2013 auto wreck

Above: A fatal accident in Vermillion County, Indiana, 2013, involving a Ford Super Duty heavy-duty pickup truck. Credit: unattributed/Tribune Star.

Chernobyl, 2016

Above: The New Safe Confinement at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant nearing completion in October 2016. Credit: Tim Porter.

Stocktraders at NYSE

Above: Stocktraders working at the New York Stock Exchange, 1963. Credit: Thomas O'Halloran.


Each new technology precipitates its own unique format of accident--the maritime shipping disaster; the manned space-exploration disaster; the nuclear reactor-core meltdown. Historically, an accident or disaster has tended to be understood in terms of a specific and localized frame of reference--the sinking of the Titanic, the destruction of the Challenger Space Shuttle, or the Chernobyl nuclear accident, for example. In the Information Age, perceptions of disasters and tragedies limited-in-time-and-space are becoming anachronistic (VW: 91). Today--in the context of global-interconnected networks and globalization generally--the notion of the accident must be conceptualized increasingly around the expectation of a disaster which will affect millions-of-persons around the world at the same time. One obvious example is the climate change (and global warming), which is a basic accident of industrialization (CD: 32).

What concerns Virilio is the emergence of a "general accident" (with connotations of the effects of synchronized strikes carried out by workers across several industrial sectors), a "total accident," or an "integral accident (VW: 12)." The essential feature of the integral accident is the chain-reaction: a failure of one system instigates the collapse of another, whereupon, ordinary daily life (in the Developed West at least) descends into chaos (VW: 13).

In the case of the Internet--and global-digital networks--the precise format of its disaster or accident is as yet uncertain. The US stock-market crash of 1987 ("Black Monday") is an early case-study for one possible format of an integral accident of a global network. On 19 October 1987, many computer-based auto-stock-trading programs simultaneously determined to sell shares into the market, causing an unstoppable chain-reaction: a sharp and extraordinary decline in stock values in the US caused stock-declines on bourses around the world within hours. However, this model for an Internet-originated integral accident may be misleading, another way of thinking about the accident of the Internet is in terms of the insidious incremental effects on the psychology-and-behaviour of the end-user--i.e., the crisis emerges in the format of rising-tide rather than immediate impact. Under such a model the Internet-connected sedentary human becomes increasingly disengaged from reality and drifts towards malaise and nihilism.

For Virilio, it would actually make much sense if the exhibits in museums of science-and-technology were schematized around the specific accident of important technologies insofar as there is a pervasive tendency to ignore the dangers-and-hazards while emphasizing (often with outright propaganda) the benefits of each. And this demands rebuttal. For example, the general public do not seem to recognise that while a passenger jet crash is a tragedy, it is also an inevitability--the invention of the jet plane is also the invention of the jet crash. (With this thesis in mind, Virilio piloted a Museum of the Accident at the Fondation Cartier, near Paris, in 2003).