Becoming Network. Henry C. Beck, Material Culture and the London Tube Map of 1933

Presentation by Sebastian Gießmann (Internet Policy Advisor to the Greens in the German Bundestag).

What makes a material network a navigable social space? In my contribution, I will try to demonstrate that the relation of built structures and their media of representation forms a fundamental aspect of network histories. As opposed to pre-modelled, planned networks, the history of the London Underground train system is emergent and evolutionary. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, representations of the subterrean lines are mostly cartographic. There hardly is an aesthetic of topological nodes and links to be found, until the unknown draughtsmen Henry C. Beck delivers a revolutionary redesign of the conventional map of London trains. Although there a precursors to the icon of modernity the London Tube Map was about to become, it turns the sheer materiality of the railroads into something new–a concise diagrammatic network with regular meshes, a calm interface to the dynamism of the metropolis.

But what are the historic relations that inscribed themselves in the London Tube Map? I propose a different understanding of the famous diagram which re-explains the contexts of its introduction. Three aspects will be especially important. (1) Beck’s invention owes a lot to the specific perception of the Underground passenger who is an expert of everyday ‘nodality’ (Castells). As Beck himself has put it: “connections are the thing”. (2) The design follows a general approach of London Transport’s publicity director Frank Pick to make the public train system navigable by a unified semiotic and material style. (3) Beck’s London Tube Map must also be understood as a way of synchronizing a mostly asynchronous network. Its spatiality owes a lot to the mostly unknown train timing and recording practices of London Transport: Before the diagram of the map, there exists a multitude of clocks and their diagrams. (4) Without the contemporary political background a complete graphic network would hardly have been imaginable. The year 1933 happens to be the year of an governmental unification of the competing railroad lines of London. What the London Transport Passenger Board (LPTB) is to the citizens, the Tube Map is to the passenger.

Built networks as social spaces unfold in time. Although this is generally true for 18th and 19th century representations of reticular material structures, it becomes *the* prominent feature of 20th century networks in general. An archaeological approach to the materiality of networks has to account for that kind of “becoming network”: Temporality is the key to relationality.

Sebastian Gießmann, Internet Policy Advisor to the Greens in the German Bundestag. Formerly research fellow at the Excellence cluster TOPOI and research assistant at the Institute for Cultural History and Theory, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. Monographs: Netze und Netzwerke. Archäologie einer Kulturtechnik 1740 – 1840, Bielefeld 2006. Forthcoming: Die Verbundenheit der Dinge. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Netze und Netzwerke, 2012. Editing: “Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften”, “ilinx. Berliner Beiträge zur Kulturwissenschaft”.

Sebastian Gießmann presents at "Network Archaeology."


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