Marisa Leavitt Cohn (IT University of Copenhagen)

Lifetimes and Legacies: Lived Temporal Relations of Infrastructure

Infrastructures are often deemed to require a long-term perspective that can encompass the many temporal scales or rhythms that comprise them. Taking such a view acknowledges that infrastructures are in fact made up of the various lifetimes of software, hardware, programming languages, institutions, and careers. Yet this long view does not help us to consider how these various lifetimes come into touch and into tension within the lived experiences of those who work to build and maintain them. The long view also tends to essentialize the lifetime of systems as a natural phenomenon – a process of moving from birth through life to death read through the lens of biography. In this talk, I contrast with this long view with a perspective on the lived temporal relations of infrastructure that begins from the embodied and affective relations of infrastructure work. Based on ethnographic research of a large-scale infrastructure for space science I discuss how engineers work to maintain and evolve legacy systems from the 80s and 90s, working with and in resistence to obsolescence and infrastructural decay. In their work, we can see how lifetimes of various systems and careers become entangled. I show how people negotiate the binds that are forged and cut between work and career, self and institution, and human and machine and how these in turn mediate the material specificity of infrastructure.

Marisa Leavitt Cohn is an Assistant Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen (ITU) and a member of the Technologies in Practice and Interaction Design research groups. As an interdisciplinary scholar, she brings together anthropological and design-oriented approaches to the study of information systems, drawing on methods from Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies (STS), and Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Her research examines temporal imaginaries of sociotechnical change and how computational systems mediate organizational relationships and practice. She has conducted ethnographic research on infrastructures across a range of sites from space science to smart city data systems. She is interested in the role of critical methodologies in anthropology and design, governmentality of software work, and how computational media shape the politics of design and innovation.


Anthony Enns (Dalhousie University)

Time-Critical Animation: From Cell Animation to Computer Simulation

The commercial success of animated films has encouraged critics to focus almost exclusively on their narrative content, yet such a perspective overlooks the most crucial element of animation—namely, the relationship between technology and time. The practice of animation originally evolved from scientific attempts to visualize, record, manipulate, and reconstruct the flow of time, and it thus has serious implications for the way we understand time itself. As this paper will demonstrate, the concepts of time reflected in animation processes are strongly influenced by their material substrates. During the classical era of cel animation, for example, the work of the animator was kinematic, as the operator had to specify the position of everything in the scene at every given moment in time. However, the animation techniques developed by computer engineers were dynamic, as they involved the use of graphics algorithms that rendered images from geometric descriptions of scenes. These techniques fundamentally transformed the practice of animation from the act of drawing image sequences by hand to the act of using computer tools to specify how images change over time. This meant not only that computer animation has no indexical relation to the real, but also that the images themselves no longer exist at any given moment in time but rather only in the process of their implementation. As a form of data visualization, computer animation also acquired a vast range of scientific applications in such fields as biology, meteorology, geology, and mathematics. Through an examination of the processes and practices involved in both its commercial and scientific applications, this paper will explore the new tempor(e)alities introduced by animation and its potential implications for contemporary conceptualizations of time.

Anthony Enns is Associate Professor of Contemporary Culture at Dalhousie University. His edited collections include Vibratory Modernism (2013) and Sonic Mediations: Body, Sound, Technology (2008). His work in media studies has also appeared in such journals as Screen, Senses and Society, Culture, Theory & Critique, communication+1, Journal of Sonic Studies, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Popular Culture Review, and Studies in Popular Culture.


James J. Hodge (Northwestern University)

Lateral Time

This essay examines the prominence of lateral time in contemporary culture. The term lateral time expresses the experiential impasse characteristic of the massively indirect and infrastructural impact of digital media on lived experience due to their operation beyond human perception and cognition. Against the twin tendencies in digital media studies to explain the transformation of temporality in new media via technical logics or philosophical systems, I turn instead to long duration moving image works as catalysts for encountering the experiential opacity of lateral time. John F. Simon, Jr.’s online work Every Icon features centrally. Consisting of a 32 x 32 grid, Every Icon has been programmed to display every possible combination of black and white squares (or “every icon”). Notwithstanding the work having begun in 1997 and displaying 100 combinations per second, the number of possible combinations is so large that it would take a time longer than the known age of the universe to complete. Every Icon thus exemplifies the inhuman operation of digital media that characterizes the infrastructure of everyday life. Crucially, a quiet, buzzing animated image of black and white squares orients the viewer’s perception around the temporal non-drama it presents. In elucidating the importance of Every Icon as a work of digital media art for exploring lateral time I analyze, too, how Simon, Jr. departs from non-digital conceptual art practices that engage similar ideas (Sol Lewitt, On Kawara).

James J. Hodge is Assistant Professor of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. He specializes in the areas of digital media aesthetics, media theory, and film theory. He has published essays on Spike Jonze’s Her, the phenomenological tradition, the imagination of technology in contemporary theater, and love and digital media art. His book project, Animate Opacity: Digital Technics and the Aesthetics of History argues for the significance of animation in digital media art’s expression of historical temporality.


Mara Mills (New York University)

Aural Speed Reading and the History of Audio Time Compression

Talking Books for blind readers spurred the commercialization of mainstream audiobooks after World War II, but the two formats soon diverged in terms of reading strategies. This talk will discuss the cultural imperative for aural speed reading that drove early time compression innovations in the magnetic tape era, allowing playback rate to be changed without affecting pitch.

Mara Mills is Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, working at the intersection of disability studies and media studies.  Her first book (On the Phone: Deafness and Communication Engineering, under contract with Duke University Press) argues the significance of phonetics and deaf education to the emergence of “communication engineering” in early twentieth-century telephony; this concept and set of practices later gave rise to information theory, digital coding, and cybernetics. Her second book project, Print Disability and New Reading Formats, examines the reformatting of print over the course of the past century by blind and other print disabled readers, with a focus on Talking Books and electronic reading machines. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the DAAD, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the IEEE.


Dylan Mulvin (McGill University)

The Y2K Bug and the Politics of Technological Repair

I will be presenting preliminary research from the Charles Babbage Institute for a project on the history of The Year 2000 problem, better known as the Y2K bug. In the 1960s, computer programmers chose to save memory capacity by coding dates in six digits instead of eight: DD-MM-YY. The rollover to the year 2000 presented the very real possibility of global, systemic chaos as computers still running older software were forced to reckon with a year written simply as “00.” The Y2K bug was thus born in a choice of compression and highlights the contingencies of information networks that are built on standards of timekeeping and calendaring. From the vantage point of the present, the Y2K crisis may look like a very costly false alarm, what Louis Menand recently called a “nutty cocktail of digital overthink and Luddite millennialism.” But from another perspective it is a significant moment of crisis planning and management, a population-wide event of computer literacy campaigning and technological repair.  My project undertakes a history of the Year 2000 Problem and the large-scale practices of technological repair and management that addressed it. I approach the organized response to the perceived threat of the Y2K bug as one of the greatest, public-facing attempts to educate and train individuals and organizations to manage the unforeseen, and potentially devastating, effects old computer code can have on contemporary computerized infrastructures.

Dylan Mulvin is a PhD candidate at McGill University who works at the intersection of media studies, infrastructure studies, and the history of technology. He has published on the history of video, television, and media standards. Among his research topics, he has written on the history of atomic timekeeping and the transformation of fundamental units in the metric system to be based on temporal constants.


John Durham Peters (University of Iowa)

The Suspension of Irreversibility: The Fundamental (and Futile) Task of Media

This presentation offers a meditation on how media capture and fail to capture time. It argues that media exist by suspending irreversibility, which is the necessary condition of repeatability, transmission, and data storage. Using clouds as an example of entities whose nature is to vanish, it reassesses questions of media ontology. Like sounds and music, clouds exist by disappearing. They exist in time. Clouds are highly material and their dynamic materiality is suggestive for media under volatile digital conditions (probably one reason the cloud metaphor took hold so readily). Clouds also bear significance regarding representation, but without any code to clarify what they mean. Their meanings are essentially vague. The history of cloud media, in painting and photography, is the struggle to capture sensuous objects that are also abstract. The ability to represent the indefinite is one of the great achievements of modern mathematics and media, and clouds were at the vanguard here too. If you want to understand how meaning works, you have to understand vagueness, and clouds are a chief example.

John Durham Peters is A. Craig Baird Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. He has published widely on media history and theory, and in fields adjoining media studies such as anthropology, music, philosophy, religious studies, and social theory. He is the author of many articles and essays, Speaking into the Air (1999), Courting the Abyss (2005), and The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (2015). He has held fellowships with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Leverhulme Trust.


Jens Schröter (University of Bonn)

The Time of Capital and the Time of Media

When speaking about the temporal regimes that are produced by technological media, the fact that media technologies do not exist in a vacuum has to be taken into account. Regarding the question of temporality it is especially interesting that there is a wide discussion, going back to Marx, about the temporal regimes produced by capitalism – and every technological medium we know today was born under the conditions (of different forms) of capitalism. But how exactly the ‘hardwired temporalities’ of technology and the temporalities of social structures relate to each other is not very clear and difficult to understand. Do technologies in a way ‘mirror’ the time of capitalism? Or is it the other way round: Would capitalism and its temporal regimes have been impossible without media technologies? Or are there conflicts between the time of capital and the time of media? Or are these questions ill posed because they presuppose a difference between ‘capitalism’ and ‘media’, which is a theoretical artifact? And what could then be a ‘critique of contemporary time’? Although not all these difficult questions can be discussed in my talk in necessary detail, an outline of the problematic will be given.

Jens Schröter is chair for media studies at the University of Bonn. He was director of the graduate school “Locating Media” in Siegen from 2008-2012 and is member of the DFG-graduate research center “Locating Media” at the University of Siegen since 2012. He was (together with Prof. Dr. Lorenz Engell, Weimar) director of the research project “TV Series as Reflection and Projection of Change” from 2010-2014. Main research topics include the theory and history of digital media, theory and history of photography, theory and history of three-dimensional images, intermediality, copy protection, media theory in discussion with the critique of value, TV-series.


Sarah Sharma (University of Toronto)

The Accoutrements of Time-Management

This presentation considers the relationship between temporal difference, the cultural currency of being able to control one’s time, and non-normalized forms of time-management. In this paper, I extend my work on the temporal as a form of social difference. The temporal has very little to do with making or taking more time, or with the making of better lifestyle choices in general. The temporal is less a resource to be individually managed than it is a structuring form of power exercised over the self and others. The social experience of time is relational and uneven, uncompromisingly tethered, and in this way always collective. But I argue the everyday innocuous attempt to control one’s time obscures recognition of this politics of time. I am guided by the notion that if media scholars want to consider temporal inequity then we need to broaden the conception of technology as it relates to time-management specifically, a theory of media that has its roots in the medium theory of Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan. The actual time management strategies of so much of the population recede from view because of the over-mediatized and limiting notion of time that circulates culturally. In this presentation I seek to enliven and make visible what the accouterments of time control look like for populations whose temporal rituals fall outside of normalizing time practices while at the same time questioning why certain things signify time control while others do not. Rather than a world of Fitbits, productivity apps, VIP lounge passes at airports, or recourse to the labor of others as part of daily time management, we might consider instead such things as icepacks, breast pumps, thermoses, and post-it-notes with reminders to breathe, for example. That the control of time is exerted in creative and invisible ways as part of everyday strategies of survival for differently raced, classed, and gendered subjects (to name a few) reveals that the endpoint for a politics of time is not necessarily better management or the making of more free time. Instead a sense of collective time must necessarily rely on tethered time.

Sarah Sharma is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, ICCIT/iSchool and Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.


Florian Sprenger (Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt)

Temporalities of Instantaneity: Electric Wires and the Media of Immediacy

Ever since Stephen Gray explored the possibility of electric transmissions through copper wires in 1730, the speed – or non-speed, as instantaneity means to neglect speed – of electricity was subject of several investigations. As no one was able to recognize any difference between the electric occurrences at both ends of a wire, they were described as instantaneous, as having no difference and no mediation. But nonetheless, the process of transmission was called ‘communication’ in correspondence to the use of this word in the sciences of the time. Communication did not mean to give a message to someone else but to transmit an action to another place. In this sense, the paradox of action at a distance was discussed in terms of mediation. All electricians, whether physicists or engineers, knew very well that nothing could move with an instantaneous speed because action at a distance is impossible. This was due to physical reasons: nothing can act where it is not. Nonetheless, when dealing with implementing their knowledge in materials and technologies, specifically, in cables, they pondered about the immediacy of electricity and what it would offer to mankind. ‘Immediacy’ spread out and became a common denominator for many aspects related to electricity up to its common use in everyday life. The lecture explores how the exploration of electrical transmissions through copper wires is related to such phantasms of immediacy and instantaneity. Consequently, it aims at a theory of media that takes difference, rather than continuity, as its foundation.

Florian Sprenger is Junior professor for Media and Cultural Studies at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt. His dissertation “Medien des Immediaten – Elektrizität, Telegraphie, McLuhan” explored the phantasm of immediacy in electric research and media theory. He recently published a book on “Politics of Microdecisions – Edward Snowden, Net Neutrality and the Architectures of the Internet” which deals with microtemporalities in digital networks.


Nicole Starosielski (New York University)

Temperatures and Temporalities of Digital Media

Temperature is a way of gauging and engaging speed, a means of registering movement affectively, and which operates across scales from the molecular to the global. Thermal manipulation, in turn, has expansive effects on the production of media infrastructures. This presentation will reflect on the ways that the speed of media today, from the microtemporalities of digital systems to their global circulation as commodities, are underwritten by particular kinds of thermocultural practices.

Nicole Starosielski is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Her research focuses on the global distribution of digital media. Her book, The Undersea Network (Duke University Press, 2015), charts the cultural and environmental dimensions of transoceanic cables, beginning with the nineteenth century telegraph network and extending to the fiber-optic systems that support international internet traffic.


Christina Vagt (Humboldt University in Berlin)

How God entered the Machine: The Medieval Origins of Occidental Time

Has Christianity produced its own time, and can this time production be described in terms of machine hardware? This somehow awkward question is triggered by the attempt to produce a deeper understanding of the history of media theories in continental Europe, particular in the German speaking context, and the special role that technology and the notion of hardware seams to play in it. Beginning in the thirteenth century after Christ, automata appear in the sacred space of churches that clearly produce sacred times or guide piety, both in literature and as artefacts. Technology and faith seam to share a common medieval history. While the machines themselves can be read as Christan import from Greek antiquity and the medieval Arabic world, I will argue that they are part of a sacralization of mechanics and machines, that is a central part of Christian cosmology and that can be traced up to the present day. This thesis could also be understood as a historical starting point for the idea of hardwired temporalities.

Christina Vagt currently holds a guest professorship for the history of culture and knowledge at Humboldt-University in Berlin. She also teaches history and theory of culture and media at the department of literature and science at Technische Universität Berlin. She did her PhD at Bauhaus University in Weimar on the relation between technical media and modern physics in the late philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Her current research focuses on the relation of media and cosmology within the history of neocybernetics and systems design in the 1960s and 1970s, the relation of religion and technology in German media theory.