Instant Mediation – Electric Cables and Phantasms of Instantaneity

Presentation by Florian Sprenger (Stanford University).

Confronted with ubiquitous computing, smart or bio technologies, confronted with the current condition of mediated ways of worldmaking, a crisis of traditional modes of explanation obtrudes. In the reign of extensive technification media theory is forced to re-orientate its material and epistemological tools and to write its own genealogy.

With the advent of electromagnetic telegraphy in the 1830s, a notion emerging from the history of the sciences of electricity diffused into popular knowledge: the instantaneous transmission of electric action. 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 an item of interest and 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. The difference between slow speed and no speed is small, but this difference means everything to physics and to media.

In my presentation, I want to address two aspects of this development and highlight the importance of the notion of instantaneity for electric cables and networks – and the aporia it introduces into the field of media theory. First, I want to describe the different strategies by which immediacy and instantaneity were made plausible in the historical context of telegraphy. Samuel Morse, for example, knew very well that electricity had a speed and was not immediate, as Charles Wheatstone had shown some years before. But nonetheless, when talking about the impact of the telegraph on society, Morse relied upon the gift of instantaneity. If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of the circuit, I see no reason why intelligence may not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity.“ In a second step, I want to investigate the importance of these concepts for understanding (or misunderstanding) the present state of escalation. Immediate media, global ‘all-at-once-ness’ (McLuhan) and the ‘death of distance’ are common descriptions of this condition, but they negate the mediality of transmission.

Florian Sprenger, PhD, is currently Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. He studied Philosophy and Media Studies at Bochum, Weimar and Vienna. He was Fellow at the Graduate School Senses – Technique – Mise en Scene and at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies, both in Vienna. In 2011, he finished his PhD. on Media of Immediacy – Electricity, Telegraphy, McLuhan. For more information, see


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