Mediamatic Magazine vol 3#3 Paul Virilio 1 Jan 1989

La Conduite Inférieure

Paul virilio, dromologist and warspecialist, analyses in an in itself teledynamic essay (Interior Conduction) in which way the contemporary technology is a hidden form of the catastrophe.


La Conduite Inférieure -

The revolution of the means of transport

In the past, when the written word was supreme and the quantity of available facts small, emphasis was laid on the transport of information: metabolic transport (runner, horse or carrier- pigeon...) or technical transport (signals, wagon, boat...). The authority of the pontifex (etymologically speaking the person who captures and directs energies) corresponds in the first place with movement-control. His palace functioned as a ’inertia navigation system’ of the country’s information. Political and policing power, based on knowledge-control, therefore resulted directly from the capacity a priviledged caste of messengers (charioteers, runners, horsemen) had of collecting information from even the most distant corners of the empire: general information, which preceded the collection of taxes and, indirectly, laid the foundation of the strategic and economic control of the country. Because the value of the message corresponds with the speed
of delivery, one can easily imagine the importance of this courier service (the head of the Roman cursus publicus could even be nominated for the imperial purple).

It was a privilege in feudal times, later passed on to the nobility and to big capital, to have a dovecot: a rapid system of sending messages.

After the static system of optical signals in ancient times and the development of the telegraph, there is a sudden development of the means of transport. The train succeeds the stagecoach. In fact, this revolution in the means of transport is the logistic result of efforts exerted over thousands of years to improve loading capacity and transport (by river, sea and land) - efforts made to establish the economic and strategic command of various dominant powers. The area of information benefitted only secondarily from the technical development of the means of transport (galleys, sailing vessels, wagons and relay stations, mail coaches, telegraph systems and
telephone lines...). It should be remembered, by the way, that in this historical epoch, public power was based on the physical strength of the infantry and on the cavalry’s capacity to penetrate. No advanced ground-based technique, not even artillery, was able to surpass the metabolic force of mobilized bodies (from Ceasar to Napoleon the measure of speed was that of the relay horse).

As a true cultural revolution of the modern western world, the revolution in transport in fact, introduces the information revolution. With the proliferation of the means of communication (train, automobile, aircraft, radio, telephone, television...) made possible by industry, the power of information increases at the same pace as does the informing of power. It is the era of the first press agencies, but also of the scientific development and internationalization of the police and the intelligence services (civil and military). Computer science and telecommunication shall only complete a development started hesitantly a century ago by the telegraph and the railway. We therefore witness consecutively a process of de- animalization followed by a process of de-materialization-. not only does the machine replace the (pack, draft or racing) animal, this technical method of transport tends to make way for the transmitted message and, in the end, for the immediacy of radio and radar signals. The automobile, byproduct of the steamengine, will, despite its electrical motor, have to wait until halfway the 20th century to enter the information- revolution. It then does so with the car radio, the car telephone and, timidly, the car television. Ever since its mechanical and thermodynamical origins (CUGNOT), and considering the very lively competition with the railways and with commercial aviation, it must be noted that, with the automobile, the principle of independence of transport has always masked the principle of the information of transport. With electronics this period is coming to an end.

The automobile machine

The transition from movement to transfer and from transport to transmission involves, using electronics, not a simple combining of parts like in the past, but the disappearance of differences between kinds. Applied to the propulsion of a vehicle as well as to a transmitter, electronics results in a true technological mutation. If there used to be a radical difference between the pigeon and the manuscript, and a certain distinction between the crystal-receiver and the automobile, this difference is now in the process of disappearing completely. The best example of the mixing of transmission and propulsion is, without doubt, the American airforce board- simulator. This instrument is capable not only of simulating movements like landing, taking off and various breakdowns (of which commercial and private simulators are capable too), but is also able to simulate flight patterns of the most complex kind, like those of fighter aircraft.

Presently, these ground-training simulators are being installed on board. The heavy transport aircraft galaxy has two connected control centers: the traditional cockpit from where the plane’s trajectory through airspace is plotted, and the center which controls the structure and the instruments of the aircraft. This somewhat peculiar co-pilot, instead of scanning the sky, now scans the monitors and screens. These continually indicate the effect the flight has on the wings and the distortions - and other technical disturbances - affecting the body, the circuits and the functioning of the engines. In absence of real defects, this test-pilot simulates accidents and engine trouble; to test response capacity it challenges the technical universe of the aircraft in flight, like the other pilots do with the atmospheric conditions on the way.

Only a few years ago the pilot took care of the
aircraft on his own, attentively observing the light signals and other instruments on his instrument panel which could indicate defects. Now the hugeness and the increasing complexity of the aircraft contribute to realising a transfer of responsibilities from the pilot to the simulator (whether this is a inertia navigation system or a
human expert is of little importance, as the result is the same). The galaxy is at the same time hand-operated by the pilots, and remote-controlled by its flight simulator. As the flight simulator is gaining influence and pilots are losing it (the first flight of Rockwell’s HIMAT in July 1979 illustrates this), it must again be noted that indirect information is supplanting direct information in all areas. This is confirmed by the fact that simulator hours are now registered as flight hours...

Side by side with the strictly police-like dimension of the operation of the aircraft (the control of the flight) the purely play- dimension of the
electronic game finds its first official recognition here. Economic reasons support this analysis: the cost of the aircraft and its fuel fully justify the counting of simulation hours as flight hours. Also, however, we see here the disconnection of price rates from the distance effectively covered (this is the famous deregulation: yesterday, telecommunications were involved, today it is international aviation...). As the new economist GARY BECKER explains: The only thing which develops in the end is the price of Time.

The price of space does not cease to be devalued; we observe for the last time, that the message does not consist of the movement of the vehicle but, as indicated before, of the movement of the movement. Formulated differently: the speed- vector.

The fusion of the various means of communication and of telecommunication - the gradual disappearance of the differences between transfer and long-distance transport - are now better
understood. The measure of the value of the message and the journey is no longer the technical characteristic of the audio-visual machine or the automobile; it is the speed and intensity of transit (see in this regard, the term packetswitching used in communication networks, or the electronic password). The most recent fusion/confusion of computer science and telecommunication indicates the theoretical and practical importance of this point.

The teledynamics of the machine

Since the message no longer consists of the independent movement of a vehicle, but rather, of the movement of the movement - the vecto - it matters little what is moved (object) or transmitted (data, images). What counts from here on is the vectorial capacity of the transfer. The essential characteristic of electronics is the fact that it currently represents the most effective application of the vector speed.

Let us take a look at the sophistication of the modern fighter plane: the pilot, subservient to the machine, boxed up in electronic closed circuits, is a motor disabled person. When he acts and moves the control stick, receptor instruments measure the movement and transform it to a signal; this first signal is sent to a calculator which also receives information from the gyro- meters and the accelerometers. The computer of the inertia navigation system mixes the different signals and calculates an output signal so that the movement of the aircraft will correspond with the planned flight movement.

Power steering being analogous, the elaboration of the flight plan gives the pilot the feeling that, by his allignment, his aerodynamically unstable aircraft is in fact, stable, homogeneous and easy to manoeuvre. Strategic considerations lead to continuous demands for further improvement of engine performance; the discrepancy between reality and fiction is hereby constantly increased. This results in the definite abandoning of mechanical transmission systems in favour of electronic relays.

The autonomous vehicle, capable of covering long distances, thus resulted from a transmutation of species. This is confirmed by the research being done on Remotely Piloted Vehicles (rpv) and on Highly Manoeuverable Aircraft Technology (HIMAT). Here, lifting power is controlled almost entirely by electronics: the wings, no longer serving as support and airfoil, participate in steering the aircraft along its trajectory (this technology originated from variable geometry). This fundamentally unstable high speed aircraft, continually in the process of crashing and losing altitude and direction, is ceaselessly involved in restoring its balance.

Although this high technology is still in the experimental phase, it does give some indication of the future of aircraft electronics. In the case of the HIMAT, electronics are becoming as important as engine power in keeping the aircraft airborne. The future fighter aircraft (acf) is propelled by air ejected from its exhaust nozzles at high speed, and equally, no longer by fixed wing planes, but by a very complex inertia navigation system receiving information from receptors installed in the skin of the aircraft, and regulating its stability. These interchangeable elements have a controlled flexibility (comparable to the vibrating skin surface of dolphins).

In fact, the instantaneous feedback of flight data provides immaterial support to an aircraft almost entirely lacking airfoil. This programmed instability or, better still, this constantly postponed crash, gives the supersonic fighter plane an unsurpassed manoeuvering capacity at high velocities.

The connecting of the exhaust ejection speed to the speed of information of the inertia navigation system, finally makes telecommunicative control over lifting power possible, completely distinct from the mechanical control in a traditional aircraft (wings, fuselage, tail fin, elevators and stabilizers).

Computer science has already merged with telecommunication, i.e. with its instant transmission across a distance (using the network of telecommunication satellites); now we also note that it is disappearing into a limited object too. The disappearance of great time-distances not only exhausts the meaning and the geographic dimension of the world, but also the technical dimension of the aircraft, even its outer design. Following speed-distance (milliseconds, Mach...) the body of the moving airplane experiences pressure analogous to the pressure on the territorial body: the technical object undergoes a deformation inherent to the rapidity of the information transfer. Because the rapidity of data transmission acts in the same way on the form of the aircraft as air resistance does, we now see telecommunications and aerodynamics being combined. The combining goes to the point where - instead of super- or hypersonic - we could call these aircraft teledynamic, speed of information resembling the speed of light more than the speed of sound. In fact, just like television is the result of the movement of light particles accelerated in the cathode of the appliance, the image we have of the form of the supersonic aircraft is hardly more than a hologram, result of the excessive dynamics of the information or, in other words, the capacities of informative teledynamics.

Even if research in the field of automobile electronics do not profit from this high aviation technology, it is certain that studies of the aerodynamics of ground effects will have many points of comparison with this perspective on the mutation of the machine (remember in this connection the principle of positive and negative carrying capacy in Formula I racing cars). More and more use is being made of the linkage of the undercarriage (the tyres, the belly of the vehicle) with the surface (trajectory, racing track); the space between the moving body and the ground is tended to be regarded as a motor, as a nozzle into which the relative wind is propelled (the wind as a result of speed, the meteorological wind, the artificial wind in a wind tunnel...).

Once again, two elements which in the past were strictly separate, are combined and joined, no longer by the simple construction of a road (earth, bitumen, asphalt), but by the technical mutation of the interface. The fusion/confusion of the mobile and the immobile thus leads to a completely new economy of the object’s trajectory.

The relative invisibility of the machine

Let us take a chronological look at the field of the evolution of transmission technology (steering and power-steering), starting with mechanical methods, electromechanic and electromagnetic techniques, and finally the present microprocessors. What do we see? An increasing miniaturization of elements and processes, i.e., a statistically significant tendency to the disappearance from sight, the camouflaging of instruments and the machine itself...

This development is, in itself, very instructive about the recent evolution of technologies and especially of electronics. We noted earlier that, on the one hand, speed of movement on the ground impoverishes the places this movement occurs (roads, highways, racetracks) because it smooths the route and makes it uniform. On the other hand, the high velocities in aviation have led to a frenzied aerodynamic streamlining of the aircraft. Now we observe that the instantaneousness of the transfer of information leads to an extreme miniaturization of parts and, in the end, to the sudden disappearance of the technical object itself. Note now that this perceptive threshold is of direct importance to the application as well as to the attractiveness of the instrument or machine. Beyond a certain critical point, the technical object integrates into a new entity, a new instrument which, in turn, becomes desired by the user or buyer, the object of his interest.

It is not simply an issue of marketing. The undertaking of appearances does not only concern the acquisition but also, and especially so, the use, the usefulness, of the technical object (vector or vehicle). For this reason it seems essential to take a close look at the character of the electronic display (numerical, analogous or figurative). In fact, it can be predicted that the more miniaturization takes place and visualization becomes important, in the long term electronics will disappear into opto-electronics, just as computer science is in the process of merging with telecommunications.

It is once again confirmed that mixing is an integral part of high technology; maybe contemporary technology is only a particular form of fusion and fission (of materials, species, disciplines), i.e., a hidden form of the catastrophe and the chain reaction. As an aspect of the crisis of dimensions, miniaturization seems, in the end, to be one of the axes of scientific and technological development. But here again we are witness to an acceleration in procedures of smuggling from sight. In the past, the size of every technical object gradually diminished, but this happened over long periods of time. Today, the wish to make space and to make parts lighter, leads to an accelerated depression of forms and volumes. The technical object does not only have to meet the requirements of the user (engine performance, economy...), it has to fit in a miniaturization sequence which has the same place in production technology as obsolescence has in the consumer economy. The final dissolution into a new whole being the equivalent of the first research into aerodynamics, the form of least resistance has to answer not only to air, to relative wind, but primarily to the space-time of technological development; this must result in an absence of the evolved element.

Note carefully: if computer science is in fact merging into telecommunications, it is because the megacomputer has dissolved itself into the microprocessor chip... In the same way, if electronics is commingling with opto-electronics, it is because the reality of the object is losing its meaning and its value, in favour of fleeting sequences of its reproduction.

These assertions can be verified by looking at the American research program on the invisible plane, the stealth. The aerodynamic studies of the aircraft are no longer directed towards improving the air resistance coefficient; they attempt to reach the highest degree of invisibility for radar surveillance. The silhouette of the machine is no longer only a result of the speed of propulsion and the immediate reactions of the air lift receptors (like with the himat), but also of the speed of detection by radar waves...

The shape of supersonic aircraft is therefore the result of a double performance: the relative invisibility of the plane results from the speed of the engines and from the rapidity of the detectors. All this is done to reinforce the strategic value of airspace, which has been devaluing because of its transparency in comparison with submarine space, which is opaque and therefore dissuasive.

The aesthetics of the appearance of a stable image, present because of its stability, is succeeded by the aesthetics of the disappearance of an image, present because of it's evanescence...

translation Maarten Bavinck