only gained presence in the early 1990s, first inside the
   telecommunications context, and then, after the emergence of the World
   Wide Web, as (new) media. It took a long time before networks and
   media, started to be thought together--and arguably, this has yet to
   happen in a critical and systematic way. Despite all utopian claims,
   networks as technical protocol, form and social practice never reached
   the status of a hegemonic force. For a brief period, the decentralized
   networks undermined the monolithic apparatuses of the media, but then
   turned into centralized monopolies themselves, absorbing the media
   structures themselves, without questioning the media sphere itself.
   It's time for a re-assessment of the dialectics between networks and
   media.
   Sebastian Giessmann (b. 1976) works at the University of Siegen and
   published before on the history of networks as a cultural technique. In
   2014 Kadmos Verlag brought out an edited version of his PhD called 'The
   Connectedness of Things--A Cultural History of Networks'. It a very
   diverse piece of scholarly work in the tradition of German humanities
   and media theory. As is often the case with German theory, we start off
   in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt before moving on to the Greeks.
   Giessmann's approach starts off with the ancient material culture of
   fishing nets, and goes on with the spider's web as a mythological
   motive that surrounds Arachne from antiquity to early modernity.
   Skipping some centuries the book provides us with a beautiful case
   study of famous maps of the London Underground as drawn up by Henry
   Charles Beck in the early 1930s. From there we move on to cybernetics,
   ARPANET and the genesis of the network protocols in the 1970s and enter
   familiar territory.
   Geert Lovink: Would you agree with the thesis that in the age of social
   media networks start to decline?
   Sebastian Giessmann: In some ways, I do. Then there are other aspects
   of networking as a practice and cultural technique, that seem to be
   pretty stable now. You might also call this old fashioned, because
   throughout the last years so much operative network theory has become
   the foundation of social media platforms. While I was writing the book,
   though, my original plan was to stop with the imposed standardization
   of TCP/IP as the main protocol for the ARPANET.
   That's what the real contribution of the US military to the history of
   networking was in 1983, while Paul Baran's famous RAND paper series On
   Distributed Communications was actually rather unimportant. Yet the
   book now ends with Mark Lombardi's "Global Networks", depicting the
   American 20^th century in all its capitalistic and political
   entanglements. There is a short postscript on Snowden who has reverse
   engineered the contemporary network surveillance, which is absolutely
   based on graph theory and Social Network Analysis. I had a long moment
   of critical-paranoid doubt while finishing the book, but I am sure that
   networks are here to stay, as long as networking remains a cultural
   technique. Or, as Wendy Chun has put it, networks are "belated to
   early". This is both applicable for the black boxed Social Network
   Analysis, and even more so for the heterogeneous acteur r�au
   terminology of Actor Network Theory.
   Admittedly, the current social media developments call out for
   different terminologies, because platforms have become highly
   regulated, and not-so-surprisingly bureaucratic environments and
   conditions for social networking. So this is what happened long after
   1983 and Lombardi's 1990s drawings: Platforms (and the
   military-surveillance complex) took command of social network theory,
   and we still have to open the black boxes of these new data-based and
   algorithmic regimes. Let us not forget that US government sponsored
   research has put a lot of money into "Network Science". We are now
   surrounded by applications of this paradigm by corporate and state
   actors worldwide.
   But let me come back to "starting off in Mesopotamia", which is
   probably something I would rather associate with Canadian Media Theory
   and my recurring approaches to get back to Harold Innis. There also is
   a biographical background to this, because the book was developed
   within the Berlin-based research on "cultural techniques", and the
   longue dur�parts of it were written while I worked at the TOPOI
   cluster, which actually focuses on spaces in ancient civilizations. So
   Berlin is a bit obsessed with Antiquity, and this has left its marks.
   GL: You write very passionately about Arachne and the fascination for
   her spider webs. Your writing reminds me of Sadie Plant's Zeros + Ones
   from 1997 about digital women and the new technoculture, as she called
   it then, which is all about weaving. Should we read the stories about
   Arachne as allegories or analogies? Please tell us how to read Greek
   mythology through the eyes of the Facebook generation. We know how
   German professors in the 19th century described antiquity and how to
   get from Burckhardt and Nietzsche to Blumenberg. Recently, Sybille
   Kr�r wrote about Hermes as the messenger and the relation between
   this figure and the `media' concept. Please update us on the network
   myths!
   SG: Basically, I had to grapple with webs and nets being the material
   basis and result of networking practices and their strange objecthood
   between material culture and symbolic orders. Sadie Plant was actually
   one of the readings in my very first seminar on Internet culture, and
   this always lurked in the background since then, obviously. But even in
   the mythological domains, my interest is more praxeological than
   Sybille Kr�r's beautiful take on the media philosophy of the
   messenger. The long initial chapter on nets and webs both as traps, and
   as figures of sociality in ancient civilizations is called "Netze vor
   den Netzwerken" (nets before networks), because most mythological
   scenes, no matter whether they are narrations of hunting and catching,
   or weaving and enmeshment, strikingly differ from `modern' notions of
   the network as a decentralized relationality, a diagrammatic figure of
   knowledge, or as a territorial socio-technical infrastructure.
   The myths my book starts with are already accounts of object-related
   agencies. Arachne is so important in this, because she is one of the
   first human heroines of networking/weaving who is not a god or a king.
   In Ovid's depiction she is an embodiment of worldly skill. Before
   Arachne and some passages in the New Testament, catching nets mostly
   were an instrument of the Mediterranean and Indo-Germanic gods and
   rulers. Its power was to be feared, and sometimes even used as a deadly
   curse. Arachne's earlier Greek counterpart was Klytaimestra in
   Aischylos' Oresteia who is entrapping Agamemnon with a dyktion, a
   fishing net. Actually, most of these network myths and especially the
   Old Testament show a highly refined sense of the different topologies
   of webs and nets. Already in the ancient orient, there is no such thing
   as "one net" or "one network", but a multitude of textile objects.
   Interestingly enough, ethnography and cultural anthropology in the
   first half of the 20^th century have re-appreciated this multitude in
   material culture. So my mythological readings follow Andr�  Leroi-Gourhan's catalogue of network objects in "Milieu et Techniques".
   And I think that Michel Serres, being the philosopher of networking,
   understood its textile qualities early on - not just in his Hermes book
   series, but especially in the book on the contrat naturel, where ropes,
   ties, and chains figure prominently, and in highly a reflexive manner,
   both for mythologies, aesthetics and practices of social order.
   So this is one of the historiographical premises of my book
   Verbundenheit der Dinge: Networks are almost always related to material
   cultures of nets and webs, which mobilize and symbolize the mediating
   qualities of textile objects. Thus, oldest and newest forms of
   networking stand side by side. And I wanted to trace this back within a
   genealogy along objects, diagrams, and infrastructures. What are all
   the modern notions of the network as a circulatory machine actually
   referring to? I should briefly contemplate this further, because it
   also explains the longue dur�approach.
   My first book on the topic, which came out in 2006, concentrated on
   France in Early Modern times. I would still suggest that the
   enlightenment brings with it the first real `take-off' in network
   thought - making explicit what was hitherto a tacit practice, therefore
   becoming a cultural technique. In a perfect world, the short first book
   and the longish second one would have been written in one volume. By
   now, I'd love to read another thorough scholarly book on networking
   between 1500 and 1800, because Verbundenheit only briefly addresses the
   fundamental change which has been developing throughout this period,
   namely the switch from material object-related notions of the network
   to relational and spatially distributed ones, from object to a
   `quasi-object'.
   GL:  Throughout the book you mention the infrastructure approach of the
   Saint-Simonians who had visions how to network the world through the
   construction of canals. Are you yourself a Saint-Simonian, if I may
   ask? How would it relate to the peer-to-peer philosophy of today?
   Recently I often think in the direction of some form of `infrastructure
   socialism'. This is a point one can easily get to if you start thinking
   about the `socialization of datacenters' owned by Amazon, Facebook,
   Google and other Silicon Valley monopolies.
   SG: I do not subscribe to the romantic social engineering idea, which
   is behind most of what the Saint-Simonians did in 19^th century France,
   Algeria, and Egypt. I concluded my first book with Michel Chevalier's
   enthusiastic networking tractate Syst� de la M�terran� which had
   been published in the internationalist newspaper Le Globe in February
   1832. For Verbundenheit der Dinge, I then dug deep into the
   Saint-Simonian archives in the Biblioth�e de l'Arsenal, where their
   spiritual grandfather Saint-Simon also did work briefly as a librarian.
   Actually, the outcomes of the social and infrastructural utopian
   projects of the 1820s and 30s were mostly colonial ideology abroad, and
   a romantic-nationalist modernism for French canals, roads and
   railroads, telegraph, banks, and newspapers "at home".
   Michel Chevalier himself pursued a high-profile career in the French
   administration. The sect's charismatic leader Prosper Enfantin
   attempted to build the Suez canal before Ferdinand de Lesseps, but was
   failing miserably (twice) - first in the 1830s in an expedition led by
   himself, then in creating an international expert group of French,
   English, and German-Austrian engineers. Enfantin's treatise on the
   Colonisation of Algeria from 1843 is actually quite insightful, because
   it openly spoke of a colonial "network of submission", while
   meticulously charting the out the police and settler posts to establish
   this sort of spatial hegemony.
   The religious and socialist enthusiasm came with a high price.
   Therefore, I would never like to be a Saint-Simonian, although I have
   been working as an Internet Policy Advisor. But yes, there still
   remains a fascination for all their ambivalent endeavours, including
   early visions of a peaceful Europe, united by public and private
   infrastructures, economy, and shared liberal social values. Enfantin
   and Chevalier would probably be glad to embrace some of the GAFA
   (Google-Amazon-Facebook-Apple) opportunities, as some more conservative
   social democrats attempt to do even today. But while GAFA platform
   economies rely on the long trajectories of materially built network
   infrastructures since the 19^th century, they mostly strive for
   privately `owned publics' only. This is highly unusual even for the
   United States, a country with a long history of public infrastructure
   regulation, e.g. in the cases of the "Universal Service" in the Bell
   system and the national postal service.
   The important question to ask here is Susan Leigh Star's and Geoffrey
   Bowker's "When is infrastructure?" and to reframe it as "When is an
   infrastructure in need of being understood and legally required to be
   public infrastructure?" Current social media and data
   (quasi-)monopolies are grafting on existing infrastructures: they are
   perceived as delivering "just a service", while in fact assembling a
   lot of computing power and partly owning the physical network
   infrastructure, or at least forming strong alliances with the old and
   new Telcos.
   How does one regulate platforms that strive for regulating mediation of
   social networks all by themselves, with a lot of worldwide clickworking
   support from us, the users? I would not dare to give a general answer
   to this question, because the relations between infrastructures and
   publics are almost always necessarily controversial. Few of the calls
   for Open Data, open APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) or open
   indexes (in the case of search engines) have led to significantly
   visible changes. But without those calls, things might get worse
   quickly. Sadly enough, peer-to-peer networking itself has become more
   and more unpopular. Bitcoin seems to be an exception to this, but the
   blockchain technology seems to be appropriated by corporate players
   now. So I'd rather revitalize the not-so-striving commons-oriented
   infrastructures to re-facilitate peer production. This can and must be
   publicly funded, and should be possible even in a crisis-shaken
   Europe.
   GL: A considerable part of your book is dedicated to the classic
   question how visualisations relate to world of (quasi-)objects and
   flows of people, goods and services. If I understand it well, for you
   there is a materiality of networks. Visualisations are not mere `eye
   candy' to fool us. This is why there is a reality to the multiplicity
   of conspiracies. How does this work in the Internet context of mind
   maps and API economies that are used to profile customers? Hasn't info
   visualisation gone off into a weird parallel universe in which `data
   porn' has become an object of pleasure in itself? Do you believe that
   maps are tools? For whom? In what struggle? In short, what is the image
   status of networks as we understand them?
   SG: Yes, to me the network visualisation can be a figure of agency,
   still. Harry Becks topological map of the London underground and its
   career as a global style guide for navigation is the living proof. But
   within your question, I sense a lot of doubt and frustration about the
   exponential use of network diagrammatics. This is certainly true for
   technologies like Facebook's Open Graph, and it also relates to using
   Social Network Analysis as a tool in digital media studies. Since
   network visualisation mostly developed in the sciences, anthropology
   and sociology - and also in economics and conspiracy theory -, it has
   always needed an expert, skilled vision and a lot of contextual
   knowledge. Then, and only then, the diagram is "more than meets the
   eye". Dealing with relations in such a visual manner cannot be
   generalized, no matter how universalist some ways of doing Social
   Network Analysis have become. Even if we agree on a joint language of
   networks, every case and node-arc relation remains specific. This is
   even truer, if we add an ANT-like understanding of heterogeneous
   networks, which either tend to defy easy visualisation, or have created
   the more interesting diagrams (just think of Michel Callon's and Bruno
   Latour's drawings).
   As for the "info porn" as a trope for so-called `big data', well, it
   exists. I do not find most of it particularly appealing, if you compare
   it with Charles Joseph Minard's statistical maps of railroad and goods
   traffic, Beck's design for the making the Underground a useful network,
   and Lombardi's narrative structures, which had a sincere documentary
   character. Do not mistake this for media nostalgia - digital
   visualisations tend to be useful, if they are able to depict agency,
   even it they focus on structural relations. Lothar Krempel, an
   outstanding network visualisation wizard from Cologne, tacitly knows
   what he wants to get out of the numerical data: if the image is not
   adequate to that, he manipulates the Ghostscript code by hand (which is
   amazing, if you know this Pre-PDF printing standard's sign babble).
   GL: In our social media age network diagrams and other forms of data
   visualisation are more and more becoming ingrained into the busy
   everyday life. We live and breathe our networks. In such a situation,
   why do we need visualisations in the first place?
   SG: Here's an anecdote from Lothar Krempel. When he is teaching his
   students how to visualise their Facebook data, they react somewhat
   reluctantly. "Why should one do that? All my networks are already there
   ..." In fact, the mobile social media interfaces themselves, and the
   platform aesthetics lead up to "living and breathing our data, and our
   networks". Network visualisation tends to be insightful if it has a
   documentary quality. But now, with platforms mediating the networking
   practices (by appropriating relational databases and graph theory),
   networks have gotten a timely quality of constant becoming, or of
   pre-emption. This is why theoretical approaches like Anna Munster's
   have turned to Deleuze and Whitehead. Within the sociological
   visualisation community, timing as opposed to structure has become
   quite an issue - which sometimes leads to complete omission of network
   imagery, more narrations, or just showing the data in tabulated form.
   I want to come back to your question on the contemporary image status
   of "networks as we understand them". (You seem to imply a rough
   consensus on "what a network is" and what not, and a specific community
   of practice, but I leave that aside.) Most of us are familiar with Tim
   Ingold's `meshwork' as an alternative term for a mobile "life along
   lines". Once more emphasis is being put on mobilities, network imagery
   is actually moving from centerstage to backstage, and connective
   sociotechnical practices look out for new kinds of imagination. I think
   that Adrian Mackenzie's book on `Wirelessness' brought this up early
   on. While this is certainly true for mobile digital media use and their
   infrastructures, I cannot close my eyes and not see the thousand pin
   boards with networked photographs, relations, and possible paths of
   action in every second television show around. Here, the network has
   indeed become more tacit agency than static structure.
   GL: There is no chapter in your book on the Internet of Things. It is
   something one would have expected in a book with a title like this.
   SG: This is true. And I am glad you asked this question! There is no
   easy answer, since my original plan - stopping with 1983's TCP/IP
   standardization - does not count as an answer. Let me make three
   remarks. First of all, I tend not to believe in hypes. The current IofT
   or "Industry 4.0" developments that I am aware of, they all come out a
   long-standing tradition of networked production, computing, and its
   political economy. So just adding up the buzzword to a cultural history
   is not such a good idea. Let us come back to this in ten years. And let
   us keep in mind the bureaucratic side of IofT, because networking
   objects is in dire need of accounting for its organizational practices.
   This is true for network protocols, but even more so for the economic
   and organizational "white collar" human actors in the IofT
   developments.
   Secondly, and most importantly, classical materialist media theory
   loved historical-philosophical figures of a "Zu-sich-selbst-Kommen"
   (becoming itself) of a media technology, the recognition of the
   specific mediality of a given medium, in short: its teleological
   qualities. So I now could happily celebrate all the new sensor systems
   as talking objects and quasi-objects in infrastructures, and say: This
   is what Verbundenheit was about all the long genealogical way - we are
   getting back to a material understanding of the network. But this would
   be an unforgivable universalist mistake, and it would asymmetrically
   cut out human agencies from a cultural technique. Plus, let us not
   forget the foreseeable failures of IofT, the momentum of an installed
   infrastructural base, and the invisible work to keep things up and
   running.
   Thirdly, my new project is a media history of the credit card and
   digital payment systems. One reason to do this is to set things
   straight concerning the political economy of networked objects and the
   bureaucratic platforms they rely on. There now is a strong tendency to
   talk about these networked environments in a media ecological manner or
   historical epistemological way only. Personally, I consider this a
   rather indirect way to go, because it wipes out questions of
   socio-economic power and hegemony, and all of the everyday drama and
   agency of every infrastructure. Apart from media ecological macro
   perspectives, we do need our microscopes set on media practices, good
   scalar devices, and a sense for the ecological niche (although I
   appreciate some good scholarly readings in media ecology).
   GL: You note that the German sociologist and system theorist Niklas
   Luhmann "wasn't a friend of network thinking." But let's be serious.
   Who was? Or is? I don't think Kittler was either. The architecture of
   old broadcast and print media is so much more accessible--and readable
   for the humanities. These days I believe networks are being pulled even
   further into the background. They might even become part of a `techno
   unconscious'. How do you see this and what methods did you use to get a
   grip on this very fluid material?
   SG: If you look into the systems theory generation after Luhmann,
   sociologists like Dirk Baecker and Urs St�li have delivered some
   late, yet excellent contributions to social network thought. Luhmann's
   scepticism was mainly referring to the irrational and clientelistic
   qualities of networked agency, namely its amodern qualities, its
   tendency not to stick to a social system. Kittler's contribution also
   should not be underestimated, his Aufschreibesysteme have been
   translated as "discourse networks" instead of "inscription devices" -
   with the latter option he would have been closer to ANT and Science and
   Technology Studies thought of the 1980s. So the shifting title is an
   excellent and paradox renaming, making Kittler more sociotechnical than
   he ever was. Let us look forward to see more publications from the
   Kittler archive in Marbach; there shall hopefully be some materialist
   network surprises beyond the early writings at the Baggersee, which
   have been published recently. But the Germanophone tradition was not
   the strongest in initiating network thought, anyway, if you compare it
   to French anthropology of technology from Leroi-Gourhan to Latour -
   with Michel Serres still being my favourite. And, if I may say this as
   a Siegen-based scholar: ANT has been successfully translated into
   German media theory by people like Erhard Sch�z and Tristan
   Thielmann, adapted and re-invented as actor media theory
   (Akteur-Medien-Theorie, 2013). Siegen has moved on to Science,
   Technology and Media Studies and a collaborative research centre on
   "media of cooperation" since then. The international history of
   computing community just recently reframed the history of "the
   Internet" to be built upon a history of networking (cf. Information and
   Culture 50/2 2015, edited by Thomas Haigh, Andrew L. Russell,
   William H. Dutton). So I am in good company!


   Networks becoming part of a background - yes, I do agree with that,
   although this is calling out for infrastructural inversion, to bring
   them back in the foreground. A `techno unconscious' - oh no, this would
   be old school media theory! An `infrastructural-unconscious', then?
   Maybe. Yet billions of people are able to deliver accounts of their
   heterogeneous networks, if you just ask them. Media are created
   cooperatively and in practice, they are no teleological powers forming
   an unconscious. Although media infrastructures admittedly are best used
   in a "transparent", hands-on manner, like Susan Leigh Star and Karen
   Ruhleder have famously put it.
   Since the German discourse on cultural techniques is mostly lacking
   methodological basics, I had to invent some for the cultural technique
   I was writing about. For the book, I ended up with a mixed methods
   approach between extended discourse analysis, material culture studies,
   and parts of actor network heuristics. The ANT part actually was the
   hardest, because it never wanted to use it in a "ready to run" way.
   Actor network theory has severe weaknesses once you are doing real
   historiographical work in actual archives, inevitably lacking the
   possibilities of participant observation. So I developed my very own
   vocabulary of network properties out of the historical cases, and
   re-applied it to the other infrastructures. Hence, the chapter on
   synchronisation in the London Underground Network became the starting
   point for thinking about synchronisation and timing in the other
   infrastructural networks. And in turn, questions of switching agencies
   in networks developed out of the telephone switching chapter, making it
   part of a recursive stratification of networking practices and
   properties ... Questions of objecthood and visualisation are also
   present in each case study. By now, I would position my
   historiographical methodology within grounded theory approaches. In
   fact, most of Germanophone media studies is still built on semiology
   and poststructuralist thought, and therefore in a largely
   unacknowledged methodological crisis. So we constantly have to
   re-invent appropriate methods for digital media cultures, and for a new
   media history without a-priori.
   Sebastian Giessmann, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge, Eine Kulturgeschichte
   der Netze und Netzwerke, Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin, 2016 (2^nd
   edition, 1^st edition 2014).


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