The Law of Proximity

Essay by philosopher Paul Virilio, published in "Book for the Unstable Media," 1992.

The Law of Proximity

Book for the Unstable Media

"You see this mosquito? It is a remarkable mechanism, with its minuscule receptor for detecting the blood vessels. It makes an incision in the skin with a microscope saw and sucks out the blood with remarkable precision. If one constructed such a machine, one could take blood samples for analyzes, and one would not even feel the prick. We will soon be building micro-robots, and sending them off to explore the human organism," declared the Vice-President of the Toyota-Motor research laboratory. Tomorrow, we are promised, the human body will become the exercise ground for micro-machines which will travel through it in every direction apparently without causing any pain ... Here, then, are the latest prostheses, the new automata: these ANIMATA which will populate our organism, just as we ourselves have populated and developed the expanse of the earth"s body.

Now that 99% of the micro electronic productions are receptors or sensors and the automotive vehicles of the future will have at their disposal some 50 detectors of all kinds for monitoring pressure, vibration and shocks now also smart pills are being prepared for the human organism, pills capable of remote transmission of information about nervous functions and blood flow; while soon to come are micro-robots capable of moving through our arteries in order to treat sick tissue "Industry has already produced the necessary microprocessors and receptors - all we have to do is add arms and legs," explains Professor Fujita of the University of Tokyo.

At this stage in the development of the post-industrial machine, the question of the miniaturization of components becomes essential to the analysis of the topography of technologies. Indeed, while technological history had accustomed us to valuing the growing importance, both volumetric and geographic, of industrial machinery - whether railways, cables, high tension lines or motorway networks - now we are suddenly witnessing the opposite process: technological reductionism is gradually affecting all the disciplines of communication and telecommunication. The law of mechanical proximity which had served to arrange human space - the "exogenous" environment of the race - is being overtaken by a law of electro-magnetic proximity, which still remains to be discovered and apprehended before we more or less passively witness the forthcoming invasion of our bodies and the monitoring of an "endogenous" environment - that of our guts, our viscera, through the interactive capabilities of a bio-technological miniaturization, which will bring to completion the rise of the great means of mass communication already governing our society.

Thus the genealogy of techniques has progressively led us from the monitoring of the geophysical environment - thanks to the development of hydraulic networks and of works connected with the cadastral organization of the world - to the monitoring of the physical environment, with the mechanics and the physico-chemistry of those energies necessary to the vectors of transport and communication, before finally arriving at the monitoring of the microphysical environment - that is, not merely of the climate, but of human physiology, no longer by means of the traditional pharmacopoeia, but through the interactive capacities of those means of transmission which man might soon be able to ingest, even digest ...

In fact, we are witnessing the beginnings of a third revolution: after the transport revolution of the 19th Century, which saw the rise of the railway system, of the car and aviation, the 20th Century has witnessed the second revolution, a revolution of transmissions, through the implementation of the instantaneous diffusion of electromagnetic waves in radio and video.

Now, in the secrecy of laboratories, the revolution of transplants is being prepared - not just the grafting of liver, kidneys, heart and lungs, but the transplanting of new stimulators, much more effective than the pacemaker. Micro-motor grafts will soon be able to replace defectively functioning natural organs, or even to improve the vital capacities of a physiological system in a perfectly healthy person, by means of detectors with instantaneous remote interpretation.

Here a question arises which precisely concerns the topography of technologies: that is, the mutation of the well-known "law of proximity", or if one prefers, the law of least effort, or least action. Reducing or suppressing the distance of action, to the point of introducing the machine, the means of instantaneous communication, into the very interior of the human body - this poses considerable questions about the new technical milieu, the post-industrial "technosphere". Indeed, this action-at-a-distance once again raises the crucial question of the nature of the interval which makes up that distance: an interval of SPACE (sign negative) for the geometric organization and the monitoring of the "geophysical" environment; an interval of TIME (sign positive) for the organization of the monitoring of the "physical" environment, and the invention of means of communication; and finally, an interval of LIGHT (sign zero), the third and final interval (interface), for the instantaneous monitoring of the "microphysical" environment, through new methods of telecommunication.

Before returning to the necessity of redefining the law of proximity, due to the very instantaneity of interactive teletechnologies, we should note that if the monitoring of the preceding environments, geophysical and physical, was rigorously contemporary with the absolute nature of space and time in the Newtonian era, then that of the microphysical environment is contemporary with the absolute nature of the speed of light in the Einsteinian era.

Today, if the action-at-a-distance of teletechnologies is resulting in the transplantation of information sources in the living body itself, it is because the law of "electromagnetic" proximity is definitively supplanting the law of "mechanical" proximity, with teleaction becoming dominant over immediate action.

Let us finally return to the last law of proximity in relation to the principle of least action. If one believes the recent evolution of post-industrial machinery, LESS IS MORE, not only on the level of volume, of the physical bulk of the object, but also on the level of material and the internal constitution of the microscopic device. The question which then remains to be asked is: if less is more, to what extent? To the extent of the virtual? To the extent of that image, that virtual reality, which is finally more determining that the thing of which it is, after all, only the image? As the miniaturization now in progress entails a concomitant dematerialization of the machine, it is as well to ask whether there is a limit, quantum or otherwise, to the processes of reduction and virtualization of the technical object today.

In fact, present - or more accurately, TELEPRESENT - man no longer inhabits the energy of some machinery or other.

Rather, energy instantaneously inhabits and governs him, whether he likes it or not. A radical inversion of the principle of least action which up until that point had moulded the history of societies. Moreover, the aim of this revolution in transplantation is quite clear: it is a question of MINIATURIZING THE WORLD, after reducing and miniaturizing the components and the technical objects which it had contained since the rise of industry.


© Paul Virilio / V2_, 1992

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