Facing away

Above: Woman facing away, Tallinn, Estonia, 2016. Credit: Mariya Tyutina.


Above: Revellers arriving at Trance Energy, Utrecht, Netherlands, 2005. Credit: Gzen92.

Agora, Cyprus

Above: Ruins of the ancient Hellenic agora, Amathus, Cyprus. Credit: Carole Raddato.

Man alone

Above: Man alone on laptop. Credit: Rawpixel.


In the digital era the Western democratic process is coming to be replaced by online ratings and polls which "become electoral," in that "the poll is the election of tomorrow, virtual democracy for a virtual city (VW: 87)." Any functioning--or dysfunctional--State ideology is swept aside by the tech revolution and its principal force-for-change: real-time information sharing-and-communications; information shared-and-circulating seamlessly, instantaneously, ubiquitously. Unfortunately, democracy cannot function at the-speed-of-light, since it depends on the individual having some time set aside for reflection.

The basic picture is of the citizen of democracy alone in a room immersed-and-preoccupied by digital devices (a scene rather similar to the one imagined by E. M. Forster in his 1909 short story The Machine Stops). For Virilio, the citizen linked-in to the digital network of the Internet has become a continuously activated servant and vassal of real-time. And is thus reduced to being an automaton-like spectral figure able to debate and discuss issues of the day but never with any critical distance since real-time communications drain, weaken, erode, deplete, and impair the possibilities of the internaut-citizen gaining any reasonable critical-historical context for their thoughts and opinions. A stark context of pressing immediacy governs all. For Virilio this threat can be considered around a basic question: "how to share power when the time in which it manifests itself escapes us?" So that, "the tyranny of real-time is not very different from classical tyranny, because it tends to destroy the reflection of the citizen in favor of a reflex action (VW: 87)."

The rise to dominance of digital tech has been, and remains, an insidious revolution which transforms everyday life without any such events as coups, rioting, or decisive battles, etc. It is the very insidiousness of the transformation of daily life which inherently delimits the prospect of organized resistance. As a consequence of the digital revolution democracy is everywhere outpaced by a technocratic or "dromocratic" revolution; dromocracy insidiously supersedes and ousts democracy. Bluntly formulated, in the technocratic age, "the more speed increases the faster freedom decreases (SP: 158)." A basic conundrum remains and confronts all living in the democratic West: "will we be able to achieve a democracy of real-time; a democracy of immediacy and ubiquity?" For now this question remains open and unanswerable definitively but with many indicators suggesting that it is unlikely or actually impossible. Virilio's own answer to the question is: "I don't think so and those who are quick to say yes cannot be very serious (VW: 17)." The emerging picture is austere, "what defines democracy is the sharing of power [and] when there is not time to share, what will be shared? Emotions [only] (DS:32)."

Since its first recorded implementations, democracy has depended on the bodily presence of the voting-debating individual at the forum; the agora, etc. Democracy, is the democracy of the people bodily present in the city--our laws, amenities, institutions and social conventions all emanate from this basic presupposition. In the digital-tech era, the physical space of debate-and-discussion is eliminated and replaced with a virtual equivalent and the unique (voting) individual is replaced by a trans-apparent spectral figure. There is little evidence that this shift is functional; it may well be that manifest human presence is an indispensable component of democracy (DS: 10).