Near the beginning of Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid glimpse of Cold War connectedness, The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas finds herself at the top of a slope overlooking the Southern California exurb of San Narciso. As she squints through her car windscreen, the clustered buildings remind her of the material substrate of technological communications:
She thought of the first time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.
For most users of consumer electronics like Oedipa, circuit boards appear only when something has gone wrong. When they do, they provoke conflicting responses. Revelation, the sense of approaching the real entity, is tempered by the opaqueness of the object. How does this recalcitrant thing relate to the transcendent experience of communication or control it promises?
The now-common trope of the circuit board city suggests the increasing integration of our urban systems in sprawling networks of production, processing, and consumption. Sites, locations, places, become components, addresses, unutilized space. And it’s true that the PCB’s visual resemblance to urban topography makes it the most potent emblem of digital modernity’s geographical compression. With its blocks and conduits, its junctions and routes and interchanges, it visually resembles a compressed city, and that compression neatly parallels the global annihilation of distance that is commonly held to be the necessary outcome of technological acceleration.
But there is another way to look at the printed circuit. It isn’t just the digital rapidity of electrical signals and communications packets that associates the PCB with global compression. For the PCB reflects that compression in its material substance as well as in its engineered form. Coltan from West Africa. Copper from South America. Etching chemicals and insulating polymers produced in American-owned factories. Cheap assembly labour in Southern China. An international hybrid, the PCB performs its operations on seemingly immaterial data by virtue of a physical fusion of minerals, plastics, glass fibres, resins and other synthetics: the material products of an entire globe.
Since the early 1980s, the German artist Petrus Wandrey has been making sculptures and collages that reflect this propensity of the PCB for assimilating heterogeneity. Wandrey’s work has variously repurposed circuit boards to represent angelic messenger figures, associated them with the bold linear shapes of pre-Columbian art, and assembled them into a kitschy German stag.