Technology is not simply technology, it changes character over time. We suggest there is a twin story to it. We call it metalithicum and postulate that it has always accompanied that of technology.  It concerns the symbolics of the forms and schemes humans are applying for accommodating themselves within their environment. We assume that the protagonists of this twin story, the symbolics of those forms and schemes, are also not simply what they are but change character over time. From this perspective, Printed Physics looks at the technological and economical developments with which the physical characteristics of materials can be symbolically programmed, for example in the field of photovoltaics or in electronics more generally. These devices are being industrially produced by printing procedures. It is no exaggeration to call this a veritable printing revolution, although, unlike in Gutenbergs day, the printed products represent, primarily, their own functionality. They demonstrate what they can do in a technological, operative way. 

This book is the first based on the metalithicum conferences organized twice a year, where distinguished personalities from a broad range of architecture-related fields come together to discuss particular technological developments that are economically significant and philosophically interesting. The conferences are organized by by the Laboratory of Applied Virtuality, at the Chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zürich.



The topic Printed Physics takes as its starting point the phenom- ena observed in recent developments in information technology, by which materials can have their physical characteristics formally analysed, tech- nologically constructed and (bio-)chemically synthesized on a symbolic level, and—hence the wording of the title—can be produced industrially, using printing technologies. This manipulation of materials, specifically upgrading them so they become capable of information-technological programming and control functions, is called “doping”. Doped materials can be manufactured using a process that bears striking similarities to the printing technologies we are familiar with from the past. The manufac- ture of digital processors and memory chips for example is in fact reminis- cent of lithography and copper etching, and the chemical printing of pho- tographs, and thus comes to continue a line of earlier forms of analogue relief printing methods. In the case of printable solar cells, it can be said that instead of ink on paper, ions are literally being “imprinted” on sili- con. Yet there is one important difference, which becomes apparent in the respective notions of “imprinting” and “doping”. Unlike any other print product we have known before, this new printed matter plays a genuinely operational role, rather than a primarily descriptive or representational one. What we call printed physics actually refers to tiny electronic de- vices, produced and distributed on an industrial scale in processes that are akin to those used in the printing and distribution of newspapers.

From a philosophical perspective, there is something interesting that hap- pens in this printing of doped materials. The rationally defined grid, which has been crucial to us for deducing all our physical descriptions of nature, serves here as a frame for projecting the fantastical. Could it not be, is the question we would like to pose with this book, that we are witnessing a development in the field of physical thinking similar to the one that occurred with the logification in geometry in the early 19th century? Are we seeing the appearance of non-naturally determined physics as a comple- ment, as it were, to non-Euclidean, projective, algebraic geometry? As a context for our discussions in the Printed Physics Conference, we suggested a thought experiment: suppose a new enlightenment of physicalist and naturalized rationality and logic were to be announced, brought about and carried by the qualitative and quantitative impacts of the doping of materials and their production through print. How could this be argued?


For the purpose of this exercise, let us regard the pre-modern monasteries as proper “production plants” for the copying of the holy scriptures. The subsequent secular- ization of this process was brought about and carried by the qualitative and quantitative impact of printing, exemplified by the availability of “text” as a medium, the standardization of format and the freedom, for wide sections of society, to access what was once a ritual and sacred description of the world and to take an experimental approach to it. Astonishingly enough, in a reverse analogy, today’s factories, business- es and bureaucracies, with their modern industrialization of secular- ized rationalism, appear like “monasteries” for the copying of physical “regularities”. Systemically integrated into orders of higher and lesser function, and cybernetically implemented in multifarious information- technological infrastructures, these law-like regularities act as impulse generators for societal, scientific and economic processes. Our thought experiment suggests to test putting “functional infrastructures” in the place of the “holy scripture” in the pre-Gutenberg era, before the rise of modern, experimental science. The question that we would like to propose for consideration, not so much as a scientific or philosophical hypothesis than as our thought experiment, arises from this and goes as follows: if the printing press promoted the secularization of mental horizons in philosophy and modern science, is it not possible that these new printing technologies could bring about a further secularization; the secularization of a naturalized rationality principle? There are plenty of indications to suggest that contemporary production methods assert the same principles as were used back in the days of Gutenberg, but on a new plateau. We want to consider this as a plausible scenario by following two lines of argument, one qualitative and one quantitative.


It is neither a new nor a bold thesis, at this point, to posit that information technology is essentially concerned with symbolic operations, and that these sym- bolic operations—not only from a philosophical but also from a tech- nological perspective—cannot appropriately be reduced to the causal connections that are formulated in physics. Information is informa- tion, not matter or energy, as Norbert Wiener suggested more than half a century ago. The effectiveness of information technology does not develop on the same level as the effectiveness of heat, levers, gears or any other me- chanical device. Information technology controls the physical condi- tions symbolically. This means that information technology is operating on a different “substrate” from the physical-material technology of clearly identifiable cause and effect, its symbolicity turns it into a “me- dial” substrate—medial in the sense that it allows for different possible ways of operation.
A seemingly natural objection that might be raised at this point would perhaps be to regard the electric current as a type of “physicality”, and in so doing lend a familiar substratum in the traditional vein to the “void”of the symbolic. This does not, however, solve the problem of de- fining the relationship between electricity and symbols: quite the op- posite. To this day, there is no coherent proposal as to how we are to view electric currents from a physical perspective: should we regard its elements as fields, as waves, as particles or as impulses? The situation is no simpler from a philosophical perspective. All electronic technol- ogy is based on precisely that kind of algebraic analysis of symbolic op- erations which not only triggered, due to their genuine un-intuitivity and non-representationality, but also exacerbated what is known today as the foundation crisis of the sciences, around the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, we experience electric current on a daily basis as the ubiquitous availability of energy, as the potential for potential, so to speak. If one were to understand this availability not merely as a phenomenal characteristic that has emerged as an afterthought, but as a constitutive element of electricity, a rift would open up in the rela- tionship between symbolization and physics that is in no way inferior to the rift that exists between logical geometry a priori and geometric description of reality a posteriori.


If, since its invention, information technology has primarily been used to refine the regulat- ing, switching and controlling operations of mechanical equipment, especially equipment that uses electric current, today a completely dif- ferent dimension of application is being defined. With electronic and information-technological processes, materials can be modified and synthesized not only in their qualitative properties, but also in their physical behaviour, which is to say in their temporal energetic constitu- tion. Artificial materials can now be produced by printing a synthesized ion and semiconductor structure (this is how silicon-based semicon- ductors are made, for example, but the principle is the same for organic carriers), and in combinations that are not familiar to us from nature. Photovoltaics are an example of this. They allow us to obtain energy directly from light without any combustion process and also without the interposition of other kinetic or dynamic transformers. It really is pos- sible here to speak of “symbolic physics”, not only because the “mechan- ics” are genuinely symbolically constructed (and not the inverse, which would have the symbolic structure derived from a “natural” mechanical context), but also on the basis of their industrial production processes, which today are rooted in information technology.
The principles of photovoltaics have been known for more than a cen- tury and yet they have only recently become a relevant component in the discussion about energy supply. It is only in the last few years that manufacturing techniques have become available that make the produc- tion of such programmed materials feasible on a large, industrial scale. It is now possible to produce them in printing processes that spew out physically functional apparatus, just like sheets of newsprint that come off the press at the New York Times. This goes hand in hand with a quan- titative pricing and production development that is characteristic of in- formation technology and is known as Moore’s Law: a doubling of the total amount of produced instances every 18 months, which results in a cost reduction of 30% per year. The quantitative line of argument assumes that every development requires a critical mass number of normalized instances in order to prevail. Such a large-scale fertile ground for these new dimensions of application in information technology has existed for just a few years now. Even so, with “smart” computer chips, this technology has rap- idly established itself as an omnipresent feature of our living environment. These chips potentially allow all electrical devices to behave as components of variably configurable systems. The quantitative distribution of systems-capable entities, in fact symbolic-capable actants, seems in a more serious way than just metaphorically comparable to its antecedent, the modern printing revolution.

This comparison may at first glance seem somewhat exaggerated, but as in the wake of the printing press, we too have experienced several abrupt advances that could not have been foreseen: for example, it took only 10 years for 5 out of 7 billion people—approximately 70% of the current world population—to have potential access to wireless connections via information technology. Today we can, at least potentially, phone one out of two people in the world, irrespective of where on the planet they happen to be at that particular moment. Setting up and establishing the infrastructure needed for mobile telephony took only a decade and yet it already feels commonplace to us today. If we want to assess the meaning of this quantitative argument adequately, we must keep in mind that this same technology would be nearly meaningless, and not just in the case of mobile telephony, if there were only a few thousand instances of it throughout the world. What makes it meaningful is that it has reached critical mass, and rapidly. And in this case too, the technology’s fast and wide propagation has its foundation in the exact same production and manufacturing processes: information-technological printing tech- nology. The same structural principle applies to the propagation of TV screens as much as it does to internet access, global positioning systems and the efficacy of Google: what would happen if Google could “only” link 1 million sites and only had 10,000 users that sporadically used its search engines? It would be virtually insignificant. Instead, it has now achieved a level of standardization that no longer just renders some qualities or aspects of our practices or behaviour less meaningful—a side effect of any standardization—but rather tips us “over the edge” into a situation where we are now developing new qualities on the very basis of this quantitative standardization.


We sent this thought ex- periment along with our invitation to the speakers of the Printed Physics Conference in early summer 2010. Their contributions, however, represent their independently formulated positions, and only indirectly refer to our overall theme, mainly in the discussions that followed their lectures. In this book, we print the manuscripts of these lectures as dis- tinct chapters, and add brief summaries of the main lines of argument, as followed up in the discussions afterwards. These summaries take an indexing character; they are meant to provide a kind of conceptual mapping of the thematic landscapes through which we wandered, high-lighting the most important topical reference points that were raised.

In the first chapter, “A Fantastic Genealogy of the Printable”, Ludger Hovestadt presents the current innovations in electronic engineering devices, available today for architectural application and integration, on all levels from design to construction and planning. Furthermore, he provides, in a historical account of what he calls “serious storytelling”, a conceptual model for considering the specific potency of digital technology.

The second chapter, “Technology and Modality”, presents an article by Hans Poser who, as we should point out, was unable to at- tend the first conference in person, but has kindly allowed us to publish his article in our book. In it, he provides strong arguments as to why philosophy needs to pay attention to state-of-the-art technology when offering notions of reality and, directly related to that, notions of possibility and feasibility.

In the third chapter, “Primary Abundance, Urban Philosophy—Information and the Form of Actuality”, Vera Bühlmann suggests taking a capacity and capability oriented view of the study of information, and reflects on the intimate and co-constitutive relation between philosophical thought and an idea of citiness; her special emphasis thereby lies on the role of technology in that relationship.

The fourth chapter, entitled “That Centre-Point Thing—The Theory Model in Model Theory”, investigates the philosophical conditions for a ma- chine-based episteme. Klaus Wassermann argues that we are currently experiencing an historic movement that he calls “de-centrement”, and which he demarcates from the more common notions of decentraliza- tion and deterritorialization, in that this assumed turn towards ever- increasing de-centrement not only challenges any foundation, rules, structures, procedures and patterns that have served us so far for com- prehending the world, but most crucially also urges us to calibrate anew the role of the model itself in order to arrive at a philosophical notion of information.

In a fifth chapter entitled “Digital Cathedrals”, Helmut Geisert challenges the book’s emphasis on relating digital technology to earlier printing technology with a retro-projection of how, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, people had reflected on the relative cultural impact of Gutenberg’s printing revolution. The article reveals a relationship that is as fundamental as it is troubling, between materialist thought and the problem of how to establish notions of proportionality and appropriateness within architecture that has become secularized and profane.

In a final chapter, “Bringing and Positioning: Ways of Technology?” Hans-Dieter Bahr introduces Martin Heidegger’s thought on technology, and his postulated change in modern technology’s essential way of operating. By characterizing it as a “challenging- forth and ordering”, rather than as a “setting and maintaining-in-place”, Heidegger had introduced many of the core issues behind the conflict between support and control, which we are striving to come to terms with today with increasing urgency.