Back when I was an undergrad I use to like to visit my university's design school and visual studies department, for their unique mix of intriguing ideas and stylish, vague 'balderdash' (to put it politely, if quaintly). This book reminded me of those days, since it combines some intriguing ideas with a good mix of stylish vagueness.
The author (SZ) introduces the reader to a variety of visionaries, some of whom will probably be unfamiliar (such as J.W. Ritter, A.K. Gastev, and maybe G.B. della Porta), others vaguely familiar (Athanasius Kircher, John Fludd), and others whose names you may know in different contexts (Cesare Lombroso and J.E. Purkinje). His characterization of some these men as contributing to media history is certainly interesting or at least provocative, since that's not usually how one thinks of physiologist Purkinje (whose earliest studies were of phosphene and vascular patterns visible inside one's own eyes) or criminologist Lombroso, for example.
At first blush, it might seem that a natural audience for this book would be people interested in history of science, history of technology or what's called these days "science studies". I certainly came to it with those expectations. And there are occasionally interesting things to learn if you approach the book from this perspective, such as about Joseph Chudy's 1787 optical telegraph, which was run from a piano keyboard and based on the binary system.
However, SZ is a professor of media studies, and has written more for an artistic audience. The book makes no attempt to dive deeply into the science/technology historical literature in the fields it discusses. E.g., although Ch. 6 includes an interesting discussion of 18th and early 19th Century telegraphy, SZ didn't consult relevant monographs like the richly illustrated _The Early History of Data Networks_ by Holzmann & Pehrson (IEEE Computer Society 1995), which is dedicated to that topic. SZ's examples struck me as somewhat random, but that seems to have been his deliberate intention (see Ch. 2, entitled "Fortuitous Finds Instead of Searching in Vain"). It's not always clear which of the "technologies" described or illustrated ever were physically realized, and SZ mentions that some of them seem to have been physically impossible. This too is intentional, since SZ has a "partiality for a magical relationship to things and the relationships between them" (@257). That partiality is one of the more charming features of the book, and underpins some of the more cogent conclusions in the last chapter: namely, that magical and scientific arts operate on different principles; that "magical, scientific and technical praxis do not follow in chronological sequence;" and that the "collision" of these different points of view in creative work can be fruitful (@258-259).
That said, several of the book's other conclusions seem unsatisfyingly particular (e.g., that Internet artists need a day job, discussed in the book's concluding paragraph), at least if you're more accustomed to books that try to nail down some overarching Big Idea by the end. The main text often rambles, and sometimes it's hard to see the point of both the illustrations and accompanying text, such as the discussion of a highly selective "cartography for anarchaeology" in the last chapter. (SZ's publishers at MIT Press might have been disappointed to learn that the Boston area gets onto that map only because of Harvard, @268.) There are many illustrations in the book, yet there are not quite enough. One wishes especially for more from Kahn's 1929 work, _Das Leben der Menschen_, after seeing his wonderful painting showing little men running film projectors inside your brain and a pipe organ in your throat. (Unfortunately, the few Kahn illustrations that are included are no more than briefly discussed in the text.)
My net feeling was that the book had many interesting tidbits, but wasn't coherent enough to be satisfying overall. Had the illustrations been increased to make up roughly half the book, that might have compensated for the rambling and "fortuitous" structure of the argument -- but that's a bit of "magical" thinking. Maybe the intended readership of media artists and academics will make more of this book than I, or maybe some years from now I'll find some half-recalled spark from this book to be illuminating. For that reason, I'm rounding up somewhat in giving it four stars.