Nowhere to retreat to in a world without absence or darkness

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's an engaging pocket cartoon in the current Prospect magazine. It shows a bristly guy brandishing a pistol and shouting down a phone: "First Direct? This is a stick-up!"

This put me in mind of a wild new book by the French philosopher of speed, Paul Virilio. His line has been that the fundamental feature of modern society is competitive speed. Everything, especially everything military, has to move faster and faster. He calls this competition "dromology", after the Greek word for racing, and (being a French intellectual with a gift for amazing concepts) warns that we are ruled by "dromocratic totalitarianism".

Now he is investigating a different sort of speed. This is not about whizzing pieces of hardware, but about the superspeed of instantaneous communication. In Open Sky, Virilio looks at the meaning of the computer, the screen, e-mail and the rest of information technology. He draws two terrifying conclusions.

One is that it no longer matters where you are. "With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything." You can do anything anywhere, given universal instant communication. Other people do not have to be "present" in the old literal way. All you need is their virtual presence down the wire, on a screen, or - soon, perhaps - in your brain through electrodes screwed into your skull. The Prospect bank-robber, holding his gun to the telephone, is only a little ahead of his time. After all, Nick Leeson on the Barings Bank computer in Singapore was also abolishing distance as he robbed millions of virtual pounds, yen and dollars from all over Asia.

Virilio does not admire this. In fact the prospect appalls him. His second terrifying conclusion or prophecy is that information technology will now move into the human body itself. Having abolished distance between human beings, the technology will be implanted into brains, eyes and other organs.

"The innards of the human body are preparing to receive their complement of intro-organic micromachinery." Bodies will be wired with electronic pathways to extend the nervous system. After the virtual-reality helmet comes the implanting of minute electronic devices into the eyeball which will allow the person to see what he or she wants to see - or what somebody else wants him to see.

Sex, too, will go virtual. After the nerd scanning porn on the Internet comes the simulation of sex with another distant but physically existing human being. And then, "with the aid of biocybernetic accoutrements using sensor-effectors distributed over the genital organs," comes sex with a partner who is seen and felt but in fact without any "real" existence at all. Virilio is an often maddening writer who enjoys splurging around with language to the point of incoherence. But he has invented a good word for this: "Teledildonics".

How far have we moved towards these nightmares? As I struggled with Virilio's whirling paradoxes, I kept remembering John Donne's "Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day". The final words seemed to bear on all this: "Absence, darkness, death: things that are not". What will dromology and teledildonics leave of those three?

Absence, first. In Moscow last July I watched a colleague from one of the tabloids leaning against the doorway of the Mossoviet building and composing a story about Princess Diana on his mobile. London rang him; he called a pal in St Tropez; Buckingham Palace press office called him back; other distant people in Paris or New York checked things with him as we got into a bus and rode off down Tverskaya Street. Here was a human being who had made himself permanently accessible. Wherever he went, he was never out of touch. He could always be "got hold of". He had transcended the very notion of absence.

All my life, absence has been a dimension. People who worked with each other, needed each other or loved each other endured times when contact could not be made. Perhaps it was a grand separation, a posting to a far- off warship which generated letters and rare, costly telephone trunk calls. Perhaps it was just a phone ringing which nobody picked up, because nobody was in. In these intervals of absence, there was no way to know what the sought person was doing or thinking or feeling.

But that condition is beginning to dissolve. The mobile phone is one technical step in the process of abolishing absence - and also solitude, privacy, the ability to hide. Like 24-hour television news or round-the- clock radio music, the mobile phone demands that communication must be continuous and unbroken. Silence and uncertainty are "inappropriate". A break in transmission, a break in contact - these are dark rents in the fabric, and fear leaks through those rents. Yes, you can turn the mobile or the bleeper off. But, increasingly, it's a bad mark. Between the mobile phone and the electronic tag on the thief's shin, there is an ominous and growing kinship.

What about darkness, the second of Donne's "things that are not"? I remember one winter night in Leipzig, in the time of the late German Democratic Republic. Coming out of a Beethoven concert by the Gewandhaus orchestra, I turned a corner and found myself in sudden, starless pitch-darkness, the kind which makes you hold out your hands and feel with your feet in case you fall over something. It was just lack of street lights, not even a power cut. But I suddenly realised how little darkness there remained in Western cities or countrysides. Once I was accustomed to darkness, the substance one normally encountered between lamps. Today, the youngest children I know are not so much frightened of full darkness as baffled by it. What is this stuff?

There is no darkness in a wired-up world. There the lights are on 24 hours a day, all-round illumination. But how about Donne's third "not" - death?

Virilio is pretty obscure about this. He is supposed to have said: "One day the day will come when the day will not come". In this book, he quotes a poem:

Going faster is playing with death;

Going even faster is getting off on

death.

I take this to mean that even cybernauts are mortal. It is true that correct use of DataSuits and brain implants would mean that the dead could be made to go on living, simulated with total conviction in the brains of the wired-up undead. But this would mean the end of grief, rather than the end of death. After all, if teledildonics means that nobody gets Aids but nobody gets pregnant either, the species will die out. And Virilio also prophesies a "general accident", ensuing after "the acquisition of speeds known as 'orbital' or 'escape' velocity which ... force us to lose our bearings, to lose touch with the surfaces of matter ..."

So death will remain, at least until there is nobody left to die. That's a sort of relief. But how can we live without absence and darkness? It would be a mistake to take Donne at face value, and think that his three "not"-states are just black negatives. They are positives too. "Absence, darkness, death" are the black settings against which presence, light and life become visible.

A hundred years ago, separated lovers exchanged "Mizpah brooches". The name referred to a verse in Genesis: "Mizpah: The Lord watch between thee and me, when we are absent one from another". It's not those who travel too far, but those who travel so fast that they abolish distance, who end up alone.

'Open Sky' is published in paperback by Verso, priced pounds 10

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