For the kickoff post of the Anti-Library, I’m going to look at Paul Virilio’s book The Information Bomb. Some background: Virilio is a French critical theorist who writes on war, technology, and art. Virilio’s style is best described as a mixture between Hunter S. Thompson’s wild rantings, the techno-skepticism of Neil Postman, and the artistic stylings of Jose Ortega Y Gasett. Virilio has been pigeonholed as a postmodernist, but from what I’ve read here, there isn’t much of that. Unlike a lot of his other French contemporaries, Virilio is also readable without a secret decoder ring. He also has a genuine cyberpunk vibe.
The Information Bomb doesn’t have a central thesis. Instead, Virilio tosses out about thirty to forty separate concepts and makes on the most cursory of efforts to tie them together. Granted, some pieces from the book are reprinted essays originally published in French newspapers. But the vast majority is orignal content. This is both a blessing and a curse. One can take individual concepts out in intellectual cafeteria fashion, but keeping up with the dizzying array of concepts can be frustrating. Additionally, some of them are highly dubious. Virilio’s hypberbolic style also drowns out highly original insights.
The most important themes that emerge in Virilio’s work relate to science, cybernetics, surveillance, speed, and geopolitics. Virilio is very critical of modern science, seeing it as more akin to extreme sports in that it prizes a manic race to discover ever greater heights. These experiments are performances that do not add to the corpus of knowledge–and in the case of nanotechnology, even imperil humanity. The dynamic of this race–and the growing risks attendant with each experiment–are, as Virilio argues, extreme sports where the vitality of humankind is at stake instead of the life of one athlete. Like sports, there are certain feedback mechanisms that push even greater exertions of effort regardless of the consequences.
Like many of Virilio’s arguments, this is an interesting point taken to an extreme. He has little to say about the benefits of science, and one can argue that competitive pressures spur researchers to new insights. He is on firmer ground when he writes of the lack of responsibility that automated technology brings–Virilio writes of a cancer patient strapped to an assisted-suicide machine that is digitally euthanized. This symbolizes a kind of nightmare world of “artificial selection” in which the weak are weeded out. Virilio also argues convincingly that the growing web revolution is leading to a contempt of the flesh, and sees Heaven’s Gate type cultists as the logical outcome of transhumanist “brain in a box” dreams. Why not take one’s life when one believes that the body is essentially a decaying machine that can be bypassed and swapped at will?
Virilio’s most interesting point about science and cybernetics is the link he makes to Frederick Turner’s famous “Frontier Thesis.” If geographic expansion was the first element of colonization, space the second, and global information connectivity the third, the body is the only place left to be invade. Virilio also makes an interesting point that cloning truly began with photographic recording. “It’s like the baby who, in the photographic print or the Lumiere brothers’ film, has gone on guzzling his food just as hungrily since the beginning of the 20th century, even though he long ago died of old age.” As such, cloning is ironically the hope of surviving after one has ceased to exist.
If Foucault saw a panopticon that observed all, Virilio argues that this has been extended by something called “tele-surveillance”–twenty-four hour media coverage that spans the globe, webcams and blogs allowing massive individual exposure, and the growing world-spanning digital apparatus. The horizon has been replaced, Virilio states, by the monitor of a computer screen capable of observing all. Again, Virilio doesn’t point out something crucial–much of this is the result of people’s insatiable desire to observe others and promote themselves. There is something even more interesting here in the notion of the very same young, net-savvy individuals who would protest the Bush administration’s spying exposing themselves to the world. Alas, Virilio does not examine this.
Closely tied to the growth of the panopticon is Virilio’s fixation on acceleration and speed. He sees scientific and technological advances as forcing a constant acceleration of reality that has compressed time and space, radically flattened the globe, and destroying our ability to tell reality from fiction. The logical consequence of such acceleration is the end of democracy and the effective normalization of disinformation and information warfare. This is different from Baudrillard’s similar notion of hyperreality in that Virilio believes in truth but mourns its brutal erasure by the forces of progress.
Lastly, Virilio attempts to explore new forms of geopolitics and geostrategy. He forsees future wars based on information campaigns–his notion of an “information bomb” has many similaraties to the strategies of “lawfare” and economic warfare outlined by two Chinese military scholars in the now infamous Unrestricted Warfare. Virilio’s view of geostrategy also upends the traditional local/global distinction in that he sees “global”–the vast information commons and flat world as becoming “local” and the “local” becoming a part of the periphery.
Although many strategic thinkers have posited a return to the city as the strategic center, Virilio sees each individual “global city” as being only a district or borough of a vast “world meta-city.” This city’s center, to quote Pascal, is “everywhere” and its circumference is “nowhere.” The world meta-city is both corporeal–linked together by vast networks of commerce and instrastructure, and virtual in the massive growth of telecommunications and virtual reality. Regretfully, he does not really develop any of these concepts in detail.
In sum total, The Information Bomb disappoints on many levels. Virilio has many fascinating ideas but does not develop them, instead flinging them at you in aphoristic style. His hyperbole overwhelms otherwise sensible insights. And his chic anti-Americanism and perspective of the US as global hegemon will not age well in the “post-American world.” But he is a fascinating and original thinker. I look forward to reading more of his work and will probably revisit this book from time to time–there are many provocative points he makes that I want to unpack later.