Syllabus for the Internet Inventing the Shipwreck

The work of Paul Virilio urges us to ask: What future disasters inhere in today’s technologies?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

SYLLABUS FOR THE INTERNET is a series about single books or bodies of work written prior to the rise of the consumer internet that now provide a way to understand the web as we know it today. View the others here.

Shortly before it changed its name, the tech company formerly known as Facebook experienced what the company called an “inconvenience.” Which is a fairly mild way of describing “configuration changes on the backbone routers” that resulted in Facebook (along with the Facebook-owned platforms Instagram and WhatsApp) being unavailable for roughly six hours on October 4, 2021. The experience of the outage was not uniform: What for some was mainly an excuse to scoff at another batch of bad news for Facebook, for others was a serious loss of access to essential platforms. Once Facebook was back online, Mark Zuckerberg apologized “for the disruption,” noting “I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about.” And soon enough the outage was just another pothole in the rearview mirror as Facebook sped toward the metaverse. 

It was not that the “disruption” was unimportant, but that (as the proverb goes) “shit happens.”

Websites become unavailable, chargers stop charging, smartphones don’t turn on, laptop keyboards inexplicably stop working, routers stop routing, applications suddenly close (taking your unsaved progress with them) — and when these things occur it is hard not to feel a twinge of panic. You can turn it off and turn it back on again, you can check for news of outages, or you can run to the store (or call IT) in the hopes that the “geniuses” or “geeks” can make it work again. Few things reveal the extent of our reliance on a particular technology quite like having that piece of technology suddenly and unexpectedly stop working. And though our days are punctuated by small and mildly annoying malfunctions, there is always the risk of more serious technological breakdowns, the sort that can truly turn our world upside down: the plane that crashes, the ship that gets stuck in the canal, the web platform outage that leaves us unsure how to communicate with the people we care about, or the power plant that melts down. 

Few things reveal the extent of our reliance on a technology like having it suddenly and unexpectedly stop working

Conversations about technology tend to be dominated by an optimistic faith in technological progress, and headlines about new technologies tend to be peppered with deterministic language assuring readers of all the wonderful things these nascent technologies “will” do once they arrive. There is endless encouragement to think about all of the exciting benefits to be enjoyed if everything goes right, but significantly less attention is usually paid to the ways things might go spectacularly wrong.

In the estimation of philosopher Paul Virilio, the refusal to seriously contemplate the chance of failure can have calamitous effects. As he evocatively put it in 1997’s Open Sky, “Unless we are deliberately forgetting the invention of the shipwreck in the invention of the ship or the rail accident in the advent of the train, we need to examine the hidden face of new technologies, before that face reveals itself in spite of us.” Virilio’s formulation is a reminder that along with new technologies come new types of dangerous technological failures. It may seem obvious today that there had never been a car crash before the car was invented, but what future wrecks are being overlooked today amidst the excited chatter about AI, the metaverse, and all things crypto?

Virilio’s attention to accidents is a provocation to look at technology differently. To foreground the dangers instead of the benefits, and to see ourselves as the potential victims instead of as the smiling beneficiaries. As he put it in Pure War, first published in 1983, “Every technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident.” Thus, the challenge becomes looking for the “accident” behind the technophilic light show — and what’s more, to find it before the wreckage starts to pile up. 

Undoubtedly, this is not the most enjoyable way to look at technology. It is far more fun to envision yourself enjoying the perfect meal prepared for you by your AI butler than to imagine yourself caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare after the AI system denies your loan application. Nevertheless, if Virilio was right to observe that “the invention of the highway was the invention of 300 cars colliding in five minutes,” it would be wise to start thinking seriously about the crashes that await us as we accelerate down the information superhighway. 

Born in 1932 in Paris, the experience of growing up during World War II left a lifelong impression on Virilio — as did the student uprisings that occurred in France in May 1968. The impact of these experiences can be seen in his oeuvre, which ranges over topics including architecture (especially bunkers), cinema, speed, and warfare, as well as disasters and accidents. Though Virilio’s output consists of well over two dozen books, these volumes would not fill many shelves, as many are not particularly long. Virilio excelled at packing a dizzying number of concepts (often including numerous neologisms) into only a few pages. 

Many of Virilio’s books place him in conversation with others, and these dialogic texts often feature him at his most accessible. In the introduction to 2002’s Crepuscular Dawn, a discussion with Sylvère Lotringer, the latter referred to Virilio as a “prodigious prophet of speed” and claimed that he was “undoubtedly the most important thinker of technology since Martin Heidegger.” And while Virilio’s work and thought were not strictly limited to technology, his writing continues to illuminate pathways by which technological questions can be approached. Many of these pathways can be uncomfortable to walk, but that does not make them any less worthwhile.

In considering Virilio’s thought, before we can reach the site (or the origin) of the accident, we must first get up to speed. Literally. Speed was a concept of considerable importance to Virilio and the focus of his first book, Speed and Politics, published in 1977. Just as the history of technology demonstrates that many technological shifts have been closely bound up with the wants and needs of the military, Virilio notes “history progresses at the speed of its weapons systems.” Not only does speed, and the specific networks of machines and infrastructure it requires, make it possible to keep a widely disseminated military force adequately supplied; speed itself becomes a sort of weapon, as the army that is able to strike with shocking swiftness is able to overwhelm slow defenses. (As a child growing up in Nazi occupied France, it is perhaps unsurprising that Virilio directly writes of this in terms of the Nazi blitzkrieg.)

As speed becomes a military necessity, this change in tempo is felt throughout the entire society, indeed throughout the entire world. Speed becomes synonymous with power, which links it to wealth and the accumulation of money — those who cannot keep up are to be left behind. Rather than link increasing velocity to liberated exuberance, Virilio, in Speed and Politics, suggests that “the more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases”: By the time an action is required in real time, the moment to act is already swiftly disappearing into the past. Freedom requires the time in which to deliberate and to act, and extreme speed deprives individuals of that time. 

Virilio’s theoretical ruminations on speed are clearly linked to its place in World War II — the fascist worship of speed, and the use of its terminology in describing the contest to develop the most destructive nuclear armaments (the arms race). Nuclear weapons did not mean that the enemy army could arrive at the city gates at any moment, but that the apocalyptic end could be brought about any moment by the push of a button. 

Nuclear weapons were not the only explosives that Virilio discussed. Alongside the atomic bomb, Virilio also warned of the “cyber” or “information bomb” (representing developments in cybernetics, computing, and the information explosion), and the “genetic bomb” (representing developments in genetic technologies by which humanity might alter itself). In using the term “bomb” to describe these dangers, Virilio suggested that these were not small or discrete threats, but rather detonations of world-shaking seriousness. As he explained to Lotringer in Crepuscular Dawn, “these three bombs are developing in parallel,” and “this catastrophic triptych is preparing a universal accident, a total accident we cannot even imagine.”

As Virilio said to Lotringer, “Speed is carrying us along, but we have yet to master it. An accident is bound to happen.” Thus, it is the steady accumulation of speed that brings us to the accident.

The term “accident” defrays some of the horror of crashes and wrecks — if it was an accident, after all, it was not meant to happen. And though Virilio makes frequent use of the word, he pushes us to consider the extent to which things going wrong is as much a part of a technology as things going right.

The accident is invented along with the device. As Virilio told Lotringer in Pure War (which was also structured as a dialogue between them), “The invention of the airplane was the invention of the plane crash.” Virilio returned to this formulation repeatedly throughout his body of work, and though the exact phrasing might differ from book to book, the gist remains the same. In a conversation with Philippe Petit, which was published in 1996 under the title Politics of the Very Worst, Virilio stated “it is necessary to determine what is negative in what seems positive.” As he explained, focusing on the exciting benefits of a new technology is all well and good for its marketers; but for those who are trying to understand the politics of that technology (to say nothing of those required to live in the world it produces), it is not enough to focus on the merits. While new technologies could often inspire a nearly religious sense of wonderment, Virilio countered that “the accident is an inverted miracle.” Rather than treating the accident as the opposite of progress, Virilio argued that it was an integral part — “the hidden face of technical and scientific progress.”

Like the invention of the car crash with the car, what future wrecks are being overlooked today amidst the chatter about AI, the metaverse, and crypto?

Virilio’s ruminations indicated a certain degree of fatalism. This did not take the form of a hyperbolic certainty that every plane is destined to crash, but of a straightforward acknowledgment that some planes unfortunately will. Within every family of technologies there will be some failures — and even the single failure (Virilio often pointed to the Challenger explosion and the Chernobyl meltdown) can have significant impacts. What makes this particularly dangerous, in Virilio’s estimation, is the growing power and complexity of technological systems, creating a steady drift away from “local” accidents (though those certainly still occur) and towards “general” accidents, the sort “that immediately affects the entire world.” Local accidents (such as car crashes) leave debris scattered by the roadside and leave private households bereaved. General accidents (such as nuclear power plant failures) scatter debris across the whole planet and result not only in mourning for individuals but for the future.

Large-scale accidents, when they occur, have a tendency to generate significant attention. Media entities that once eagerly reported on an unsinkable ship will now publish headlines about that same ship’s demise. Yet one of the challenges that Virilio faced was of warning about the accident before the accident actually occurred. Having written at great length about the problems created by constant acceleration, in 2005’s The Original Accident, he evoked the ordeal of trying to sound the alarm while keeping pace with new technology: “we have to try as fast as possible to define the flagrant nature of disasters peculiar to new technologies.” In a reference to the philosopher Hans Jonas — who had argued in his in 1979 book The Imperative of Responsibility that “the prophecy of doom is to be given greater heed than the prophecy of bliss” — Virlio wrote that “the imperative of responsibility for the generations to come requires that we now expose accidents along with the frequency of their industrial and post-industrial repetition.”

By focusing so adamantly on accidents, and the “inverted miracles” of progress, Virilio seemed quite aware that he was placing himself in a position to be ignored as a doom-monger. And yet, this recognition does not seem to have dimmed his commitment to ringing the tocsin; if anything, it seems to have strengthened his resolve. Speaking to Petit in Politics of the Very Worst, Virilio insisted, “I am not a prophet of doom.” Instead of expressing hatred for technology, he argued that to truly love something requires recognizing its good and bad sides. In conversation with Lotringer, Virilio stated “I am not what one would call a fanatic of the Apocalypse. It’s not my thing,” though shortly after making these comments he added the observation that “clearly the 20th century has an apocalyptic side to it.” And he felt this “apocalyptic side” would carry on to the 21st century.

Though Virilio tried to distance himself from accusations of apocalyptic exuberance, he was willing to cast himself in the tradition of those who try to sound the alarm, only for their prescient words to go ignored. In conversation with Petit, Virilio framed his negativity as a response to the way “most intellectuals have already become collaborators or even advertisers of the technological boom.” As a result, “I can only don Cassandra’s mask in order to show the hidden side of this technology, its negativity.” When Petit chided Virilio for his pessimism, Virilio offered the cutting retort: “I paint a dark picture because few are willing to do it.”   

When engaging with Virilio’s thought it is clear how the events of his life — growing up under the Nazi occupation, the arms race, May 1968 — impacted his thinking. Yet Virilio also lived long enough to turn his thinking towards topics such as the War on Terror and the spread of the internet. As is perhaps not particularly surprising, Virilio was highly skeptical of the euphoric utopianism that ushered in the internet age. As he put it to Lotringer in Pure War, “don’t tell me that the internet will bring about world democracy. I split my sides at that. There’s nothing more ridiculous.”

In 1999’s The Information Bomb, Virilio framed the internet as “the best and the worst of things…the advance of a limitless — or almost limitless — communication; and at some point it is also the disaster — the meeting with the iceberg — for this Titanic of virtual navigation.” He returns us to the matter of accidents, and pushes us to ask: What accidents are being invented alongside digital technologies? Computers crash, but this does not convey the same sense of emergency as a train wreck. So where should we turn our attention? Hacking? Cyber-bullying? Misinformation? Environmental destruction? Reliance on a complex system that is beyond our local control? Surveillance capitalism? Algorithmic discrimination? Or perhaps all of these and many more, with new breeds of accident invented alongside every new app and internet-enabled gizmo.

As speed becomes a military necessity, speed becomes synonymous with power, which links it to wealth — those who cannot keep up are left behind

Events such as Facebook’s shutdown on October 4, 2021, as well as the Amazon Web Services outage that occurred two weeks later, are warnings from the future. To say that no one could have seen these threats coming would be false. The Year 2000 Computing Crisis (Y2K) is largely remembered today as something of a joke — but this is thanks to its successful management. At the time, many in government and IT recognized the crisis as representing the extent to which societies were at the mercy of computer systems. Computer/internet-related accidents had been provocatively explored by writers of cyberpunk science fiction since before the World Wide Web even existed. Contemporary cyberpunk fiction provides an assortment of potential “accidents” to think with: from the toxic e-waste world of Chen Quifan’s Waste Tide, to the high-tech corporate apartheid of Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland, to the world where the internet suddenly stops working of Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail. One of the most disturbing elements of much cyberpunk fiction is the worry that these dystopias are tales of computerized systems working precisely as intended. 

There is not a single “plane crash” equivalent for computers and the internet, but that only makes it more vital to imagine what multiple crashes might be. If Facebook and Amazon Web Services going down for a few hours can cause so much chaos, imagine what it might look like if they went down permanently. 

The Titanic was not the only famous wreck that Virilio referenced when thinking about the internet. As he said in his conversation with Petit, “The model for our world that is emerging behind the delirium of information is Babel, and the internet is already a sign of this.” Here Virilio simultaneously captured the sense of information overload, and a symbol of humanity’s hubristic urge for more — alongside the warning of a structure that comes crashing down, resulting in the great confusion of tongues. The valorization of technological progress creates a situation in which those who do not want to be viewed as backwards must exert themselves to keep up. As Virilio described it to Bertrand Richard in The Administration of Fear, his last published work, “Promoting progress means that we are always behind: on high-speed internet, on our Facebook profile, on our email inbox.” Yet again, the close connection between speed and accidents emerge: “Our societies have become arrhythmic. Or they only know one rhythm: constant acceleration. Until the crash and systemic failure.”

To always be searching for the potential accident in every new technology will certainly result in a somewhat grim view of the world. Pessimists make poor party guests. Nevertheless, recognizing that some accidents may happen does not mean that they should be treated as inevitable. It is out of the search for accidents and the recognition that they can occur that an obligation emerges to prevent and mitigate these hazards. And yet it is impossible to prevent a crash if you are not willing to first acknowledge the possibility of a crash occurring. 

At the very least, you should probably fasten your safety belt. 

Zachary Loeb is a PhD candidate in the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His work focuses on the ways that complex technological systems generate and exacerbate risk, and the history of techno-scientific doom-saying. He is currently working on a dissertation project about the year 2000 computing crisis (better known as Y2K).