Blog Post

Accidents, Collisions, and Crashes

Reading Greg Ulmer's recent ruminations on the Internet Accident, I was reminded of Volkswagen's extremely disturbing car accident commercials.  Ulmer's discussion of the accident draws on Paul Virilio's work:

"The condition for which avatar must prepare is the Internet accident, with Internet serving as a metonym for the digital technologies of new media rapidly replacing the literate apparatus as the support for the language function in society.   The Internet accident is a General Accident that occurs everywhere simultaneously, an event made possible by the light-speed connectivity and global reach of digital media, especially as these capacities are extended into such features as telepresence.  Paul Virilio poses the question:  what is the integral accident that may be expected to follow upon the invention and general adoption of the Internet?  In our context, he is asking:  what are the consequences of electracy?"

I'm just now familiarizing myself with Virilio's work, but I think it offers us a way to think about our obsession with collision and the accident.  Virilio's discussion of technology forces us to recognize that the "accident" is not an accident at all.  The disaster, the accident, the meltdown...all of these are built into the technological apparatus.  They do not happen by accident at all, theyare part of any technological innovation.  If we follow this logic, then the ethics of innovation change a great deal.  We (designers, engineers, rhetors) can no longer shrug off the accident as collateral damage because the accident is part of the design.  

One class I have taught to computer science majors, Literature and Computer Programming, opens up similar questions by asking students to consider code as a "world creating" text. If coding is writing, then it's much more than "getting things to work."  Further, if coding is writing, then we have to consider the far reaching ramifications of the text.  What are the various accidents that will happen as a result of this code?  Who is responsible for such accidents?

This question of responsibility brings us to the irony of the Volkswagen ads (and the various other similar car advertisements).  The implicit message of such advertisements is that Volkswagen is making you safer.  Accidents will happen, and that's not VW's fault...it's just the risk you run when you get behind the wheel of a car.  But they won't be as bad if you drive a VW.  If we rethink engineering after Virilio, we have to reject that the accident is an accident at all.  For Virilio, the accident is part of the design, and we can't shirk responsibility by saying that it wasn't intended.  VW is responsible for the accident in an important way, even if they're trying to manage its aftermath.

When it comes to this new grammatological phase we are entering - Ulmer calls it electracy - these ethical questions are becoming central.  We no longer live buy the intentional fallacy with regard to art or literature.  Isn't it time to do away with this same fallacy when it comes to engineering?  This suggests a new (and devastating) definition of responsibility.  Responsibility, after the Internet Accident or the "general accident" of Virilio, is no longer confined to consciousness or intention.  I am responsible over and beyond what I have intended.  It seems to me that a major rethinking of ethics and responsibility is necessary.

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