Monday, September 27, 2010

Book comment: Paul Virilio "The Original Accident"

I have for many years liked the ideas of Paul Virilio. He is a fascinating and highly challenging thinker. Unfortunately his writings are quite complex and sometimes erratic. I am at the moment trying to read his "The Original Accident" published in English in 2007. I am intentionally writing "trying to read" since it does take work and effort without any promise of success in increased understanding.

Virilio is highly self centered and seems quite uninterested in others ideas and theories. Anyway, the basic idea in his writings is that "speed" is a dangerous power in our society. This is such a simple and powerful idea. Based on the idea of speed he also argues that every technology carries its own inherent accident or even distaster. He writes that the accident is "an invention in the sense of uncovering what was hidden, just waiting to happen". The airplane has the crash built in, the nuclear power plant has a Chernobyl accident built in, etc. The accident is "integral" to the technology itself. He argues that in our society we (especially researchers and engineers) o not put enough energy into uncovering the integral disasters in technology. He blames "the poor progress of 'scientific' knowledge" (p. 7).

He also addresses information technology. He is a brilliant thinker while at the same time obscure. For instance, this is how he explains what globalization leads to when supported by new technology. "If interactivity is to information what radioactivity is toe energy -- a contamination and disintegrating capability -- then the integral accident in time causes conflicts in the socius and its intelligibility to accumulate, making the whole world opaque little by little." (p. 53). Well, there you go, interpret that!

Anyway, still, Virilio is fascinating and has ideas that are intriguing and well worth the struggle....


Vesa said...

Definately worth of reading!

I have gained bad reputation over years quoting (I guess) that same book at work. (Written in 1995 but translated in english at 2007?)

Even as (and because of) you can find some a bit untrendy technology pessimism in it the models are worth of knowing.

P O Ågren said...

Magnificent quotation. The more we interact the more information we create, and the more we hide what is - or might be - important, interesting and valuable in qualitative information accumulation. Therefore becomes the world more opaque. The accident is thereby no longer inherited only in the technology, but also in our social systems of information, with technology as its transporter, its vehicle.

For what it is worth; an modest attempt to interpret the quotation in the spirit of Virilio.

Erik Stolterman said...


Great to see you here! And I like you interpretation. I know you are an old fan of Virilio, and I thought of you when I wrote this post.


Carol said...

Sounds like a great book! I like books that make you stop and think at one point. Keeps you sharp!

Yours Truly said...

Prof. Stolterman,

Sir, I'm a fan as well. Been reading his articles since Y2K.

Yes, his writings even when translated into other languages seem difficult to decipher (yes, DECIPHER).

His late, esteemed colleague M. Baudrillard for some reason has writings easier to digest.

Still, I enjoy perusing his work (even though I'm not exceptionally religious I like how he uses Christian allusions to illustrate his views).

May I suggest you read up "Pure War" as well as "War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception" for his other theories on technology.

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