Workshop 2: Wolfgang Ernst, Experimenting media-temporality (Pythagoras, Hertz, Turing)

Professor of media theories Wolfgang Ernst (Humboldt University) opened his presentation by stating that the subject of this workshop, ‘experimentality as event’, touches a crucial figure of contemporary epistemology, especially when we take epistemology in its processual, time-based meaning as defines by cybernetics which is – taken by its original self-definition – the insight into ‘Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms’ (Heinz  von Foerster, 1949). Consequently, Ernst proposed that we investigate the processuality and eventuality of media-enhanced experimentation.

In terms of an introduction, Wolfgang Ernst explained that context out of which most mass media developed was experimental – they were first research tools with no projective purposes.  He consequently argued that listening to music on records or radio is therefore essentially experimental: by tuning analog radio one experiments with radio waves. Ernst illuminated the fact that the public use of synthetic mass media is a reborn experience of what was once experimental analytic media, describing how mass media technologies developed in experiments, later became recognized as events in the social sense. Consequently, Ernst referred to time-critical dimension as a genuine form of active media knowledge. He argued that only with such instruments as Christiaan Huyghens’ pendulum clock, leading to the introduction of minutes and even seconds on the clock scale, more specific with electro-mechanic measuring devices as developed by Herman von Helmholtz to cope with the speed of communication within nerves, and finally with electronics, the micro-temporal delays (Delta-t) which happen within brain functions could be analyzed.      

Wolfgang Ernst proceeded by outlining two modalities of temporality.  Firstly, he described one level of temporality – which is in a flash-like manner revealed in the ‘experimental event’ – as the micro-temporal behaviour of the object in question (that is: ‘under experiment’). Thereafter, Ernst argued that the second one is what it does to (or with) the ‘temporal sense’ of the human experimentator.

Further, Ernst proposed that there is ambivalent experience of experimental time which takes place in three exemplary scenarios:

-          Pythagoras pulls the string of his monochord in early Greek antiquity leading to his insights into the mathematical beauty of cosmic relations

-          The discovery of the micro-temporal nature of electromagnetism (concentrating on Hertz’ ‘radio’ experiment)

-          Turing’s notion of a computing mechanism which can only exist in discrete finite ‘states’.

On the one hand, Wolfgang Ernst argued that, such experimental settings clearly belong to what we call and describe as cultural history (or ‘history of knowledge’ in more Latourean terms). From the point of view of the media themselves, that is: the media-archaeological perspective, however, there is something at work which is indifferent to historical change, which Ernst called the ‘time-invariant event’.


Ernst continued in arguing that ‘experiment as event’ can be reformulated as ‘experiencing eventuality’ to offer a point of view from which to consider the question of how media temporality and especially its proper temporal figure, i.e. time-critical, micro-temporal processes, are experienced by experiment.  He emphasised that in contrast to empirical experience from observation of primary nature media-experimental settings perform ‘culturalized’ experiences of a secondary nature – with measuring media being the crucial observer. Ernst explained that a media-experimental setting is an artificial configuration based on cultural knowledge – but still it is of physical nature, since there are electro- or even quantum- laws at work which are not completely dependent on the respective cultural discourse. Hence, he illustrated that the media-experimental event cannot be reduced to discoursive effects: there is always the veto of the real.


Subsequently, Wolfgang Ernst suggested that when we perform he Pythagorean string experiment today, that is: when we pull such a string, we actually re-enact the techno-physical insight of the relation between integer numbers and harmonic musical intervals which once led Greek philosophers to muse about the perfect beauty of cosmic order in general (including the rejected experience of deviation of this aesthetic ideology resulting in the ‘Pythagorean komma’, that is: irrational number relations). Ernst followed in stating that we are certainly not in the same historical situation as Pythagoras, since the circumstances, even the ways of listening and the psycho-physical tuning of our ears, is different. But still the monochord is a time-machine in a different sense: it lets us share, participate at the original discovery of musicological knowledge, since – in an almost Derridean sense – the repeatable is com/munication across the historical gap. Ernst claimed that in the processual moment of the re-enacted experiment, we share the same temporal field. Further, he proposed that in analytic ontology event represents ontological being which is not a static object but a process and processual ontology is close to the process of media technologies itself.  Ernst concluded in acknowledging that media archaeology is different as it does not uncover artefacts but events, and media theory is already on eventuality side.

Thereafter, Ernst discussed through an example of the experimentation of radio and light waves. He explained how in 1879 Hermann von Helmholtz initiated a prize (Berlin Academy of Sciences) to experimentally answer the dispute regarding which was the true theory of electricity: immediate re/action in the tradition of Newtonean physics or James Clerk Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetic waves as part of an encompassing electromagnetic spectrum like light, thus subject to temporality, to limited speed. Wolfgang Ernst concomitantly argued that radio waves, on the very micro-temporal level (that is, before becoming part of mass-medium called ‘radio’), have a sense of ending.  He supported his claims by referring to  Michael Faraday and Heinrich Hertz, who discovered the relation between electricity and magnetism as being not static, but dynamic – which transformed the philosophical question of its essence into its perception as event. Further, Ernst explained how the theory of visible light as a specific section of the electromagnetic wave spectrum was ‘synthesized’ by James Maxwell (1831-1879) who symbolically analysed the events of electric and magnetic fields as inductively found by Faraday experiments:

-          Electric charges make electric fields

-          Moving electric charges make magnetic fields

-          A changing electric field makes a magnetic field

-          A changing magnetic field makes an electric field,

and we are faced here with micro-events.

Ernst illustrated how Maxwell wrote mathematical formulae summarizing these phenomena, finally combining them into one that had the same form as the equation all waves obey, thus demonstrating that it was the electric and magnetic fields that were oscillating in light. The speed that these oscillations travelled (the proverbial ‘speed of light’) was predicted by Maxwell’s work.

Further, Ernst explained that in 1887 Heinrich Hertz produced ultra-frequent electro-magnet waves and detected them at the other end of his experimental setting, demonstrating that sparks are in fact ultra-frequent oscillations of electricity and transmit electromagnetic waves which behave like light. Such sparks were known since the discovery that ribbed pieces of amber lead to emitting sparks (this is why electricity is named after Greek electron since Thales of Milet). Ernst argued that these sparks already behaved like ‘radio’ – but there was a detector missing, both mentally (in humans) and technically (no ‘detector’ until Eduard Branly’s ‘Coherer’ since 1890, invented as a laboratory device in the Parisian Salpetriere and further developed by Oliver Lodge). Radio thus was unconsciously invented in the laboratory and only later put together by entrepreneurs like Giulielmo Marconi who combined the Hertzean apparatus with Branly’s device and Ropov’s  antenna to a functional tool for transmitting wireless Morse code – the experimental system ‘knew’ it already. Hence, Ernst argued that this alreadyness is the index of a non-historical temporality which is equally original each time in experimentation.

Concomitantly, Wolfgang Ernst proposed that experimenting with electro-magnetic wave propagation is not (merely) the prehistory, but the laternative approach to what has become the mass medium called ‘radio’. When Hertz discovered that electromagnetic waves propagate by means of high-frequency excitation in an open oscillating circuit it was the result of an experimental query. Further, in 1901, communication bridged the Atlantic using the electromagnetic waves for the transport of informative signals. At this point, however, Ernst argued, ‘wireless’ has not been synonymous with radio as medium of communication. The patent developed in 1904 by John Ambrose Fleming, developed an effect detected by Edison in experimenting with light bulbs, by which electricity can flow from filaments to an additional enclosed electrode, even if no direct contact exists. Wolfgang Ernst explained how, in this patent manuscript of 1884, ‘A Manifestation of the Edison Lamp’, Edison explicitly describes electricity flowing through the vacuum ‘without wires’ – literally ‘wireless’ radio inside the evacuated, etherless tube itself.

Subsequently, Ernst proposed to solve the riddle of why Heinrich Hertz didn’t already consider radio content in his experiments. He explained that early radio was closer to Morse Code than to what we know as radio today, or, to put it differently: it was literally digital before it became, through speech and music modulation, an analog medium. The digital only managed its reentry through pulse code modulation – with which radio in fact finds its way back to its original potential as telegraphic medium.

Wolfgang Ernst elaborated in illuminating that The Deutsches Museum in Munich preserves a reconstruction of the original experimental setting by Liselotte Meitner and Otto Hahn to detect radio activity an nuclear fusion. Central, next to the vacuum tube amplifier on the experimental table is the counter for the nuclear events. Ernst argued that counting brings us to an alternative world of experimental times which is an extreme of what the vibrating media have been considered before: discrete micro-events.

Further, Ernst argued that Alan Turing’s notion of a computing mechanism which started as a thought experiment, is based on the unconditional assumption that this machine can only exist in discrete ‘states’. He proposed that experimental media/eventuality changes from the continuous (the electro-magnetic radio paradigm) to the discreet.


Wolfgang Ernst then  proceeded to talk about time and experimental event in quantum physics, opening with a quote from Norbert Wiener:

‘No analysis of natural sciences, whether it be physics or biology, is complete unless we possess a proper analysis of its appropriate time-concept’ (‘Time, Communication and the Nervous System, 1948/50:197).

Wiener describes how experimental time is stuck between two extremes:

‘We observe a temporal sequence of events, and our experiments are attempts to reproduce at various times that which we have observed at one particular time. Therefore, all the […] modifications which have been made in the theory of time itself are relevant in the study of all sciences’ (Wiener, 1948/50).

Wolfgang Ernst argued, however, that quantum physical experimentation requires different definition of ‘event’, replacing it by probability. Wiener’s though demonstrates traces of this perspective:

‘It is possible that such notions might play a decisive part in nuclear physics, but their scale is so different from that of the phenomena of macro-physics and biology, that their introduction here would simply confuse our discussion’ (Wiener, 1948/50).

In this context, Ernst claimed that dramatically there is the change of the uncertainty relation followed by no more identification of punctual events in experimentation, which was developed in the operational research of Second World War: experimentation as probabilistics.


Thereafter, Wolfgang Ernst developed on the genealogy of mass media from measuring (experimental) media. He argued that when we remember the media-archaeological context which led to what later became mass-media like the phonograph, kinematography, radio and electronic television, we discover that these media have first been developed for experimental research, for analytic. Not projective purposes (even the genuinely theory-born computer). To put it roughly: any listening to music on record or to radio programs therefore is essentially experimental, a kind of reverse experimentation. The well-known television tube has developed out of a measuring device, Ferdinand Braun’s electronic oscilloscope, like the Edison phonograph has been preceeded by Leon Scott’s ‘Phonautograph’ to register the frequencies of the human voice for analytic purposes. Tuning (analog) radio is experimenting with radio waves and their electromagnetic resonances. Further, the public use of ‘synthetic’ mass media is the reverse experience of analytic media. In other words, mass media technologies which have been developed in experimental contexts, become ‘events’ (social events). Finally, the time-critical dimension is a genuine form of media experimentation.

Hence, Ernst argued that the experience of micro-events both in humans and machines – that is, processes where temporality is crucial for the whole process to succeed at all – is an epistemological object of knowledge relatively new in occidental culture and media-eventuality is experimental in that sense. Further, in software engineering, a so-called ‘event’ is meant to govern a momentary use of the computer program in non-linear ways (often user-orientation at interfaces); the ‘interrupt’ – makes the mechanism wait for signal from outside, and in modelling an arbitrary input leads to related events. Ernst proposed that close to object-orientated programming, we could call this event-orientation, in the meaning of an operative diagram.

Subsequently, Wolfgang Ernst elaborated on the fact that in analytic, as represented by Alfred North Whitehead, the ‘event’ means being which in not static object but a process. This processual ontology is close to the essence of media technologies itself (since only when being in operation a medium is in its medium state). Therefore, Ernst argued that media archaeology (different from the apparent archaeological metaphor) does not uncover artefact but events.

Further, Ernst described computing as experimentation referring to the work of James Clerk Maxwell, whose differential equations have been the symbolical tool to master the phenomenon of what Michael Faraday has called the ‘field’, i.e. the sphere of electro-magnetic interaction and induction. Thus, mathematics itself is the simulation of a physical event with symbolical means.

Wolfgang Ernst explained that experimentation by computing is usually associated with the digital computer, where the mathematical algorithm is a model of the physical event to be simulated. On the contrary, though, simulation by analog computers performs mathematical simulation by (electro-) physical means itself. Further, in analog computing, material elements which embody certain mathematical structures like integration and multiplication are coupled according to a mathematical model analogous to the simulated object. Ernst therefore argued that analog machinery s not a metaphysical, instransitive abstraction from the world (a ‘language’), but a part of physics itself. The message of analog computing is: experimentation, which is: doing mathematics in the engineering way (but different from Claude Shannon’s logical circuits). Thus, Ernst explained, analog computing provides an interface different from numerical computing (until the graphical user interface turned the digital computer itself into a quasi-analog machine). He argued that this analogization is not completely based on a construction of a cultural knowledge, but on an implicit knowledge in nature itself. Again and again scientists have been amazed (e.g. Heinrich Barkhausen) by the analogous behaviour of a swinging pendulum (a mass, suspended at a leaver) and an electronic short-circuiting of induction (coil) and capacity (condensors).

Further, the syllogistic medium of both operations (mechanical and electrical) is a mathematical differential equation common to both:

‘One of the most powerful applications of analog computers is simulation in which physical properties, not easily varied, are represented by voltages which are easily varied. Thus the action of an automobile front wheel suspension can be simulated on an analog computer in which the weight of the automobile, the constant of the spring, the damping of the shock absorber, the nature of the road surface, the tire pressure and other conditions can be represented by voltages […] [O]n the computer any one or all of these may be varied at will and the results observed [while] the changes are made. Analog computers are especially useful in solving dynamic problems in which the motion can be expressed in the form of a differential equation’ (Operational Manual for the Health Educational Analog Computer Model EC-1, o.J., p.2).

Hence, Wolfgang Ernst argued that simulation generally means performing experiments on a model in  order to gain insights into the physically real, modelled system. The philosophy of software tools like Simulink (a derivate of Matlab) differs from previous generations of simulation software, in that is time-based simulation and just like Stateflow allows for event-oriented simulation. Such software is based on signal processing, Ernst explained, thus respecting the micro-temporalities of signal behaviour itself. Signals are temporal events, defined as ‘the variation through time of any significant physical quantity occurring in a device or system […] a time-varying quantity’ (Magrab and Blomquist, ‘The Measurement of Time-Varying Phenomena, 1971:1). According to Wolfgang Ernst, whereas a emulation primarily re-enacts the functions of an object, simulation rehearses its temporal qualities as well. The temporal behaviour (the ‘time-window’, be it real-time or with delay) is a criterion for the definition  of simulation: high fidelity towards the specific temporal qualities of the analysed system.

Therefore, analog computer can even be functionally integrated into the analysed system – no more distance of the observer but immersive experimentation. Further, digital simulation of experiments can lead to the creation of a new type of events: artificial events, ‘artefactual events’, revealing not physical, but mathematical moments of the real: ‘[a]ll discretization techniques present the possibility of roundoff errors of instabilities creating undetected artefacts in simulation results’ (Winsberg, 2003:120).

Wolfgang Ernst argued that numerical experiments, are simulations performed by the digital computer. In between the physical laboratory experiment on the one hand, and theoretical physical; on the others, such simulations realize a true media theory, that is: theoretical reasoning is being algorithmically implemented in the real world (like the computer has been born out of  theoretical mathematical question with Alan Turing, 1936). Being in the world – that is, being in time and thus: happening as events, complex models can result in phenomena which have not been envisioned by the author of the program, thus generating unexpected phenomena, which is: information in the true sense of the mathematically informed communication theory. Hence, Ernst proposed that quantum physics on the one hand, and software modelling on the other, undermine the modernistic master trope of manual experimentation.

In conclusion, Wolfgang Ernst  argued that already cybernetics reacted to the challenge of the limits of experimentation: ‘How should an experimenter proceed when faced with a Black Box?’, Wilhelm Ross Ashby asks in ‘An Introduction to Cybernetics’ (1956:87). As opposed to the Enlightenment obsession with bringing light into hidden spaces and to bring hidden agenda to light, cybernetic replaces experimentation with modelling (culminating in simulation). Instead of the modernist approach of cracking the black box, Ernst proposed that there is an epistemological shift: ‘What properties of the Box’s contents are discoverable and what are fundamentally undiscoverable?’ (Ashby, ibid.). ‘Keeping the Black Box closed’ (an expression of Philipp von Hilgers) is a virtue, an an-archaeological resistance to the penetrating gaze.  Theoria (contemplative reflection) replaces the violent spot-lighting. Finally, ‘referential’ writing (as representation, as mimesis) itself becomes operative: in science ‘mathematical symbols reveal structures’ (Born, 1966), in fact: they become poiesis.




Debate following Wolfgang Ernst’s presentation focused on the media temporal critical realism as the end of an important epistemic shift.

Firstly, it was considered that radio waves have been for long presented as invented –whereas in fact they were out there waiting to be discovered. In this context, scientific discoveries were positioned  in the frame of historical knowledge very often doing injustice to the event. It was proposed that negotiation between cultural knowledge and reality that is not historical has to take place with non-cultural agency at work.

Secondly, discussion turned to Faraday, Maxwell and Hertz, in articulating arguments about the fact that modernism starts with acknowledging that there is a field which ancient philosophy did not have an expression for. Here, it was emphasised that pictures and diagrams are not processional – media is based on diagrams that are eventuality.

Thirdly, the use of the term modernism was questioned: How would you characterise the difference of modernism (not modernity)? Consequently, it was argued that modernism represents different current from traditional accidental heritage where opposing the idea of experimentality to historical moment is at the forefront. Further, it was pointed out that new epistemological objects come into being when modernity starts (i.e. new vocabulary).

Next, media archaeology was considered in the context of artistic practise. Here, particular interest was given to living art out and a discussion whether artist experimentality is always metaphorical or more positive in terms of research art. Subsequently, the implications for artistic practises were considered in terms of slowing down/opening up. It was pointed out that a lot of media artworks do research into temporality of media practises: artworks use sonification to slow down temporal processes, to make them temporarily accessible to humans – research art.

Fifthly, the impossibility of real time was discussed. It was pointed out that artists can crack open the Black Box as artistic processes are complex with images not simply metaphorical. In was concluded that within this understanding Black Box is a piece of art itself.

Concomitantly, the notions of non-historical and  non-cultural were considered. Here, the notion of entering the sphere of non-historical by re-enacting the experiments was emphasised while looking at how non-historical and event work together (and also how could this hold true for the experimentality itself). Experiment was positioned as something that needs to be repeated for two different reasons:

-historical paradigm – we can re-enact the knowledge but it can be rediscovered in a different way

- historical invariant – comprises much more that just discoursive effects.

Next, debate turned to the origins of geometry, questioning differences in mathematics with a reference to Husserl and intuitions. The main point stated that when you add 4+3 in your head, you are in a non-cultural state of repetition (a different temporal field that is not a cultural domain).

Further, some questions were raised about the praxis of experimenting – artificial events jumping out of historical time. A comparison was made with economics: financial crashes, come as they do and speculating comes from the computerised models of how the markets would behave (sometimes this produces insights that manifest themselves in highly sophisticated models beyond the historical time). Finally, it was agreed that experiment creates artificial world but also has its own temporality – bringing repercussions upon the real events in historical time.

Finally, the difference in understating of event was considered with references to the work of Alain Badiou. Here, the following questions were posed:

 - How is there an event in discovering radio waves?

- How to retain conceptualization of an experiment as something that matters?

- How to reinvigorate vocabulary for different types of temporality?