Webs as traps, networks as infrastructure – a cultural history of nets and networks
Napoleon III’s wife was filled with awe. “De ma vie, je n’ai vue rien de plus beau”, voiced Eugenie de Montijo at the opening festivities of the Suez Canal. I’ve never seen anything as beautiful.
As Sebastian Gießmann notes about the scene, it was such a crystallisation of aesthetic sentiment with colonial aspirations, something that set the bar for the 19th century technological enthusiasm for progress and the planetary projects that defined a new global order. It was, after all, that the ceremonial boats passing through the canal were followed up by one last one; the one that lay down the telegraphic cable. Lewis Mumford’s later analysis coined already the late 19th century’s material basis as not national not continental but planetary – and this drive was visible in many of the transport projects and technological engineering too; planetary but always tied to a variety of geopolitical interests.
Gießmann’s extensive Die Verbundenheit der Dinge [rougly translates as the “connection of things” but there are many nice connotations for the word Verbundenheit in German, from proximity to affect, communion and bond] narrates such scenes but more broadly speaking the study functions as an inspiring cultural history of nets and networking. Even if “network theory” has been debated for 10-15 years, Gießmann is able to bring interesting angles to the material, symbolic and imaginary aspects of a truly historical view to webs, nets and more. Besides being highly readable, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge works through interesting case studies from classical literature and the history of nets in hunting, as traps, also to the legal aspects of “binding” contractual states; to spiders and webs, infrastructural networking such as canals, and onto the more computational 20th century. The diagrammatics of operational research offer a pre-internet view to how information handling was to be rationalised in visual circuits; connections of nodes and switches. Gradually the management of optimised information messages became the focus of the technical diagrams.
The book has a wonderful way of being able to account for the material and yet also aware of the cultural history of the concept in its changing forms from visual to the informatic. Gießmann is drawing on the cultural techniques-tradition of German theory in many ways. However, what distinguishes the book are the specific examples elaborated. Through addressing such historically far-reaching plans of planetary networks as the canals of the 19th century etc., the book is able to remind that at its core, networking is also currently about big infrastructural projects; Gießmann notes the early use of “networks” in the 1827 planning of Paris watersystems and it is clear that this is a lineage that is of important focus: the infrastructural engineering both of the urban realm and the connections across national interest space but also in close relation with non-governmental corporations. In many ways Gießmann’s book speaks to the same themes as recently translated study by Markus Krajewski, World Projects.
Die Verbundenheit der Dinge acknowledges the importance of mathematics and geometry in the modern history of networks, but does not cave-in to the a-historical definitions of networks that we have grown accustomed to hearing; nodes and edges might be important but also need to be historicized as the specific epistemological frameworks in which such connectivity becomes mobilized over the past 200-250 years.
Networking divides into a variety of constitutive cultural techniques such as synchronisation and switching; there is a technical element well presented in this analysis, which accompanies the political and social history. The technological becomes embedded in a history consisting of various scales of agencies. The partly automated networking finds one of its important historical events in the 1890s with the patent for Automatic Telephone-Exchange, which with the help of the switching cylinder slowly replaces the parasite in between – the telephone operator girl.
Indeed, Die Verbundenheit der Dinge alludes to how things are not purloined by humans anymore- like in the much often quoted Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter as one ur-scene of communications. Letters and messages get lost in other ways than human hands in the technological networks by way of transmission problems as an effect of the automated situation over noisy lines. Information theory but also concrete engineering solutions emerge as one key switch in the history of networking. From capture of animals the emerging networks and later the web become an infrastructural arrangement that now sets the tone for the Internet of Things as capture.