A War of Typewriters
— In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986, tr. 1999), his masterpiece of media and technology history, German cultural studies scholar Friedrich Kittler laments how modernity overwhelmed humanity with its machines. He sees this process having begun in the 19th century. Step by step, electronic devices commandeered all of the human sensory functions: “A telegraph as an artificial mouth, a telephone as an artificial ear—the stage was set for the phonograph” (28). The gramophone allowed a machine to capture the human voice, while the cinema subsequently replicated sight.
However, it is with the typewriter, the seemingly most innocuous of 19th century inventions that Kittler crescendos his epic study. Drawing upon such diverse sources as Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema (1989), Kittler traces the close development of media technology and warfare. In the United States, Remington became the dominant manufacturer of typewriters—1881’s Remington II model was the best selling machine in America—allowing the company to diversify beyond its original status as a gun manufacturer. For Kittler, there is little difference: in his eyes, the typewriter is “a discursive machine gun” (191).
The writing on the wall predicting the demise of humanity was typewritten, argues Kittler. Type represents the penultimate replacement of the human by the machine. Whereas handwriting is individual, and expresses the diverse souls of people, type is the same no matter the differences between the hands that strike the keys.
The final step in the decimation of what Kittler terms “so-called Man” took place at the beginning of World War II, and is intriguingly represented in Norwegian Morten Tyldum’s new film, The Imitation Game (2014), about Alan Turing building the computer that broke the German military encryption of troop locations during World War II. The story begins with Enigma, the “secret typewriter of Wilmersdorf” (253), a German encoding machine that was thought unbreakable. By building essentially the world’s most important computer, Turing’s team was able to decipher the Nazi code and allow the Allies to win the Second World War.
While clearly a better outcome than a victory by Hitler, Kittler pauses to consider this triumph as more than a bit Pyrrhic. For it really wasn’t a victory of one set of humans over another, but an abrogation of the human role, given over to the machines. Kittler positions World War II as a “war of typewriters” (256). For Turing’s Universal Machine was merely a more powerful typewriter than the vaunted Enigma, itself a machine into which humans merely typed messages to have them automatically encrypted and deciphered. Through a series of rotors, the Enigma machine converted the message into a seemingly random string of letters that could only be transformed back into meaningful language when an identical Enigma machine was fed the proper settings. Humans could change the settings every day, but only to allow one Enigma machine to once again speak to others of its ilk.
“The Second World War devolved from humans and soldiers to machine subjects,” Kittler argues (259). The filmmakers behind The Imitation Game have their hearts in the right place. They set about representing the work of genius it was for Turing to build a machine that no one thought possible to break the German ENIGMA. The film humanizes Turing, making us care emotionally about him by demonstrating how cruelly he was treated as a gay man in post-war Britain, at a time of rampant homophobia. Arrested for indecency, his primary role in defeating Naziism completely censored from the public record, Turing committed suicide less than a decade after the end of the war, despite his central role in completely transforming the future into an unfathomable computerized network.
Yet, it is this Romantic notion of the individual genius endorsed by The Imitation Game that Kittler works so hard to dismantle in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Whether gay men are allowed to love whomever they want, or whether brilliant female mathematicians get the professional respect they deserve, the emotional content of The Imitation Game is beside the point for Kittler’s analysis, in which technology has doomed our humanity.
The best scene in the movie treats the Enigma story, not as the last nail in the coffin for our future, but instead as a string of brilliant individual deductions, tied to humanity’s greatest ability, thinking. The film’s Turing makes one great act of empathetic humanity, squirreling Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) into Bletchley Park because she is a genius at doing puzzles. However, the sexist military structure refuses to allow Joan to work on Turning’s project. Instead, he gets her hired in the secretarial pool, where women type out intercepted Nazi radio transmissions. Kittler predicts as much: he is fascinated by how the typewriter as a machine subsumes the female labor that the word hides: a typewriter is both a female secretary who uses the machine, and the name of the machine itself.
In a clever undoing of romantic movie cliché’s, The Imitation Game’s Turing throws a pebble at Joan’s window late at night, not to engage in sexual shenanigans, but instead to have her help him work on his decryption algorithms. Indeed, it is Joan who sparks Turning’s solution to Enigma. She reports that not all German radio operators are the same. She can tell one of them by the cadence of his typing. Contra Kittler, human individuality has been preserved amidst the technological onslaught: one radio operator can be individuated from another. People like Joan, who does what the film instructs us repeatedly—“Are you paying attention?”—are able to use their mental faculties to overcome the reductionism of the machine. Joan’s insight cascades into Turing’s who subsequently realizes that their machine doesn’t have to start from scratch every morning after Enigma’s settings have been changed, because almost every German transmission ends with a refrain: “Heil Hitler.” And thus, in one of the great ironies in human history, Nazi mechanization fell to British individuation.
But despite the rampant Romanticism of The Imitation Game, Kittler lurks behind every image. In my favorite cut in the movie, a graphic match links the whirring rotors of Turing’s machine to the treads of a Nazi tank squashing a British army helmet into the mud. That is, mechanization clearly threatens humanity at all times. The filmmakers intuit this, but do not allow this nagging problem the full light of day. Consider that in the film, Turing names his computer, Christopher, after his first gay crush, a fellow student in grammar school who died of a disease about which he never even spoke a word to Alan. In reality, the machine was called either the “bombe” or the “Oriental Goddess” (Kittler, 256), both of which open a whole other militarist, post-colonialist Pandora’s box.
Because it cannot overcome its Romanticism, The Imitation Game is not the film that Alan Turing, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, deserves. So, what would such a film look like? Would it be merely a morose imaging of Kittler’s technologically determinist pessimism? Perhaps, but I can suggest a different possibility. Can’t we find the middle ground between Romantic optimism and Germanic pessimism? I would like to suggest that such a film has already been made: High School (1968), Frederick Wiseman’s expose of Northeast High School in Philadelphia as a factory meant to produce soldiers for the war in Vietnam. One of the truly great editors in the history of cinema, Wiseman’s films work like Turing machines. The filmmaker shot dozens of hours of footage over the course of three weeks, resulting in a brief eighty-minute film. Wiseman squeezes meaning out of every cut, ratcheting through possibilities of where to put each shot like the rotors in the Oriental Goddess.
In the film’s first half, we see close-ups of teachers, well meaning, but encouraging rote automatism. A kindly Spanish teacher does not seem to appreciate the irony that she forces the students to repeat the word “existentialista” while teaching the students about Jean-Paul Sartre, an advocate not of military order but of human freedom. The first section of the film ends with another kindly English teacher playing a reel-to-reel tape recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “Dangling Conversation.” Wiseman’s camera dwells on the reels of the tape recorder, plunging the film into a Kittlerian reverie about why the mechanical recording of the song is so much better than when the teacher read the words out loud minutes before.
Then, an intermission! Why would an eighty-minute film need an intermission? It’s because Wiseman has withheld the entire political project of his film for the final forty minutes. The second half begins with the soccer coach reminiscing about his star player, who he has just learned had his foot blown off in Vietnam. After much abuse of many more students, the film ends with a demonic woman reading a letter to revel in the fact that one of the students of Northeast High School, about to fly a secret mission in Southeast Asia, doesn’t think he is coming back. Because he has no living relatives, he bequeaths his life insurance to the high school. Wiseman cuts to black to end the film, having had us dwell on the devil’s face in a low-angle close-up.
Wiseman’s films are Turing machines, cold and analytical, and yet seem to have learned the lessons of Kittler. The airman’s hand-written letter to the high school is both an articulation of Romantic individualism and also testament to the machine-like precision through which the high school factory has destroyed his humanity in order to churn out soldiers. High School is a middle ground film that sees the world Turing bequeathed to us as analyzed by Kittler, deeply threatening to the future of humanity. But, the film also believes in the power of individuals, using the tools of the master, mechanically reproducible images that are the cinema, to resist the machine.
High School is the Turing film that I wish The Imitation Game would have aspired to be. It is not that the film is bad. Beneditch Cumberbatch—while channeling a bit too much of Jim Parson’s stereotype scientific intellectual, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory—does get us to care deeply about Turning’s secret homosexuality amidst his grandiose project of inventing the future of high-speed computation. The Imitation Game makes the mistake of believing it is telling a historical tale of the past. What Kittler suggests—and he is dead right about this—is that the devastating implications of the mechanization of humanity lie not in our past, but in our future. The war of typewriters did not end with Turing’s bombe’s victory over Enigma; that was merely the first volley.
– Walter Metz