2009-03-01

1993

1993

Even though teletechnologies radically transform or even eradicate the foundations of democracy, or “the link between the political and the local, the topolitical,” as Derrida has put it, they still yield a possibility of intervention or interactivity (a notion that Derrida, and one must agree, calls “slightly ridiculous”).

Ursprungligen publicerad i SITE 25.2009

En tidig (1994) version av mjukvaran till World Wide Web. Bild: CERN (beskuren).


“Statement concerning CERN W3 software release into public domain/To whom it may concern/Introduction/The world wide web, hereafter referred to as W3, is a global computer networked information system./The W3 project provides a collaborative information system independent of hardware and software platform, and physical location./…/Geneva, 30 April 1993”1

Some fifteen years ago, in 1993, Bernard Stiegler performed an improvised (yet videorecorded) interview with Jacques Derrida that would later be transcribed, edited, and eventually published as Échographies de la television.2 The themes of the session vary, but are nonetheless bound together to some degree by the two philosophers reciprocal interest in (and to certain extent fascination with) the effects and velocity of the technologies of late capitalism. In many ways, a return to this interview a decade and a half later might be considered of questionable value, especially since technologies of the recent past are often regarded as the most obsolete—no longer new, bearing promises of the future, not yet old, bearing along the past. However, to both Stiegler and Derrida, teletechnologies—understood as the common denominator for technologies that carry things over spatial distances, i.e. one- or two-way communication systems such as television, telephone, internet, etcetera—yield a special interest as they—in an exemplary manner—unveil our ever-present faculty of repression and at the same time lend themselves to a philosophical and historico-political analysis of the technologies of making present.

Opening the chapter dubbed “Acts of Memory: Topolitics and Teletechnology,” Stiegler proposes: “The technique of alphabetic writing and the widely shared practice it makes possible were the condition of the constitution of citizenship” (Echographies 56). Considering this ancient technology to be radically different from that of teletechnologies, in the sense that the former inevitably encompasses not just the possibility of writing but also of reading, Stiegler sees in the latter a lack of competence “with regards to the genesis or production of what he [the addressee] receives. And yet, thanks to technical evolution, machines that can receive and, simultaneously, produce and manipulate are becoming widely available“ (Echographies 56).

This technology, then, both has its historical predecessor and represents something hitherto unseen in that “this technical evolution makes possible a cultural politics aimed at turning the addressee into an actor or agent in production” (Echographies 56). Hence teletechnologies at the same time possess the ability to overthrow the remnants of an old schema—in this case that of producers and consumers—as well as, which in part amounts to the same thing, possessing the ability to annihilate borders and boundaries, dissolving the territorial foundations of the sovereign, the nation, the citizen, and democracy as such. Says Derrida: “The question of democracy, […] may no longer be that of citizenship. If […] politics is defined by citizenship, and if citizenship is defined, as up to now it has been, by inscription in a place, within a territory or within a nation whose body is rooted in a privileged territory” (Echographies 57).

"As this technology is still regarded as interactive by dint of its aura of bilateralism, this restart would mean the dawning of the age of a new grounding of politics beyond mankind’s topological rootedness."

Even though teletechnologies radically transform or even eradicate the foundations of democracy, or “the link between the political and the local, the topolitical,” as Derrida has put it, they still yield a possibility of intervention or interactivity (a notion that Derrida, and one must agree, calls “slightly ridiculous”). Derrida notes, as early as the infancy of the most interactive of these technologies (and eleven years before the introduction of the concept of Web 2.0), how the means present are not used in a way they could or should be, the possibilities inherent don’t “even come close to what we would like to see, namely, for addressees to be able to transform, in their turn, what reaches them, the ‘message’, or to understand how it is made, and how it is produced, in order to restart the contract on different terms” (Echographies 58). As this technology is still regarded as interactive by dint of its aura of bilateralism, this restart would mean the dawning of the age of a new grounding of politics beyond mankind’s topological rootedness. However what we have seen so far rather amounts to the opposite. (A recent example: the idolization by political apparatchiks all over Europe of the Obama campaign and its use of the web as a means to promote and convey their message [as well as raise funds]).

The Stiegler/Derrida interview dates from the same year as Vernor Vinge’s notorious paper “The Coming Technological Singularity.”3 Here he proposes the often quoted and from an anthropocentric perspective rather dystopian conclusion: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” With reference to Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book The Singularity is Near, the concept of Singularity is here understood in terms of “an event capable of rupturing the fabric of human history.”4 Or in a more lengthy description by the same author:

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality. If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it’s simply this quality: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations (The Singularity 9).

Transcendence returns as the core of humanity, this time by means of a future technology and the coming technological Singularity. In the minds of both Vinge and Kurzweil, this seems to rest upon an understanding of technology as something completely external.


  1. CERN celebrates the 20th anniversary of the web—or as they have chosen to describe it “World Wide Web@20”—in March this year. Why 1993 here occurs as a more significant point of departure is, as the quote states, the release of the W3 to the public domain (cdsweb.cern.ch/record/1164399). For more on the celebration visit: info.cern.ch/www20/. 

  2. Jacques Derrida, Stiegler, Bernard, Échographies de la television: entretiens filmés, Galilée, Paris, 1996. I refer to the English translation Echographies of Television, first published by Polity Press 2002, translated by Jennifer Bajorek and henceforth cited as Echographies

  3. www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html 

  4. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, Penguin, London, 2006, 23. Henceforth cited as The Singularity