A photograph of the AEG factory, says Bertolt Brecht, teaches us nothing about its true (that is, functional) reality (Brecht, “TheThreepenny Opera Lawsuit,” in: Silberman, Brecht on Film and Radio, 2000, p. 164). Such a photo, Vilém Flusser might have said, teaches us as much about the world as every other technical image: at first glance, nothing at all. For Flusser, such images are not images of the world, but rather images of concepts. As a consequence, he seeks to read in them the programs to which they owe their creation – in a photo of the AEG factory, for example, the Kodak or Leica program that is implemented within the camera, which the photographer simply executes (unless he or she knows how to outsmart the machine). Flusser interprets digital images from the perspective of analogue photography and vice versa, drawing conclusions that are as stimulating as they are disconcerting.
For Flusser, all images created by machines follow the logic of computation and calculation. They are mosaics, combinations of point-like elements – computed images, ultimately, that do not reflect the world but create models of it, tracing out opportunities for access and intervention. Aerial reconnaissance photos tell bomber pilots which targets to head for; surveillance images are supposed to identify dangerous situations in advance; photomicrographs and high-speed photographs prove or disprove theories by recording the traces of otherwise invisible events in scientific experiments. Flusser clearly saw that this operative aspect of technical images could not be reduced to representation. What he underestimated was the contingent nature of these images – and therefore the technological and institutional effort that has been expended for at least 150 years in order to make technical images fully calculable and integrated into operative processes.