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Encased Futures: The Futurity of Microelectronics and Miniature Cityscapes

Kerim Doğruel



Encased Futures: The Futurity of Microelectronics and Miniature Cityscapes

See Figure 1

The following is based on a 2022-2023 Works-in-Progress presentation by Kerim Doğruel (Goethe University) and Laura Laabs (Offenbach University of Art and Design), Encased Futures | Sensations & Seamlessness


It’s Christmas time. A television stands on a desk, Björk sits on a chair next to it. [1] She talks about the hours they spend together. While she speaks, her hand reaches around the device like an embrace that the TV doesn’t reciprocate. But now, Björk is curious. She wants to know how the device really works. Enough television, let’s open it up. “It’s about time!”

Figures 2 + 3: Screenshot björk : television 📺 talk (1988) [ASMR] [QHD] [2K] [remastered], see Figure 1.

Björk's hands get to work. They turn the television around and remove its back cover, so she and the camera can have a better look. “See. This is what it looks like. Look at this. This looks like a city. Like a little model of a city. And all the houses which are here… and streets.” As she speaks, her hands trace the diodes and transistors that are attached to the printed circuit board at the bottom of the device. She points to a cable that connects the bottom circuit board to a board that is attached to the tube higher up, while the camera follows her movement. “This is maybe an elevator, to go up there.“ Björk's hand not only helps to narrate the visible, it also serves as a scale to the electronic components. In comparison to the bulky black case of the television, the colorful and richly detailed components appear small to tiny. Yet, opening the black box and describing what became visible doesn’t reveal the inner workings of the machine. You can’t observe how electricity works that easily, especially if the device is not even plugged in. Still, something has been discovered: the inside of a television consists not only of electronic parts, but also of a miniature city.

Electronic and digital media are often described through metaphors of city infrastructures. Information would travel on data highways, signals are processed in designated, factory-like structures, data is saved in storage. Björk's gesture of uncovering the miniature infrastructure of this electronic device doesn’t explain how it works. It demonstrates two other things: first, that every white box – that is a black box being opened – contains more black boxes. [2] And second, that the thing that was uncovered was not the box, but one’s own relation to the box. Without being able to describe how it happened, something happened. [3] I’m interested in this relation to the box and how to make sense of it. What happens if digital infrastructure is explained through miniature city infrastructure? Instead of watching television, Björk makes us look at it, and inside of it. Apart from its intended use, television captivates us. In addition to the study of surface and form of the case, [4] we see that there is depth within the device, that it’s multi-layered, and that it contains something. When looking at the insides, the visible electronic components are also striking from an aesthetic perspective.

Figure 4: “Circulation/Zirkulation”, from O. M. Ungers, Morphologie: City Metaphors (Köln, Walther König, 1982): 86-87.

Analyzing the aesthetics of microelectronic components and their shared histories with city infrastructures does not only lead to a greater understanding of how technology is being imagined, but on how infrastructures are thought of in theory and practice. “[I]infrastructures […] exist as forms separate from their purely technical functioning, and they need to be analyzed as concrete semiotic and aesthetic vehicles oriented to addressees. They emerge out of and store within them forms of desire and fantasy […] wholly autonomous from their technical function.” [5] When the poetics of infrastructures are analyzed, this often happens on the macro scale, as works on streets and bridges, [6] data centers, [7] undersea cables, [8] or containers [9] have shown. Focusing on microelectronic components as poetic micro-infrastructures complements existing theories in two ways: first, by acknowledging the process of miniaturization in the scalability of infrastructures, [10] and second, focusing on the within-ness of infrastructures in terms of their materiality and poetics. The syllable infra does not only mean “beneath” or “below”, but also “within.” [11] Uncovering a miniature city in the electronic device, appears to be material proof of that second meaning of infrastructure, that also plays on the dichotomy of the visible/invisible that is characteristic of infrastructure theories. [12]

From this perspective, concepts of the miniature and the detail are at the heart of electronic culture, rendering technology a question of the body and of affects. The city metaphors of electronic media show how the cultural history of the miniature has inscribed itself into media theory. And with it comes a complex history of miniature architecture and model making, that touches upon questions of gender, contingency, temporality, and control. These things are not less important because they’re small. Let’s take another look at them, to better understand the shared histories of miniature cityscapes and electronic media.

Figure 5: Screenshot of searching “computer chip city” in a stock footage website. iStock by Getty Images, Last accessed 01/19/2024.

Björk enters a mode of miniature description that expresses the paradoxical temporality of the miniature. Everything seems condensed in the miniature: time, space, meaning, craft. [13] Taking away the cover makes the components seem vulnerable, the delicacy of the electronic parts add to the feeling that these things are better handled with care. The eye shifts between seeing the completeness of the circuit, yet at the same time, it’s too busy and detailed to recognize and understand every subpart of it. [14] The wonder and poetry of Björk's descriptions lie in the comparisons of things in miniature scale to things of human scale. Because of the richness and density of components, the description finds itself “in a context of infinite detail.” [15] The principle of the circuit applies to the act of miniature description as well. Beginning and end are arbitrary – this is a little house, a little street, a little elevator – the list could go on. It’s also important that this seems to be a city whose inhabitants are invisible. Movement and life are imagined. The temporality is therefore two-fold: “The miniature offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularized and generalized in time – particularized in that the miniature concentrates upon the single instance and not upon the abstract rule, but generalized in that that instance comes to transcend, to stand for a spectrum of other instances.” [16] Particularization and generalization of the miniature of electronic components point to the future in three ways: aesthetically, affectively, and as part of a cultural history and practice.

First is the likeness of electronic components to standard geometrical shapes with smooth surfaces. Mapped out on a flat plane subdivided into square units, they echo aesthetic principles of modern architecture and urban planning. The grid and the gridiron in particular point to the shared histories between city planning and cybernetics. [17] Second is the affective temporal quality of acceleration of the miniature. Time becomes condensed, you can feel it. In a study, participants were engaging with different small-scale models and asked to imagine themselves to be part of that scale. The smaller the scale, the more compressed was also their perception of time. [18] The miniature feels temporally ahead. This feeling of acceleration finds a material expression in microelectronic engineering. Through miniaturization of electronic components – in particular printed circuit boards – the time that the machine takes to process its signals diminishes. The same circuit printed on a smaller board works faster, adding to the fantasy that a smoother technologically mediated future lies in its compression. And third is the futurity of miniatures in cultural practice. Architectural models act as agents of fantasy, by making a certain future more imaginable. Throughout the 20th century in particular, models were used to convince investors or committees to decide for a particular future in the present. [19] The abstraction of the models is by design; to appear rhetorically more convincing, details are omitted. [20] What becomes apparent is that city metaphors of microelectronics are exercises in contingency. This is experienced not only in terms of the impossibility to fully understand the inner workings of a device, but also temporally, hinting to other possible futures, contained in our presents. They are embedded in a cultural history and practice that paints them as actors for a technologically mediated future to come, even if their promises are indefinitely delayed. [21]



[1] I’m referring to this clip that has been uploaded in different versions on several platforms. It’s an excerpt from the concert film The Sugarcubes: Live Zabor (1989). Clip: "björk : television 📺 talk (1988) [ASMR] [QHD] [2K] [remastered]," The unmarked quotes in this text are my transcriptions from this clip. Return to text.

[2] Ranulph Glanville, “Inside Every White Box There are Two Black Boxes Trying to Get Out,” Behavioral Science 27 (1982), 1-11. Return to text.

[3] I paraphrased and translated the following quote from Dirk Baecker: “Man muß dann jedoch erkennen, daß man nicht die Box, sondern das eigene Verhältnis zur Box ›aufgeklärt‹ hat und daß man, recht besehen, keine Möglichkeit hat zu beschreiben, wie das gelungen ist, sondern nur, daß dies gelungen ist.“ Dirk Baecker, Wozu Systeme? (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2008), 95. Return to text.

[4] Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2001); Lynn Spigel, TV Snapshots: An Archive of Everyday Life (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2022); Monique Miggelbrink, Fernsehen und Wohnkultur: zur Vermöbelung von Fernsehgeräten in der BRD der 1950er- und 1960er-Jahre (Bielefeld: transcript, 2018). Return to text.

[5] Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013), 329. Return to text.

[6] Brian Larkin, “Promising Forms: The Political Aesthetics of Infrastructure,” in The Promise of Infrastructure, eds. Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta and Hannah Appel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 175-202. Return to text.

[7] Monika Dommann, Hannes Rickli and Max Stadler, eds., Data Centers: Edges of a Wired Nation (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2020). Return to text.

[8] Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2015). Return to text.

[9] Alexander Klose, Das Container-Prinzip: Wie eine Box unser Denken verändert (Hamburg: Mare, 2009). Return to text.

[10] Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43/3 (1999), 377-391. Return to text.

[11] Gabriele Schabacher, Infrastruktur-Arbeit: Kulturtechniken und Zeitlichkeit der Erhaltung (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2022), 29. Return to text.

[12] Gabriele Schabacher, Infrastruktur-Arbeit, 81. Return to text.

[13] Susan Stewart, On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 1993), 38. Return to text.

[14]  Till Heilman described the process of opening a computer. There is a lot to see, but at the same time very little. A lot, because the device consists of dozen small parts, and little because what you see doesn’t say anything about how it works. Till A. Heilmann, “Worin haust ein Computer?” in Gehäuse: Mediale Einkapselungen, eds. Christina Bartz, Timo Kaerlein, Monique Miggelbrink and Christoph Neubert (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2017), 38-39. Return to text.

[15] Susan Stewart, On Longing, 46-47. Return to text.

[16] Susan Stewart, On Longing, 48. Return to text.

[17] Bernhard Siegert, “(Nicht) Am Ort. Zum Raster als Kulturtechnik,“ Thesis 3 (2003), 92-104. Return to text.

[18] Susan Stewart, On Longing, 66. Return to text.

[19] Teresa Fankhänel, The Architectural Models of Theodore Conrad: The “miniature boom” of mid-century modernism (London, New York, Dublin, 2021); Helmut Puff, Miniature Monuments. Modeling German History (Berlin, Boston, de Gruyter, 2014). Return to text.

[20] Oliver Else and Peter Cachola Schmal, eds. Das Architekturmodell: Werkzeug, Fetisch, kleine Utopie / The Architectural Model: Tool, Fetish, Small Utopia (Zurich, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2012). Return to text.

[21] Arjun Appadurai and Neta Alexander, Failure (Cambridge, Medford, Polity, 2020), 78-79. Return to text.


Kerim Doğruel is a PhD scholar at the institute of Theatre-, Film- and Media Studies from Goethe University Frankfurt am Main. He’s part of the graduate research training program “Configurations of Film”. This text is based on a chapter of his dissertation Transparente Absichten. Zur Ästhetik durchsichtiger Gehäuse elektronischer Medien [Transparent by Design. On the Aesthetics of Clear-Plastic Cases of Electronic Media]. In the project he’s looking at and through transparent plastic cases of electronic devices by analyzing the contexts and uses of these unusual devices as they appear in museums, as design objects, in US-American prisons, or in fairs and trade shows. Clear-plastic cases always double as a display case that exhibit the electronic components contained within, transforming their meaning and cultural significance in the process. He’s currently coediting a volume on Sticky Films: Material and Conceptual Explorations scheduled for release in 2025.

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