Teddy in front of a computer

Caption: Untitled photograph. Credit: Dan Fa.

Baudelaire Benediction

Above: Emile Bernard, woodcut illustration for Baudelaire's poem Benediction from Les fleurs du mal (fiftieth anniversary edition), 1916. Credit: National Gallery of Canada.


Any critique of the Internet must begin, for Virilio, with the positing of the U.S. military as the developers of the technology that underpins the digital network as we know it (and not Tim Berners-Lee or any other civilian of popular myth). The system was secretly developed under the name Arpanet and was imagined as a mode of military communication via existing telephone lines for use operationally in a warfare situation in which all major command-and-control centers might have become (for some reason) non-operational. So the goal of Arpanet was the development of a decentralized military communications system to be accessible from any working telephone line--"the Internet is a product of the Pentagon [i.e., the United States Department of Defense] (VW: 36)."

The Internet user is a "voyeur-voyager" or an "internaut"--an ironic play on the brave-and-intrepid astronaut (UD: 57/NH: 146). The rise to dominance of the Internet-connected computer heralds the epoch of the sedentary man who remains riveted to the computer screen in a state of lassitude and inertia (GA: 36). The internaut's browsing is characterized by tangential, unmethodical activity--the fact is that browsing the Internet is compulsively random (IB: 38). The continuous present moment of real-time induces in the internaut--ironically--an illusory perception of stillness, "an immediacy that is never anything more than a sort of stroboscopic illusion scrambling all true perception and all true knowledge (UD: 8-9)."

The internaut is in a near-terminal state of malaise and masochistic subjugation, "surrounded by his screens and subject to video control and the discipline of [software] programs, as well as the rules of interactivity, this new photosensitive being turns into a consenting victim of a [technological] progress that amputates his private life, with electro-optical addiction to information more and more alienating him from his sense of self (GA: 45)." The internaut is "an exhibitionist who's been placed under observation in custody (GA: 45--quoting an uncredited journalist)." The internaut survives much as a junky in a dim room lit only by the light emanating from the PC or laptop screen. (This atmosphere of dimness contains something of the essential squalor and seediness of a Baudelaire poem.) The ethereal, sleazy lighting pervades all and always emphasizes an atmosphere of dingy dissipation. The glowing light emitted from the computer screen in an otherwise dark room is the essential room-lighting of our age--ad hoc; indirect; spectral; ambiguous--an emission rather than a definite lighting plan. The internaut's dim room is nothing but a "waiting room (FI: 61)" which resembles an isolated underground bunker (a military operational control-room), a stark air-conditioned space replete with various continuous data feeds including meteorological, live-breaking-news, webcam views to the street, etc. (DS: 59).

One of the most insidiously demeaning and anxiety-provoking consequences of the tech era occupation is the perception that one is getting left behind and must catch up--with the implication being that the individual is not good enough and is unable to keep pace with the tech revolution going on all around, "promoting progress means we are always behind: on high-speed Internet, on our Facebook profile, on our email inbox. There are always updates to be made; we are the objects of daily masochism and under constant tension (ADF: 47)."

Plainly, the dreams and hopes of the early pioneers of the public Internet have not been realized, and in fact the opposite is true: due to the Internet we are now more controlled and overlooked than at any point in human history (LE: 2-11). The tech revolution is nothing other than a "revolution of generalized snooping (IB: 62)."