Writing Technologies

On being written by technology

Tim Armstrong

The threatening autonomy of the technological has a long history: worries about the machine dwarfing or overwhelming the human scale of power and speed were first apparent in the early nineteenth century. Part of what is at issue is the alienation of the senses: physics has, since the late Victorian period, opened up areas of investigation which fall outside the scope of human perception; in which all that can be investigated is accounted for by the calibration of instruments against other instruments, or machines writing output for other machines.3 In such a science, the human observer is exiled, secondary. But more generally, that sense of exile may be related to the human subject’s being that is bound up in systems of feedback and exchange which have their focus in the human (and seem to require a human as point of connection), but which are logically distinct from the human. And those systems are, of course, incrementally bound up with modernity.

One mode of relating to this world of machinic interaction with humans and ‘their’ communication can be found in the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann’s sociology has received a relatively unenthusiastic reception in Anglophone cultural and media theory (with a few exceptions), 4 in part because it has been associated with the static world of structuralism; in part because it has been seen as proposing a ‘colder’ and more radical version of the human sciences than most of us are willing to accept – in comparison, ‘cyborg theory’ seems (and in many ways is) a utopian romance of living dolls at play in the technosphere. To see the study of human communication as necessarily focussing on systems (rather than consciousness, feeling, intention, or even meaning) is to move beyond the Saussurian opposition of langue and parole, in which the individual speech act is privileged as creative, to a realm of formal disconnection. Human beings are peripheral to Luhmann’s analysis of the structures which humans have created: humans do not communicate, Luhmann insists; communication systems communicate – and the implication is that we cannot know if we say what we mean, or mean what we say, since meaning and saying are formally distinct.

Luhmann’s mode of thinking has often been challenged for its apparent conservatism, but it is useful in thinking about technology in at least two respects. Firstly, in its deployment of terms ultimately derived from the biological sciences (homeostasis, environment, etc.) it offers a counter to the metaphors we noted earlier (‘relay’ and the like), which in their circularity close off the question of technology before it has been properly opened. Secondly, in refusing our common-sense notion that technology (or even language) is a ‘tool’ subject to our will, Luhmann nevertheless helps us understand the experience of alienation and exclusion produced by technological systems, the ways we are subject to it, and the laws of unintended consequences seemingly written into their use. A facile example is email, where most of us have feelings of alienation and inadequacy of response: ‘managing’ email and other software (mailboxes, addresses, templates, spam and virus filters, etc.) has become a process in which the maintenance of the system’s complexity is a major preoccupation. More fundamentally, the interface itself (in proprietary computer systems as in bureaucracies) presents us with a set of pre-formatted choices rather than real agency, leaving us uncertain about the assumptions written into the technology. (A good example is textual studies, where the uncertainties of the manuscript are necessarily rendered as a series of determinate choices made by editors, or, at best, hypertextual options.) As Lev Manovich comments, ‘While from one point of view, computerized media still displays structural organization that makes sense to its human viewers’ (images and texts), the computer’s organization of that data imposes fundamentally different ontological conditions and possibilities of operating on that data; conditions which Manovich defines as numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding.5

This suggests, to return to our original question, that while we have always ‘written technology’ (it is in our writing), the technology may be continuing to write us in ways that we have barely begun to investigate. Implicit in the work of Luhmann, and elaborated much more specifically in that of Friedrich Kittler – neither of whom figure in the editors’ manifesto(s), but both of whom I would nevertheless see as fairly central to the project of Writing Technologies6 – there is an account of writing and technology which is attuned to discourse as technologically mediated, and to modes of language production and sensory storage which have become increasingly systematized, commoditized, and detached from human sources.

But I do not, here, mean to suggest that we should succumb to a determinism, to the fetishization of the technological which can creep into the work of thinkers like Kittler and Virilio. Rather we need to attend to the fragility of the written; to the discomforts and estrangements of its relation to the technological; and to the uneven flow of relations between the two. I write on a keyboard; some of its letters are effaced; I trip; or I turn to the internet; I worry about whether the hum I hear is a presage of hard disc failure. The flow of words must negotiate all this; the words must head across cyberspace where they may well be scanned for suspicious keywords by agencies I have never heard of; they must join other words in other machines and finally reside on paper and in the web (where they may again be mixed with other words, making their way, with some luck, into other writings).  All this is true, and part of writing as technology. But any phenomenology of writing must nevertheless negotiate the way that they still seem my words; that they are evidence of a mind thinking, and a body writing, in a place and time which is part of a lived experience. We are, to quote Wallace Stevens, ‘Within the very object that we seek, / Participants of its being’, 7 which means among other things that we will never cease to struggle to articulate our difference from our technology.

3. This is, of course, a confirmation of Henry Adam’s comments on the ‘occult’ qualities of modern forces and instrumentation in ‘The Dynamo and the Vergin’ (1900). On one aspect of this question see Joel Snyder, ‘Visualization and Visuality’, in Picturing Science Producing Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 379-97.

4. Exceptions include Thomas LeClair, In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987) and Mark Seltzer’s True Crime (New York: Routledge, 2006) .

5. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p.45.

6. See Friedrich A. Kittler,Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). The first text in English to show a major influence from Kittler’s work was Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989); more recent examples of work inflected by his approach include Lisa Giltelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); Sara Danius, The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception and Aesthetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); Timothy C. Campbell, Wireless Writing in the Age of Marconi  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

7. Wallace Stevens, ‘Study of Images I’, in Collected Poetry and Prose, eds. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 395.