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The following article is a revised version of a text first written in Fench under the title "Chantre du pire? Quelques penées stratégiques" as part of a course given at Fribourg University, Switzerland. All quotes come from Paul Virilio's book "Cybermonde - la politique du pire". The translation into English is ours and the numbers in brackets correspond to the page numbers in the French book.
This article is part of a special report about Strategies of opposition to technology. See also "Loving resistance fighters" and "Luddites passed and present".

Some thoughts about strategies for saying no


In his book "Cybermonde - la politique du pire", Paul Virilio writes: "Resistance is part of human nature. Malraux said 'You are a man when you know how to say no.'" [25] Virilio is aware that people might find his approach negative, but he denies it saying: "I'm obliged to do this work on negativeness alone as most intellectuals are collaborating with or actively advocating the uptake of technology." [35] Note that the use of words like "resistance" and "collaboration" in French culture immediately refer back to the second World War and the traumatising feelings of an occupied nation. To come back to technology, given the millions spent by multinationals and even governments in vaunting their products, Paul Virilio says "I can only don the mask of Cassandra to point to the hidden face of technology: its negativeness." [53] For those of you who don't recall the story of Cassandra, she had the gift to foresee the future but was cursed in that nobody ever believed her prophesies.

When confronted with a polarised position, as in the case of the promotional discourse of those in favour of technology, it is difficult to maintain a position full of nuances. Polarisation breeds polarisation, as it forces us to extremes in our words and actions. In the face of proclaimed omnipresence and omnipotence, the feeling of impotence easily gives way to aggressiveness that repels rather than wins people to the cause. After all, wouldn't you prefer whispered sweet promises to the strident voice of catastrophe?

Denouncing dangers, creating dangers?

+... the aim of my work is to point out the negative tendencies so as to forewarn against the dangers." [64] says Virilio. To what extent does denouncing what is bad necessarily lead to producing good? Through what he has to say, it is clear that being negative is not Virilio's aim. The question that arises for each person that comes across badness is what should they do to have goodness triumph. In taking arms and opposing (to quote Shakespeare) don't they surreptitiously play into the hands of those they oppose? Opposition fuels the same fire as those who are favourable in that both centre attention on technology. How can we grant things their rightful place, no more, no less? How can we escape from the excesses of technology?

Virilio explains "My work is statistical as I anticipate on the tendencies I can already observe." is the dilemma described by Isabelle Stengers (co-author of the remarkable "La nouvelle alliance" with the Nobel Peace Prix winner Ilya Prigogyne) during a conference some years back in Geneva, taking as an example the greenhouse effect. In a runaway process, if we want to have the slightest chance of avoiding the worst, we have to take the risk of being wrong in our prognostics and act before we are certain. Those who plead for us to wait till we are sure are either blind or have a vested interest in the forthcoming disaster.

Seen from a somewhat different angle, feeling obliged to act because we feel that the rest of society is blind to what is coming or can't cope with the situation is tantamount to lacking confidence in those around us. We have to watch over the others because they aren't capable of fending for themselves. By way of contrast, the French author Michel de Certeau springs to mind. In his book "L'invention du quotidien", de Certeau sets out, from his wide experience in contacts with others, to affirm his confidence in their creativity in re-appropriating both the urban world and the ways of power such that they can create and make sense of their own personal discourse.

Time for thought

Reading, writing and speech are very important to Virilio, who says: "Socialisation takes place through language, languages. The first way of loving is via words. This social necessity is threatened by information technologies." [66] Assertions win the day against self-questioning in debate. We could well ask ourselves if debate, that is to say the confrontation of ideas with a view to the best winning, is the most appropriate way of getting informed and making decisions in a complex, fast-changing world.

If we set out to convince, assertions may well best serve us. To be able to assert our point of view, approximation is often more helpful than precision and nuance. What should we make of the assertion: "The first way of loving is via words." First in quantity? In social importance? In time? My aim here is not to discredit what Virilio has to say using that strategy which consists of finding fault in a small part of what someone has to say then letting that fault by osmosis discredit the whole of his discourse. Rather, like Virilio himself, I am pleading for a time for thought, a time to burrow down into the words so as to better understand them.

"The tyranny of real-time is not so far removed from classical tyranny in that it tends to do away with the time for thought on the part of the citizen in favour of a conditioned reflex." [85] Virilio insists that time to needed to think, saying, "Democracy is the time spent waiting for a collective decision. Live democracy, automatic democracy, does away with that time ... the opinion poll is the election of tomorrow, it is the virtual democracy of the virtual city." [85] Edward de Bono once wrote that fast thinking is not good thinking. The question that is raised then is how we encourage the development of a culture that grants itself the time to think and the distance necessary for reflection and decision-making. What strategy must we adopt? Action by word, spoken or written? Action by example? By acting? By our way of being?

Getting closer by stepping back

"The question of those who are close and those who are afar is the question of the city ... Loving those who are afar, that is to say strangers, yes! But loving those who are afar to the detriment of those who are close, no!" [42] Sometimes the thoughts of he or she who steps outside to be able to better contemplate the impact of technology on society seem self-evident. For example, how could we live in the stark emptiness left around us when all relationships are held at a distance? Of course, such an exaggerated position takes things to an extreme. Yet taking things to an extreme can sometimes unveil the strangeness of what otherwise goes unnoticed so much we take it for granted. Here we come back to the thesis of Neil Postman (see "Loving resistance fighters") that technology must never become too familiar. In keeping it at a distance, in seeing it as something strange, marvellous and frightening, only then can we grant it its rightful place in the world.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

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Created: June 22, 2001 - Last up-dated: July 2nd, 2001