I&G Thomas Goldstrasz and Henrik Pantle

Computers During World War Two

Kittler's Theory of Misuse

Kittler's Theory of Misuse

      is illustrated in detail in his book Grammophon Film Typewriter (GFT). "In order to supersede history," he writes,

      the media system was productive in three phases. Phase 1, since the American Civil War, developed acoustic, optical and text storage media - film, gramophone and the man/machine system of the typewriter. Phase 2, since WWI, developed suitable transmission technology for all of these - radio, television and their more secret siblings. Phase 3, since WWII, transfered the block diagram of the typewriter into the ultimate technology of calculability. (GFT p.352)

A Brief Look at Phase Two:

      Although, as Kittler admits, the technical equipment for the transmission of radio waves was developed in 1903 by Adolf Slaby, a professor at Berlin's Technical University, using Valdemar Poulsen's arc transmitter, and although the first "radio broadcast" was made in 1906 by Reginald A. Fessenden from the University of Pennsylvania to all of the world's few wireless ship's telegraphs, "a world war had to break out, i.e. WWI", or so Kittler claims, "before Poulsen's arc transmitter could be adapted to Lieben's or de Forest's tube technology and before Fessenden's experimental set-up could go into mass production." (GFT p.148) This is presumably supposed to mean that without WWI, radio technology would have been gathering dust in the basement of various universities. For as Kittler's argument goes, in the years 1914-1918, during which the development of tube technology was given top priority - since the two latest weapons, the fighter plane and the submarine, both relied on wireless communication - the number of wireless operators in the German army grew from approx. 6,000 to approx. 190,000 (cf. GFT pp148ff). Which lead, at some point amidst the drudgery of life in the trenches, to the discovery of new forms of entertainment:

      Although the soldiers in the trenches had no radios, they did have "Heeresfunkgeräte"(Army Wireless Equipment). From May 1917 onwards, Dr. Hans Bredow, who before the war had been an engineer at AEG and who later became the first German State Secretary for Radio Broadcasting, was able "using a primitive tube transmitter, to broadcast a radio program during which records were played and newspaper articles were read out. An end was put to this success story, however, when a superior command post heard about it and prohibited this "misuse of military equipment" and thus any further transmission of music and spoken word programs." (GFT p.149)

Precisely the above-quoted turn of phrase

      in the message from a "superior command post" prompts Kittler to formulate his general theory that the "entertainment industry is, in all senses of the term, misuse of military equipment" (GFT p.149), a viewpoint he then supports by tracing the post-WWI civilian careers of military wireless equipment and its surviving operators.

      The Inspektion der Technischen Abteilung der Nachrichtengruppe (Itenach) [Inspectorate of the Technical Department of the Information Group] [...] created a Zentralfunkleitung (ZFL) [Central Radio Directorate] which was issued with a broadcasting permit by the Executive of the Associated Workers and Soldiers Committees on the 25th November [1918]. Fears that this "Funkerspuk" would nip the Weimar Republik in the bud by technical means lead immediately to Dr. Bredow's "counter attack". Germany's first ever entertainment radio was cre ated purely to prevent the anarchic misuse of military equipment. (GFT p.150)

      Kittler's theory of misuse and his theoretical model of media production state that without wars there can be no New Media. For Kittler, a war is the only event that can set free enough energy to provoke an advance in media technology. Thus, according to Kittler, the (mass) development of the computer had to wait for the outbreak of another war, World War Two.

A close examination of Phase Three

      reveals, however, that computers would still have been built even if World War Two had never taken place. Kittler tries to prove his theory using the example of the top secret wartime work of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who, among other things, provided the inspiration for the construction of computers while deciphering the Nazis' Enigma code. It would, however, be a misinterpretation if he were to believe that the construction engineer Konrad Zuse, who was no less of a genius than Turing, would have been disturbed at having to invent his computers during peacetime.

The independent multiple formulation

      of the computer, in Britain because of the war and in Germany in spite of the war, leads us to believe that the historical significance of WWII for computer development was only coincidental and has therefore no claim to fatherhood. Furthermore, we consider fatherhood to be a property of human individuals which cannot be attributed to events.

Abstract | Alan Turing | Konrad Zuse | Kittler's Theory | Literature
War as a Problem of Information Processing | Simultaneous Independent Development of the Computer

© for the translation by Thomas Goldstrasz and Nicholas Grindell 1997