Route Barrée, groupe de punk rock

I’ve been offline from the Abstract Machine project for over two weeks, thanks to my Internet connection which is constantly on the brink. Often not enough to even get an email off. It’s been spotty for the past three months, but never enough to keep me from working. Until the Christmas period, that is, where it out-and-out died. Suddenly it’s back up, without explanation, leading me to a quick post before it dies again. It’s enough to drive you insane. My provider has changed hands an infinite number of times (five and counting) and has currently caught me up in the middle of a year-long contract with Alice who is incapable of staffing their hotline adequately. Imagine two weeks of automatic speed dialing only to be cut-off once you’ve finally played the n(0-9) multiple-choice game we all know and love.

It’s brought back an old debate for me, one I hadn’t followed in years : the question of the accident. Here’s a snippet, for example, from a recent interview with Paul Virilio, the latest inventor of this definition of technology as accident-producer:

On me reproche souvent de ne m’intéresser qu’aux accidents. Non, je ne m’intéresse qu’à la vitesse. Inventer le train, c’est inventer le déraillement. Inventer l’avion, c’est inventer le crash. Inventer l’arme atomique, c’est inventer la prolifération nucléaire. Autrement dit, la vitesse est un progrès. Mais également un progrès de la catastrophe. — Paul Virilio, in Libération 17-18 December 2005, p.47.

We’ve been hearing for the past few years, that Internet2 is on its way. O’Reilly has called it Web 2.0, but it’s more or less the same thing: the web as middleware, as application, as desktop — but more importantly as aggregator, as modular platform. It’s been something I’ve believed in ever since Netscape tried to do it back in the late 1990’s. I even tried to turn this Abstract Machine project into a sort of artistic .NET-competitor back in 2001, before the Villa Arson who was housing the project got cold feet and bailed out (or whimpered out the French way, by refusing all meetings and calls until you get the message). I never found anyone else to take over the project, so I moved on to other concerns. But I’ve totally gotten the middleware revolution for years, and have been trying to push into it, as can be seen through some of my students’ projects, for example the Webwaste project from 2001/2, or some workshops I organised at the Villa Arson or at ARI/ENSAD. My whole current argument about the definition of the word “Platform”, as can be found in the Jouable lectures and workshops, revolves around this belief. Even the latest Web class is a prelude to building aggregateable content.

But there’s obviously a flipside to this Web 2.0 euphoria, and that brings me a little closer to something Paul Virilio has been saying about the Internet for years. And although Virilio is ultimately a Luddite, he is a very prescient one, and maybe should be read a little more closely. While the Web 2.0 will open up spaces, as Virilio reminds us, it will invent a new form of accident, a new form of catastrophe, just as all technologies before. While my current pain is minor, it does give pause as to what the new form of accidents the Web might invent for us. We might also ask, from a creative point of view, what kind of Achilles Heel (cf. “Talon d’achille”) it might open up for us to exploit artistically.

Virilio is of course full of it when he claims that the Internet is collapsing collective urban space — that new technologies are allowing us to access remote spaces to the detriment of the local, of the “viare” — the rail, the road, the good-old-fashioned slow and continuous path :

Aujourd’hui, on vit la fin de la trame “viaire”, c’est-à-dire du contact avec le sol, la route, la rue, au profit d’une perception survolée et lointaine : celle des hélicoptères qui survolent la ville, ou des voitures qui passent à toute vitesse, sur une autoroute. On ne perçoit plus qu’à distance, c’est-à-dire de haut ou de loin. Les pouvoirs jouent la dissuasion pour que les gens restent chez eux. — Paul Virilio in “Liberation”, 17-18 December 2005, p.46

He is right in only the most superficial and obvious way. Sure, the continuity of localities are disrupted by the near-teleportation speeds of the new forms of displacement. But when I lived in Paris — perhaps the ultimate hypercity of the late 20th century — I was always amazed at the degree to which the RER, the Metro, the BUS, and the rue combined into one another, and more importantly opened up new forms of locality, and especially new communities, even forms of resistance. I did not find myself, contrary to what Virilio claims, to use these various forms of speed to jump over undesireable communities, in fact it was quite the contrary : they allowed me to develop new ones and integrate those with the most heterogeneous classes of the Parisian polis. I.e. while these forms might be designed to distance us, they in fact accelerate at the same time new forms of resistance to such a design. I remember in one of his seminars at the Collège Internationale de Philosophie he claimed that faster technologies always supplant slower ones: for example the escalator always supplants the stairs. Why do we still have so many stairs then, and often accompanying escalators? I asked him, to only receive a muddled reply. The obvious response should have been the constant breakdowns of the escalator, which he seems to suggest in other contexts, for example his discussions of train wrecks giving way to new railway safety systems. But even here I think there is something more complex at work.

The Web 2.0 people are good people, and join the positions of the geeky-types to those of more art-geek-types, such as Geert Lovink in After the Dot Com Crash or more recently via Pixelache and their Dot Org Boom conference. The later are of course critical looks at the evolution of the Web, but perhaps we haven’t been critical enough in our heterotopist euphoria to the still looming dark underbelly of the Internet, i.e. as a form of control.

Anyway, my local crash has led me to pull back on my latest architecture which was designed to allow me to work entirely off the web, in a totally transparent fashion. Basically I’ve spent the past four months working on a web-platform architecture for the Abstract Machine that, perhaps with the exception of the blog, becomes totally unoperational without 24/7 immediate and high-speed access. I’m definitely going to have to rethink my whole architecture.