Ecology to the New Pollution
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Ecology to the New Pollution
Paul Virilio, Open Sky (Verso, London, 1997; trans. Julie Rose)

“We’ve captured light”, boasts Qwest; a high-speed, broadband, fiber-optic network provider.’ 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...