Global Algorithm 1.7: The Silence of the Lambs: Paul Virilio in Conversation

Translated by Patrice Riemens

Carlos Oliveira: Monsieur Virilio, your theses regarding the consequences of the acceleration of our daily lives have again spawned lengthy discussions in Germany, since the translations of The Conquest of the Body and The Negative Horizon were published last spring (1995). I do get the impression that you have moved from a description of the consequences of acceleration in the 70s and 80s into a far more radical and morally loaded critique of those same phenomena in the 90s.

Paul Virilio: This is because we are witnessing a radical break; it is not my thinking that has become radical, the situation itself has radicalized beyond measure. The end of the bloc-oriented confrontation between East and West, the transition from the industrial to the informational mode of production, the globalization that is being achieved through the telecommunication networks and the information (super)highways - all these developments raise grave questions. The information revolution which we are currently witnessing ushers in the era of the global accident. The old kind of accidents were localized in space and time: a train derailment took place, say, in Paris or in Berlin; and when a plane crashed, it did so in London or wherever in the world. The catastrophes of earlier times were situated in real space, but now, with the advent of the absolute speed of light and of electromagnetic waves, the possibility of a global accident has arisen, of an accident that would occur simultaneously to the world as a whole. A possible symptom of this globalization, of the eventuality of such an accident, was the stock exchange crash of 1987. We will no longer live in local time as we did in the past, when we were prisoners of history. We will live in "world-time," in global time. We are experiencing an epoch that spells the international, the global accident. This is the way I interpret simultaneity and its imposition upon us, as well as the immediacy and the ubiquity, that is, the omnipresence of the information bomb, which, at the moment, thanks to the information (super)highways and all the technological breakthroughs and developments in the field of telecommunication, is just about to explode.

Carlos Oliveira: What would you say to those people who think: "well, there you have Paul Virilio all over again, talking about collapse and catastrophe"?

Paul Virilio: I am not at all of an apocalyptic mind, I merely perform a critique of the technique. To many people, modern technique is an art-form. Nevertheless, every innovation has its reverse built in: the invention of the railway results automatically in the invention of the derailment, for instance. I am conscious of the positive aspects of technology, but at the same time I am also conscious of its negative aspects. I remain a realist. New technologies are being packaged by publicity strategists before being presented to the public. Yet these people are utterly unable to have a critical view on the objects they are presenting. When I talk about the catastrophe which is inherently present in the phenomenon of the telecommunication industry, I immediately stand accused of harbouring technophobia and catastrophism! That makes it quite clear how far the new technologies are going hand in hand with an uncritical "technicity".

Carlos Oliveira: I do get the impression that you stand fairly isolated in your critique. You have of course Jean Baudrillard, but he has landed in quite a different position than you have. Even here in Germany, there is acclaim for the technology-push nowadays, and praise for exactly the the sorts of things you demonize. What does that say about our situation in the 90s, if one stands quite alone in one's critique of technology?

Paul Virilio: We are at the threshold of our tolerance-limit. Globalization - and don't we have a paradox here? - also means the end of one entire world: the world of the particular and of the localized. Close vicinity is something that is vanishing. From the 90s onwards, or to be more precise, since the Gulf War and the emergence of the information (super)highways, we have emerged into a world that has nothing anymore in common with the world of history as we knew it. This does not mean the end of history in the way Francis Fukuyama has postulated. Something other than history is now coming to the fore. In a sense, we are standing at the foot of the wall of time. We have realized absolute speed on a global plane - and not only through broadcasting or the telephone, but in many other ways as well, and this will encompass all auditory sense, all sight, all tactile power. It includes also remote control mechanisms, and the possibilities of whole cities interacting with each other. History is simply smashing into the wall of time. This is an extraordinary occurrence! On one hand, it is a very positive thing because it enables humanity to be brought together. But at the same time, it represents a totalitarian experience of the prime order! Totalitarianism is latent in technology. It was not merely Hitler or Mussolini who were totalitarian, or the Pharaohs as far as I am concerned. Totalitarianism is already present in the technical object. So, just as we had a mythical fundamentalism in the past, today we are confronted with a "techno-fundamentalism" of very similar nature. This because information itself has become an absolute power with totalitarian features.

Carlos Oliveira: Let's talk about the psychic consequences to living itself: how far can the limits of human tolerance and sensibility be stretched? And how does this change our relationship to space and time?

Paul Virilio: We face a duplication of reality. The virtual reality and the "real" reality double the relationship to the real, something that, to the best of my knowledge, results in clear pathological consequences. For this I use the french words le tele-, in the sense of tele-action, action-at-a-distance. Action-at-a-distance is a phenomenon of absolute disorientation. We now have the possibility of seeing at a distance, of hearing at a distance, and of acting at a distance, and this results in a process of de-localization, of the unrooting of the being. "To be" used to mean to be somewhere, to be situated, in the here and now, but the "situation" of the essence of being is undermined by the instantaneity, the immediacy, and the ubiquity which are characteristic of our epoch. Our contemporaries will henceforth need two watches: one to watch the time, the other to watch the place where one actually is. This double-watch will be necessary for the duplication of reality that is occurring. Reality is becoming a stereo-reality. Just as with sounds you can make a difference between somber tones and clear tones, so there will be a concrete, actual reality and a virtual reality. From now on, humankind will have to act in two worlds at once. This opens up extraordinary possibilities, but at the same time we face the test of a tearing-up of the being, with awkward consequences. We can rejoice in these new opportunities if and only if we also are conscious of their dangers.

Carlos Oliveira: You are still talking about "reality". Your friend Baudrillard however, simply negates the existence of reality in our society, which has entered the realm of simulation. Has reality in fact disappeared, and is humankind, as a consequence, no longer able to bear what happened to our earlier sociality in the face of the widespread artificiality and coldness of present living conditions?

Paul Virilio: First, against the opinion of Baudrillard, I have to say that reality never vanishes. It constantly changes. Reality is the outcome of a pre-determined epoch, science, or technique. Reality must be re-invented, always. To me, it is not the simulation of reality that makes the difference, it is the replacement of a pre-determined reality by another pre-determined reality. I proceed from the antagonism between real and virtual reality, and I notice that both will shortly constitute one single reality, but this will only take place through an unbelievable change that will have very profound consequences for life; and these negative consequences are at the core of my writing.

Carlos Oliveira: Could you try to concretize this question in its immediate philosophical consequences? Take for instance the alteration of our reality through the mass media. Do the media create reality? Or do they alter or destroy it? Incidentally, when saying this, I am thinking of your statement about "the media-coup" following the electoral successes of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.

Paul Virilio: I have to take a detour through physics here, and this is one of the differences between and Baudrillard and myself. Unlike him, I have a formal scientific education (that's why physics and military sciences kept me busy for a very long time). In the past, reality was a matter of mass; then it became mass + force. Today, reality is the outcome of: mass + force + information. Matter has now become truly three-dimensional. This is a clear break. What we have witnessed in Italy, with Berlusconi seizing power, is the first successful media-coup in history. Italy is again Europe's avant-garde, and is showing us where the new political alternative resides - in a realm where "left" or "right" are no longer relevant. The new political alternative is between the old political class on one side, and the new media-class on the other. With Italy, the media-class has now seized power in Europe. It will also happen in the United States, in France, in Spain, and elsewhere.

Carlos Oliveira: Do you see some kind of media-fascism looming on the horizon?

Paul Virilio: No, because what I see is far worse! Due to its overwhelming power, the totalitarianism of the information-medium is going to be even more powerful than the traditional political totalitarianism of the old national-socialist or communist hues. The dangers are looming larger. I repeat: only if one is guarded against its dangers will it be possible to enjoy the positive aspects of the developments in the realm of new technologies.

Carlos Oliveira: In your eyes, is there any way out of this rather bleak situation?

Paul Virilio: An accompanying evil here is the end of writing, as it unfolds through image technology, cinema/film, and television-screen. These new developments threaten the ability to conjure up mental images with oblivion. The typical modern human is characterized by a life under the dictatorship of the screen, to which the written word falls victim. We don't read any more, we hardly write each other - since we can call each other on the phone. Next, we will no longer speak! I'd really like to say: this will indeed be the silence of the lambs!

This interview was conducted and originally published in German by Frankfurter Rundschau, September 2, 1995. Patrice Riemens is an associate research fellow at the Institute for Development Research) at the University of Amsterdam.