Marshall McLuhan – Friedrich Kittler – Paul Virilio


Friedrich Kittler and the rise of the machine

Kittler, who died this year, suggested we weren’t masters of our technological domain, but rather that we were its pawns

 The Terminator

When Canadian-American media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote “the medium is the message“, what he had in mind was that it is worth reflecting on how technological innovation changes us. A TV broadcasts content, but what is most socially significant about it is not what we are watching, but what it does to old ways of living.

In Understanding Media, he described the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. Immersed in Strictly Come Dancing, we miss the structural changes TV has made to us. It was once estimated that the average Briton spends 11 years watching telly: even the inventor of television, John Logie Baird, wouldn’t have imagined that this was ever a possibility. Immersed in Facebook, we neutralise the hitherto dividing distance between us and strangers on the other side of the world. Only a monster rising from the primeval loch might have an insight into how humans have changed – or a media theorist taking the long view.

A lightbulb, unlike TV, doesn’t have content, but its invention changed human lives: thanks to lightbulbs, we can colonise the dark, extend our remit over part of the world that was beyond our mastery. “A light bulb,” McLuhan wrote, “creates an environment by its mere presence.” So do TVs, newspapers and the internet (McLuhan died in 1980, so he missed the rise of that technological innovation), but their content may blind us to how it has changed us.

McLuhan had a relatively benign vision of technological innovation. It was our tool. The subtitle of Understanding Media was The Extensions of Man and his vision was of technological innovations as human prostheses.

Friedrich Kittler, the German post-structuralist philosopher and media theorist who died in October, was of a more dystopian temper. “The development of the internet has more to do with human beings becoming a reflection of their technologies,” he once argued. “After all, it is we who adapt to the machine. The machine does not adapt to us.” Against McLuhan, he argued, “media are not pseudopods for extending the human body. They follow the logic of escalation that leaves us and written history behind it”.

The intellectual revolution that Kittler and like-minded thinkers effected displaced humans further from the centre of the universe than even previous thinkers had envisaged. Copernicus had shown the universe did not revolve around us on Earth. Darwin had shown we descended from apes and did not control our evolution. Freud showed we were at the mercy of unconscious impulses. Now Kittler was suggesting we weren’t masters of our technological domain, but rather that we were its pawns. It was a chastening view, and surely significant that he was producing his most potent work in the 1980s, when techno dystopias were the stuff of Hollywood nightmares, when, notably, Arnold Schwarzenegger came back from the future as a cyborg to terminate humanity.

Like many of the greatest thinkers about the media in continental Europe – Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard – Kittler’s dystopian vision of technology was influenced by early experiences during the second world war and his reading of the technophobic Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger. Kittler argued that technology changed the nature of war: “It has become clear that real wars are fought not for people or fatherlands, but take place between different media, information technologies, data flows.” These were thoughts later taken up by Baudrillard in his notorious series of articles The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Kittler was born in Saxony, in the aftermath of the Nazis’ defeat at Stalingrad. One of his earliest memories was seeing Dresden ablaze from a distance, bombed in February 1945 by the allies. He also recalled being frequently taken by his mother to a Baltic island to visit the site where Hitler’s V2 rockets had been developed.

[Paul] Virilio, the French theorist, also had a childhood marked by war. He recalls living in occupied Nantes as it was bombed by France’s allies. It’s perhaps a mistake to extrapolate so readily from biography to philosophy, but it would be a worse mistake to think that Virilio’s sense that innovation always had a dark underbelly had nothing to do with being on the receiving end of Nazi rule and allied ordinance. His best-known statement, “the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck”, expresses in a nutshell his career-long scepticism for those Panglossians who argue technology is entirely about progress.

Virilio developed the concept of dromology (from the Greek, meaning the science or logic of speed) and argued that our cult of speed, facilitated by technological innovation, would be our death. “The more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases,” he wrote. He was writing about military innovation, but he could also apply the remark to your broadband speeds.

Old wars were fought across distances. But technology destroys distance. New wars, inflected by technological innovation, were fought across time. He once wrote: “History progresses at the speed of its weapons systems”, adding: The physical world ceases to be the battlefield and instead the battle becomes one of ideologies and economics and speed. By which he meant battles would be won by the fastest: “The class struggle is replaced by the struggle of the technological bodies of the armies according to their dynamic efficiency.” This dromocratic vision of human society infects everything: the faster you can deploy (your weapons, your money, your ideology), the quicker will be your victory. Read the rest here: .

 Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011)    Paul Virilio (1932-   )

3 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan – Friedrich Kittler – Paul Virilio”

  1. McLuhan was and is a great influence on my thinking. Great stuff here, enjoyed it.

  2. I once tried to read a book by Virilio. The introduction was very interesting but his theories were “cooky” and extremely unscientific. I couldn’t get past chapter 2. Should I reconsider?

    Negative horizon – An essay in dromoscopy
    But it had a beautiful cover:
    Negative horizon - An essay in dromoscopy

    • If Virilio makes sense to you, by all means read him. As far as I’m concerned, a lot of the European theorists like Kittler and Virilio are too negative about technology. Information technology especially must seem foreign to them, being a creation of the “anglosphere”. While we must control technology, rather than let it control us, I personally do not accept the dystopian view of technology espoused by many European theorists, despite being European born myself. McLuhan was right in not adopting a moral stance with respect to technology, because such a stance inhibits understanding. My goal is understanding…..AlexK

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