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Ecology to the new pollution

| 1 January 1998

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Paul Virilio, Open Sky (London: Verso, 1997), 144 pages.

 

“We’ve captured light”, boasts Qwest; a high-speed, broadband, fiber-optic network provider.1 Nice dream. But if every vehicular advance carries within itself its own special accident – as Paul Virilio suggests – what ransom will be paid for technology’s latest hostage? Of the three barriers that make up and protect the physical universe (sound, heat, light) we’ve long broken two. Supersonic flight shattered the first; space rockets and orbital projectiles, the second. If the accident of flight was the contraction of the world (the telescoping of continents, the obliteration of geography), and of rockets the violation of the vertical littoral (universal attraction, the great escape from the Earth, from the ‘pull toward matter’), what possibly awaits our mastery of light? What pathology will be borne of this critical transition? Can we be sure of the subject and object of this third ‘captivation’? Have we captured light, or has light captured us? Enter Paul Virilio with the radical and political Open Sky; his take on the illusion of man’s liberation. It is the most important critique yet written of the ‘age of information’ and the coming paralysis of the virtual dimension.

Virtuality. Rapidity. Globalism. Universalism. Not quite the field of dreams we were told they would be. Indeed, Virilio argues the reverse; the counter-world into which we’re slipping is actually incarcerating us. Not content to destroy dimension we’re now set on eradicating duration; the two in their absence defining the ‘no-place’ of light-speed existence (cyberspace, cyberpace). This ‘slip’, argues Virilio, is felt not only by civilians. The codification of real space, that until our own century was the first principle of urban planning (infrastructure) and population control (biopolitics), is now giving way to the urgency of managing real time (the ‘infrastructure’), with its own array of blockages and asperities, viruses and delinquencies. From a culture of imperial geophysics (the politics of territory; its regularization and mapping) we pass into the ‘state of emergency’ of chronographics (ubiquity, immediacy, information intensity); all of us passive witnesses to the radical recasting of governance and citizenship alike.

This passivity is, for Virilio, latent within information technology. Now that everything arrives on the screen without the incumbent having even to leave, only the control of the real instant will remain; an illusive control that we have already passed over to the domain of sensors, captors and various microprocessing interfaces (DataGlove, DataSuit, trackpad and so on) allowing us to “meet at a distance” (telepresence); indeed, see, hear and feel at a distance (television, teleaudition, tele-tactition). This new generalized remote control, made possible by electromagnetic, now optoelectronic communications, is revolutionizing – argues Virilio – man’s relation to himself, to others, to technology, to politics, and most particularly to the planet itself. Where the last century’s revolution in transportation gave rise to an age of generalized mobility, our own tools of instantaneous transmission are reversing the tendency. With the dissolution of the scale of our human environment (prefigured by the telescope and radicalized by the satellite), the very reality of the world is reduced to nil (or next to nothing), leading inevitably to a ‘catastrophic sense of incarceration now that humanity is literally deprived of horizon’ (p. 41). Having lost our sense of the journey in the commutation of space during the industrial age, we now lose departure in the age of electromagnetics and the speed of light.

‘Behavioral inertia’ sets in. A rigor mortis all-too-evident in the soon-to-be-ideal ‘terminal-citizen’; ‘decked out to the eyeballs with interactive prostheses based on the pathological model of the ‘spastic’, wired to control his or her domestic environment without having physically to stir’ (p. 20). In obliterating space, this ‘armchair navigator’ (p. 124) replicates the experience of the astronaut in breaking through the vertical littoral of universal attraction – poking a hole through the sky – only to find that ‘beyond Earth’s pull there is no space worthy of the name, but only time’ (p. 3); a universal inert time, patently self-evident to the passengers of Apollo I1, landing on the lunar region named so aptly thereafter, Tranquillity Base. Back here on Earth, optoelectronics, having exhausted all possible forward acceleration (nothing moves faster than light), will have secured for us all a kind of brutal tranquillity. Walled-in at home with our various interactive apparatuses – a veritable life-support system – and soon even an ‘electroergonomic double’ (the Datasuit, our virtual alter ego), we find ourselves the unwitting victims of a domestic enslavement identical to that of the para- or quadriplegic (p. 16). Our only salvation is to be found in illusion, in ‘flight from the reality of the moment.’2 Hence the masochistic popularity of the ‘virtual dimension’; which is of course nothing of the kind, ‘existing’ as it does quite literally nowhere. The circle is squared. A perfect panopticism where the inmate runs to the prison guard for protection against the institution within which he finds himself!

A radical dislocation, indeed physical removal from the space of politics and political existence. An individualism, as Virilio suggests, that has ‘little to do with a liberation of values’ (p.11). ‘Service or servitude, that is the question’ (p. 20) No one, of course, is informed in advance of this informational downside, nor of the immediate physiological pathology of having ‘everything within one’s reach’: the surreptitious obsolescence rendered on the body (in particular the muscles, but soon also memory and consciousness) through the proliferation of ‘remote control’. Much of Open Sky is in fact devoted to this very question; the revolution that follows that of transportation and transmission (bear in mind that we’ve scarcely come to terms with either of these, especially the latter). This ‘third revolution’ – that of transplantation – is, for Virilio, a natural consequence of the commutation of real space and the universalization of real time associated with the proliferation of transportation and transmission technologies respectively. Having nowhere left to go by way of extension, and no time by which to get there in duration, we find suddenly an inversion of the technological trajectory. Reductionism and miniaturization take over where networking and urbanization left off; mechanical communication supplanted by ‘electromagnetic proximity’.

The profound nature of this inversion is, for Virilio, seen best in the microphysical invasion of our very bodies by the ‘nanomachines’ of biotechnology. This invasion – of all kinds of stimulators, grafts and implants, quite apart from the usual array of prostheses – is reversing, he argues, the very principle that has hitherto determined the social history of technology. Instead now of inhabiting machinery (the motor car, the elevator, the moving walkway, etc.) for the sake of conserving one’s own energy (what Virilio calls ‘the law of least effort’), now – in the age of telepresence – it is energy that instantaneously inhabits andgoverns us (p. 54). The “tragedy of the fusion of the ‘biological’ and the ‘technological” (p. 57) is thus that we lose – potentially – the very being of intentionality. Convenient for those that profit, politically, socially and economically from this “total, unavowed disqualification of the human in favor of the definitive instrumental conditioning of the individual.”3 We shouldn’t forget that such ‘self-reproducing automata’ were the very dream of cybernetics in the first place.4 And hasn’t the idea of ‘zero-intelligence’ not gained a certain currency in mainstream economics?5

Such coincidences are hard to swallow. But those that govern might be losing out also. As Virilio writes; the ‘journey without a trajectory’ becomes ‘fundamentally uncontrollable’ (p. 19). Like the Formula I racing cars outgrowing the capacity of the circuits upon which they compete, so information at light speed is not only eliminative of the civitas. It also provokes a radical insecurity at the very heart of the pentagon of power; though who, we might ask, is better equipped to cope with such ‘information shocks’? The possibility nonetheless is opened, argues Virilio, of a ‘generalized accident’ supplanting the ‘specific accident’ that has hitherto dogged our experience of rapidity (the shipwreck, the derailment, the car crash). Though good news for no one, it is interesting to speculate as to what use this new social threat (the information bomb that replaces the atomic one) will be put, perhaps not so much by the terrorist-hacker as by the State itself. Could it be that the accident of instantaneous interactivity is working as a new form of social deterrence, akin to that which accompanied the nuclear umbrella; ensuring the hyperproductivity of whole societies through a constant regime of displacement for the fear of being ‘caught’ in the wrong time and place as the accident happens? Not so much a vision of the sedate paraplegic as a hyper-frantic DataGlove making all sorts of weird gestures in the effort to endlessly delocalize the individual who was in fact nowhere anyway.

What Virilio proposes in response to all this–to the desertification of the world’s surface (inherently dematerializing duration), to the inertia-point of collision with real-time (entailing not only behavioral immobilism but the end of history itself), to the inward turn of technology on the human organism, not to mention the virtualization of perception and the frightful demographic consequences of not only acting at a distance but now even loving at a distance (cybersex)–is a radical new ecology and ethics of perception. New, for as Virilio sees it, environmentalism has consistently failed to question the ‘man-machine dialogue’, and most especially the birth of machinic temporality. By way of a corrective, Virilio asks that we engage the event at the speed it occurs; bringing forth not only a ‘true sociology’ of interactivity, but a ‘public dromology’ of the pace of public life (p. 23). A ‘grey ecology’ (‘speed destroys color’) would no longer deny the pollution of the ‘lifesize’ or ‘scope’ of the planet – or matter in general – by our various tools of technological proximity. On the other hand, an ‘ecology of images’ would mark a ‘conscientious objection’ to the hold of the public image by photo-cinematographic and video-infographic “seeing machines’. For with the speed of light we are not only talking of the de-location of the event (the confusion of here and there, now and then), but also a radical visual distortion of the event. As Virilio reminds us, until our own century man’s perception of existence – of time and space, the Earth in its detail – was bound, acknowledged or not, to universal gravitation: precisely the force by which we measure the world, seeing with our own eyes the near and the far, the high and the low, depth and perspective, extension and duration, dimension and position. An ‘ethics of perception’ engaging the event necessarily would question the ‘immediacy’ of an image whose speed far outstrips the ‘escape velocity’ hitherto necessary to launch a vehicle off the Earth and into the stratosphere (now infosphere); breaking open the sky, stripping all weight (and meaning), a radical ‘flattening’ of reality and perception.

Taken together Virilio’s grey ecology and ‘hyper-vigilance regarding immediate perception’ constitute a bold reaffirmation not only the life of the planet, but our own lives, our memories, the anima of our souls; everything that distinguishes us from mere automata. The right not to be rushed. The right to find distances – the true measure of the world – in one’s own heart. The right to screen-out motorized appearances; to affirm one’s freedom of perception and imagination. The right to protect the meaning of our immediate environment, our loved ones, the very bodies around us, from the stream of sequences rendering reality less than relative, if not irrelevant by optoelectronic fetishism (p. 90). Ultimately, Open Sky is about a kind of politics that is not so virtual. What Virilio ends up taking on – and he says as much himself – is the whole question of being; ‘of being hereand now, being located in this world’ (p. 67). His re-reading via ‘dromology’ (his own neologism for the ‘science of speed’) is both courageous and profound, taking its place alongside the nomadic materialism of the likes of Deleuze, the pataphysical irony of Baudrillard, as well as the microphysical, resolutely political investigations of Foucault, as one of the most important of all rethinkings of the nature of the question of man and technology.

It is this rethinking that will secure Virilio’s reputation as one of the most innovative and challenging writers of our time. In the shorter term, Open Sky is yet further evidence of the practical and immediate significance of this rethinking: taking on, as it does, the present in the name of returning truth; liberating the reader from the radical dissimulations of the age of information; swimming back stream in the defense of society. When the stakes are so high – the future political view of community, the very horizon of the species one can only hope that the voice of Paul Virilio will not be lost in the endless noise of media pollution faced by us all in this age of universal communication.

  1. The New York Times Magazine, September 28, 1997, p. 19.
  2. Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1995, p. 132.
  3. ibid, p. 135.
  4. e.g., John Von Neumann, Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1966.
  5. e.g., D. Gode and S. Sunder, ‘Allocative Efficiency of Markets with Zero-Intelligence Agents’, Journal of Political Economy, (101), 1993, pp. 119-137.
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We negate and we must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm — Friedrich Nietzsche