Sunday, February 14, 2010

"The Third Interval: A Critical Transition” In Re-thinking Technologies

by: Paul Virilio

Translated by Tom Conley

We know about critical mass, critical instant and critical climate: we hear less often about critical space. There is no easy reason for this, unless perhaps it is because we have not yet assimilated relativity, the very notion of space-time. And yet space, or critical extension, has become ubiquitous, because of the acceleration of "means of communication" that collapse the Atlantic (the Concorde), reduce France to a square of an hour and a half on each side (the airbus), or, yet again, tell us that the high-speed train (TGV) wins time over time. These different slogans from the world of publicity indicate exactly how much we inherit old ideas of geophysical space; these advertisements also tell us, to be sure, that we are their innocent victims. Today we are beginning to realize that systems of telecommunication do not merely confine extension, but that, in the transmission of messages and images, they also eradicate duration or delay.

In the shift from the revolution of modes of transportation in the nineteenth century to the revolution of electronic communication in the twentieth century, there emerge a mutation and a commutation that affect public and domestic space so strongly that we are hard put to determine what its reality may be. When technologies of telemarketing replace those of the classical era of television, we begin to witness how the premises of an urbanization of real time follow on the heels of the premises of an urbanization of a real space. Because of interactive teletechnologies (the teleport), this abrupt transfer of technology moves from the arrangement of the infrastructures of real space (maritime ports, railway stations, airports) to the control of the environment in real time. Critical dimensions are also being renewed.

The question of the real moment of instantaneous telemarketing is effectively refashioning philosophical and political issues that traditionally had been based on notions of Atopia and Utopia. The shift is being made for the advancement of what has already been called Teletopia, which carries manifold paradoxes that take, for example, the following form: "Reach out and touch someone," or even "to be telepresent," meaning to be here and elsewhere at the same time. This so-called real time is essentially nothing other than a real space-time, since different events surely take "place" even if, finally, this place constitutes that of the no-place of teletopical technologies (such as the interface of human and machine, a regime or nodal point of teletransmissions).

Immediate telesales, instant telepresence: thanks to new procedures of telediffusion or of teletransmission, action, or the fabled "televised action at a distance" that the telecommander effectuates, is now facilitated by the perfected use of electromagnetics and by the radio-electric views of what has lately been called electro-optics. One by one, the perceptive faculties of an individual's body are transferred to machines, or instruments that record images and sound; more recently, the transfer is made to receivers, to sensors, and to other detectors that can replace absence of tactility over distance. A general use of telecommands is on the verge of achieving permanent telesurveillance. What is becoming critical here is no longer the concept of three spatial dimensions, but a fourth, temporal dimension, in other words, that of the present itself. As we shall see below, "real time" is not opposed, as many experts in electronics claim, to "deferred time," but only to present time.

The painter Paul Klee expressed the point exceptionally well when he noted, "Defining the present in isolation is tantamount to murdering it."' This is what technologies of real time are achieving. They kill "present" time by isolating it from its presence here and now for the sake of another commutative space that is no longer composed of our "concrete presence" in the world, but of a "discrete telepresence" whose enigma remains forever intact. How can we fail to understand to what degree these radio-technologies (based on the digital signal, the video signal, and the radio signal) will soon overturn not only the nature of human environment and its territorial body, but also the individual environment and its animal body, since the development of territorial space by means of heavy material machinery (roads, railways, and so on) is now giving way to an almost immaterial control of the environment (satellites, fiber-optic cables) that is connected to the terminal body of the men and women, interactive beings who are at once emitters and receivers?

Clearly the urbanization of real time entails first of all the urbanization of "one's own body," which is plugged into various interfaces (computer keyboards, cathode screens, and soon gloves or cyberclothing), prostheses that turn the over-equipped, healthy (or "valid") individual into the virtual equivalent of the well-equipped invalid. If the revolution of modes of transportation of the last century had witnessed the emergence and progressive popularization of the dynamic automotive vehicle (train, motorcycle, car, airplane), the current electronic revolution is now, in its turn, blueprinting the plan for the innovation of the ultimate vehicle, the static audiovisual vehicle, in other words, the coming of a behavioral inertia of the receiver-sender, or the passage from this fabled "retinal suspension" on which the optical illusion of cinematic projection was based, to the "bodily suspension" of the "plugged-in human being." This becomes the condition of possibility of a sudden mobilization of the illusion of the world, of an entire world, that is telepresent at every moment. The very body of the connected witness happens to be the ultimate urban territory, a folding back over the animal body of social organization and of a conditioning previously limited to the core of the old city. In bodily terms, it resembles the core of the old familial "hearth.”

Thus we are better able to perceive the decline of the unity of demography. After an expanse of time the extended family turned into the nuclear family, which has now become the single-parent family. Individuality or individualism was thus not so much the fact of liberation of social practice as the product of the evolution of techniques of the development of public or private space. If cities are growing and sprawling at unforeseen rates, so then the familial unit is shrinking and becoming a tributary force. Given that we are witnessing supersaturated conditions in the concentrations of megalopolitan populations (Mexico City, Tokyo, Los Angeles) that are the result of an increased economic speed, it now seems appropriate to reconsider the notions of acceleration and deceleration (what physicists call positive and negative speeds) and, no less, what is less evident, in real speed and virtual speed (the rapidity of what happens unexpectedly, such as an urban crisis, or an accident) to grasp better the importance of the "critical transition" of which we are now the powerless witnesses.

We would do well to recall that speed is not a phenomenon but a relation among phenomena, in other words, relativity itself, whence the importance of the constancy of the speed of light not only in physics or in astrophysics, but also in our everyday lives. It is experienced as soon as we move, beyond the paradigm of public transport, into that of the organization and electromagnetic conditioning of territorial space. Such is what is implied by revolutions in "transmission" or "automation" of environmental control in real time that has since replaced traditional ways of living in territorial space. As a result, speed is not used solely to make travel more effective. It is used above all to see, to hear, to perceive, and, thus, to conceive more intensely the present world. In the future, speed will be used more and more to act over distance, beyond the sphere of influence of the human body and its behavioral biotechnology.

The Interval of Light

How can we account for this situation? It is necessary to introduce the specter of a new kind of interval, the interval of light (or zero-sign). In fact, in relativity the revolution of this third "interval" is in itself a sort of imperceptible cultural revolution. If the interval of Time (a positive sign) and the interval of Space (a negative sign) have given impetus to the geography and the history of the world through geometrical measurement of agrarian space (allotment into parcels of land) and urban areas (cadastral surveys), the organization of the calendar and measurement of time (clocks and watches) have also presided over a vast political and chronological regulation of human societies. The sudden emergence of an interval of the third type thus signals that we are undergoing an abrupt qualitative shift, a profound mutation of the relations that as humans we are keeping with our living environment. Time (duration) and Space (extension) are now inconceivable without Light (absolute speed), the cosmological constant of the speed of light, an absolute philosophical contingency, according to Einstein, that follows the absolute character that until then Newton and his predecessors had ascribed to space and time.

Since the beginning of this century, the absolute limit of the speed of light has, as it were, enlightened space and time together. We are therefore no longer dealing so much with light that illuminates things (the object, the subject, and travel) as with the constant character of its absolute speed, which conditions the phenomenal apperception of the world's duration and extension.2 We do well to heed the physicist who speaks of the logic of particles: "A representation is defined by a sum of observables that are flickering back and forth."3 The macroscopic logic of the techniques of real time could not better describe the macroscopic logic of this sudden "teletopical commutation" that perfects what until now had been the fundamentally "topical" quality of the old human city.

Thus both the urban geographer and the political scientist find themselves torn between the permanent necessities of the organization and construction of real space, with all of its basic problems, including geometrical and geographical constrictions about what is central versus what is peripheral, and new constraints of the management of this real time of immediacy and ubiquity, with its "protocol of access," its "transmission of bundles," its "viruses," and the chrono-geographical constraints of nodal and interconnected networks. An extended time works in the direction of the topical and architectonic interval (the high-rise building), and a short, ultrabrief, even inexistent time in the direction of the tele-topical interface (the network). How can this dilemma be resolved? How can these fundamentally spatio-temporal and relativistic problems be formulated?

When we now witness the aftershocks of international financial disasters in view of the damages of instantaneous automation of stock futures and junk bonds, or this notorious trading program that is responsible for the acceleration of economic disorder, such as the electronic crash of October 1987 and the crash that was barely missed in October 1989, we put our finger on the difficulties of our current situation.

Critical transition is thus not a gratuitous expression: behind this vocable there lurks a real crisis of the temporal dimension of immediate action. After the crisis of "integral" spatial dimensions, which give increased importance to "fractional" dimensions, we might be witnessing, in short, the crisis of the temporal dimension of the present moment. If time-light (or, better, the time of the speed of light) now serves as an absolute standard for both immediate marketing and instantaneous telemarketing, then intensive duration of the "the real moment" now replaces duration. Thus the extensive time of history is relatively subject to control, and can include this long-term duration, what used to comprise at once the past, the present, and the future. In effect, what we might call a temporal commutation, an "alternation" or "flickering" that is also related to a sort of commotion of present duration, an accident of a so-called real instant, is suddenly disconnected from its site of origin or inscription, from its here and now, for the sake of an electronic dazzle (that is at once electro-optical, electro-acoustical, and electro-tactile) where telecommanding, the so-called tact at a distance, would bring to completion the former technique of telesurveillance of what is kept afar, or beyond our grasp.

If, as Epicurus says, time is the accident of accidents, with these teletechnologies of generalized interactivity we begin to move toward the era of the accident of the present, the fabled telepresence over distance that amounts to nothing more than the sudden catastrophe of the reality of this present instant that constitutes our only mode of entry into duration, but also, and everyone has been aware of the fact since Einstein, our only entry into the extension of the real world. Henceforth the "real" time of telecommunications will probably refer no longer solely to "deferred" time, to feedback, or to time lags, but also to an outer chronology. Whence my constantly reiterated point about replacing what is chronological (before, during, after) with what is chronological or, if another formula fits better, the chronoscopical (underexposed, exposed, and overexposed). In effect, the interval of light (the interface) supplanting henceforth those of Space and of Time, the notion of exposure replaces, in its turn (whether we like it or not), that of succession in terms of present duration and that of extension in immediate space.

Thus the speed of exposure of time-light should allow us to reinterpret the "present" or this "real instant" that is (lest we forget) the space-time of a very real action facilitated by electronic machines. Soon it will be facilitated by photonic apparatus, that is, by the absolute capacities of electromagnetic waves and of quanta of light, a limit and a milestone for access to the reality of the perceptible world (here I am thinking of what astrophysicists call the cone of light) is colliding head-on with the politics and administration of public service. Thus, if the classical interval gives way to interfacing, politics moves, in turn, into present time alone. The question no longer entails relations of what is global in respect to what is local, or what is transnational and what is national, but above all concerns this sudden زtemporal commutation" in whose flickerings disappear not only the difference of inside and outside and the expanse of political territories, but also the "before" and the "after" of duration and history, for the sake of a real instant over which, finally, no one has control. To be convinced of this shift we need only observe today's inextricable problems of geostrategy in view of the impossibility of clearly distinguishing offense from defense. Instantaneous and multipolar strategy has been deployed in what military experts call "preemptive" strikes!

Thus the archaic "tyranny of distances" between people who have been geographically scattered increasingly gives way to this "tyranny of real time" that is not merely a matter, as optimists might claim, for travel agencies, but especially for employment agencies, because the more the speed of commerce grows, the more unemployment becomes globally massive. Since the nineteenth century, the muscular force of the human being is literally "laid off" when automation of the "machine tool" is employed. Then, with the recent growth of computers, "transmission machines," comes the laying off or ultimate shutdown of human memory and conscience. Automation of postindustrial production is coupled with the automation of perception and then with this attended conception favored by the marketplace of systems analysis while future developments are sought in cybernetics. Thus, the gain of real time over deferred time is equivalent to being placed in an efficient procedure that physically eliminates the "object" and "subject" for the exclusive advantage of a journey, but the journey [trajet], because it lacks a trajectory, is fundamentally out of control. Thus the interface in real time definitely replaces the interval that had formerly constructed and organized the history and geography of our societies, leading to an obvious culture of paradox, in which everything arrives without there being any need either to travel or to leave in the slightest physical sense.

Behind this critical transition, how can we fail to wonder about the future conditioning of the human environment? If the revolution of transportation in the nineteenth century had already prompted a change in the surface urban territory on the whole of the European continent, the current revolution of interactive transmissions is, in its turn, promoting an alteration of urban environment. "Images" win over the "things" they are said to represent: the city of the past slowly becomes a paradoxical agglomeration in which relations of immediate proximity give way to interrelations over distances. In fact, the paradoxes of acceleration are frequent and disturbing. One, the first, of them runs thus: when things "far" are brought into immediate proximity, those that are proportionately "near", such as our friends, kin, neighbors, turn what is proximate, family, work, or neighborhood, into a foreign, if not inimical, space. This inversion of social practices can already be seen in the urban planning of modes of communication (maritime port, railway station, airport) and is underscored and radicalized through new means of telecommunication (the teleport).

Once again we thus observe still another inversion of tendencies. Where motorized transportation and information had prompted a general mobilization of populations swept up in the exodus of labor (and then of leisure), modes of instantaneous transmission prompt the inverse, that of a growing inertia. Television and, especially, teleaction, no longer require human mobility, but merely a local motility. Telemarketing, tele-employment, fax work, bit-net, and e-mail transmissions at home, in apartments, or in cabled high rises, these might be called cocooning: an urbanization of real time thus follows the urbanization of real space. The shift is ultimately felt in the very body of every city dweller, as a terminal citizen who will soon be equipped with interactive prostheses whose pathological model is that of the "motorized handicapped," equipped so that he or she can control the domestic environment without undergoing any physical displacement. We have before us the catastrophic figure of an individual who has lost, along with his or her natural mobility, any immediate means of intervening in the environment. The fate of the individual is handed over, for better or for worse, to the capacities of receivers, sensors, and other long-range detectors that turn the person into a being subjected to the machines with which, they say, he or she is "in dialogue!"

To be a subject or to be subjected? That is the question. Former public services will in all likelihood be replaced by a domestic enslavement for which "domotics" might be the perfect outcome. It would be equivalent to the achievement of a domiciliary inertia, where a generalization of techniques of "environmental control" would end up with behavioral isolation and reinforce cities with the very insularities that have always threatened them, such that the distinction between the "island retreat" and the "ghetto" might become increasingly precarious.

Furthermore, and for some unexplainable reason, the international colloquium on the handicapped that recently took place at Dunkirk offers numerous parallels with the critical situation that I have sketched in the paragraphs above. It appears as if the recent technical and economic imperatives insert continuities and networks in the place of discontinuities, where there existed an amalgam or mix of different types of urban mobilities. Whence the idea, described above, of a common public transit is replaced by that of a more pervasive chain of displacement. We can thus heed the generous conclusion Francois Mitterrand stated at the end of the Dunkirk symposium: "Cities will have to be adapted to their citizens and not the other way around. We must open the city to handicapped Citizens. I demand that a global politics for the handicapped become a strong axis ،f Social Europe. "If every one of us is obviously in agreement about the inalienable right that the handicapped person has to live as others do and therefore with others, it is no less revealing to note the similarities that now exist between the reduced mobility of the equipped invalid and the growing inertia of the over-equipped, "valid" human population. As if the revolutions in transmission of information led to an identical conclusion, whatever may be the condition of the patient's body, the terminal citizen of a teletopical city is on the way toward its accelerated formation.

The destruction of the Berlin Wall? That has been accomplished. The future of a united Germany? The answer is clear. The abolition of borders dividing nations in Western Europe is announced for 1993. What remains to be abolished, and urgently, can only be space and time. As we have just seen, the task is being accomplished. At the end of our century not much will remain of this planet that is not only polluted and impoverished, but also shrunken and reduced to nothing by the teletechnologies of generalized interactivity.


1. Paul Klee. Theorie de l'art moderne (Paris: Gonthier, 1963).

2. The triad described in the parentheses reads "l'objet, le sujet, le trajet," such that "travel"--or "journey," the third term, bears strong graphic and vocal resemblance to the object and the subject. Trans.

3. G. Cohen Tannoudji and M. Spiro, La matiere-espace-temps (Paris: Fayard, 1986).

4. Klee, Theorie de l'art moderne.

5. Cited by Guiseppe Bufo, in Nicolas de Cues (Paris: Seghers, 1964).

6. See Paul Virilio, L'inertie polaire (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1990).

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