D4TC| Reading Discussion: “The Vision Machine” Paul Virilio

I chose to focus my discussion on Paul Virilio’s The Vision Machine the reading for this week. However, the assigned film Nostalgia for the Light and Ed’s description of the lecture theme in general both tie in with this work and will be explored within.

About Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio… Kinda Creepy!

Paul Virilio is a renowned French cultural theorist and urbanist. According to wikipedia, he is best known for writing about the evolution of technology (in terms of speed and power) using references from a range of disciplines including architecture, art, cities and the military.

One of his most important contributions is in the area of media studies. According to the article “Paul Virilio and the Mediation of Perception and Technology” in Enculturation, Virilio focused on three main theme areas throughout his many works: the histories of the technologies of perception, the analysis of dominant logic and perception of the day (aka real time), and the political implications of technologies of representation.

The Vision Machine Excerpt – Chapter 1, A Topographical Amnesia Discussion

What was it all about?

In Vision Machine, Virilio examines how technology informed and shaped people’s perceptions of the world around them, how they “saw” the world. He discusses this chronologically and across many different disciplines including art, photography, propaganda, military endeavors etc. One of the most interesting parts of this excerpt for me was Virilio’s recounting of a discussion between Auguste Rodin and Paul Gsell (1 – 3). In this conversation, they discuss the difference between how a statue looks as if it is in motion when viewed, but how a photograph of said statue seems frozen. When the question comes up of which is real, which is true when perceived, Rodin says (and Virilio adds on):

“It is art that tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality time does not stand stil…

I also fascinating when Virilio explored how memory also informs this locus of perception.  As a photograph first can cast our instantaneous perception of a moment astray, because it isn’t representative of time, memory informs it and shapes it, further making it more and more unique and abstracted for each person.

This is also referenced in Nostalgia for the Light. The narrator describes how life was lived in the moment, perfectly ordinary in his memory, until the day it all changed and they “woke up” to reality.This is very similar to Virilio’s description of how the world felt upon perceiving the brutal images of World War I transported on the wires of the new technologies of the day. Later an astronomer being interviewed remarks that everything is the past, even the conversation being had right then, even if only by milliseconds. The time it takes to capture a moment using photography, for the light to hit the lens, is already beginning the falsehood described above.


Not Explicitly Part of Discussion, Just Some Cool Related Sites

Here is a cool trailer that someone made in 2009 for a BBC show called Vision Machine that was about Virilio’s work (it never aired…).

It would also seem that someone created a project/website called “The Vision Machine” as well. It describes itself as a scholarly platform for critically engaging the intersection of war, peace, and media. Exploring this page, I found a video that documents their visit to the Army Experience Center, and the games that the army uses to train soldiers. It explores the weird intersection of army recruitment and first-person shooter game culture in our society. A great representation of Virilio’s points on militarism and technology!


How It Ties In

This week’s lecture theme very much is informed by Virilio’s explorations of the logistics of image, and how it evolved. As Ed stated “The city comes to life through the overlapping ambience it hosts: as a kind of software, in cultural movements, or a kind of hardware, in the physical forms of the architecture of the city itself”. A city isn’t just the building it inhabits its an interface that mediates between our perceptions of time, memory, reality, and permanence. As our technologies change, our perceptions of the world change. Virilio points out that “line of sight” was originally militarily based but comes to inform photography and permeates language as a concrete idea. In Nostalgia for the Light the narrator literally sees his world through the mechanism of a telescope and how astronomy shapes his perception. Now we strive to “network” before “unplugging for the day” while hoping we can find someone to “turn us on”. Our language, a symptom of the total permeance of technology upon how we perceive the world as individuals, and as Virilio explores in his piece, through cultural movements across sectors and disciplines.

The ultimate lens?

Seen through this lens, you could say that Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End is an extrapolation of this chronology  as our exponentially evolving technologies begin to shape perception totally and utterly. In this book nothing “real” matters, it is drab and boring. Instead, networks broadcast a variety of preferred realities that are overlayed on the material world through use of contacts. The world literally becomes a true link between software hosting these experience, the physical place that anchors these virtual realities, the hardware, – and maybe we are then the wetware in the equation?

I’m actually currently reading Neuromancer by William Gibson, and his descriptions the techno-grit and grime of Ninsei’s body/tech grafters and weird subcultural movements of teenagers who stick “Microsofts” into their necks and plug into to Sense/Net’s Ice like some kind of drug, really have stuck with me when reading Virilio’s work and looking at Ed’s write-up. Are we the next software interface?

Fan Art for Neuromancer

For more cool Neuromancer art, which I think is actually pretty evocative of some of Virilio’s ideas around perception (can we perceive the real world as the net, as a simulation, the ice???) being linked to (and maybe now subsumed by) technology check out io9’s – Most Amazing Artworks based on William Gibson’s Neuromancer

Questions I Have

  • What does it mean to be virtual vs. real? How has this line shifted, where do we think it will go next? Can we know?
  • How can we as designers interface our software (apps, programs, websites) with the physical “hardware” of urban places (architecture, public spaces, public art) to unite the two experiences in meaningful ways for inhabitants.
  • How does technology shape our language and semiotics – as it relates to perception?



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