Cybersphere 9: Philosophy

Baudrillard on the New Technologies:
An interview with Claude Thibaut


Mankind face to the machine and to its own reflection :
corollary of the new technologies' boom.
Jean Baudrillard deals with the universe of virtuality,
the consequences of which are not so virtual...

Claude Thibaut : From your point of view, what potential
do the new technologies offer?

Jean Baudrillard : I don't know much about this subject. I
haven't gone beyond the fax and the automatic answering machine.
I have a very hard time getting down to work on the screen
because all I see there is a text in the form of an image which I
have a hard time entering. With my typewriter, the text is at a
distance; it is visible and I can work with it. With the screen,
it's different; one has to be inside; it is possible to play with
it but only if one is on the other side, and immerses oneself in
it. That scares me a little, and Cyberspace is not of great use
to me personally.

In what domains can these new technologies be used:
communication, education, simulation? Are they likely to modify
the attitudes and behavior of those who use them?

I think that it will no doubt explode in all directions, because
this is a sprawling medium, and it will grow in all of the
domains. But do the ends remain the same; that is doubtless the
main problem. Let's take pedagogy for example: doesn't
information kill education? I have friends who are experiencing
this in the domain of writing, and for my part I find that their
behavior changes in a way. The possibility of indefinitely
adjusting the correct version creates a sort of fantasy of
perfection of the text which gives the latter another allure,
another construction than those which their earlier writing
possessed. The result of this quest for perfection remains
problematic. We have the impression that the machine operated
beyond the ends of the writing.

Is there a distortion of the personality?

Perhaps there is a distortion, not necessarily one that will
consume one's personality. It is possible that the machine can
metabolize the mind.

Isn't interactive communication on the Internet in particular a
big novelty in the world of media?

There is a considerable expansion of all of the possibilities,
but is it a good thing in the absolute to follow through with
these? Isn't there a sort of wall or overkill? Communication
seems to exhaust itself in the practical function of contact, and
the content seems to retreat: the network, rather than the
network's protagonists, is given priority. This last becomes an
end in itself.

Some people seem to be excited about videoconferencing. How can
this desire to see each other to communicate be explained?

In a real face to face encounter, there is a complex relation, in
which each person is an actor at once both present and absent. In
on-screen discussion, there is only an alternating presence of
one and the other. Expression is more targeted, more functional
and completely disembodied. It is doubtless suitable for
professional kinds of conferences. No doubt, the videoconference
offers the attraction of fighting against this disembodiment.
It's a way of adding to the presence..

Do you think, as Monsieur Virilio does, that there are very great
risks in developing the Internet?

Monsieur Virilio is right that there is a risk of the subject
being taken hostage, in a way, by his own tool. However, I do not
see a doom-laden phenomenon there. I would side more with Leo
Scheer, when he says that virtuality, being itself virtual, does
not really happen. To make the network operate for the network by
a machine whose end is to operate at all costs, is not to give it
a will. One lives in the very Rousseauistic idea that there is in
nature a good use for things that can and must be tried. I don't
think that it is possible to find a politics of virtuality, a
code of ethics of virtuality because virtuality virtualizes
politics as well: there will be no politics of virtuality,
because politics has become virtual; there will be no code of
ethics of virtuality, because the code of ethics has become
virtual, that is, there are no more references to a value system.
I am not making a nostalgic note there: Virtuality retranscribes
everything in its space; in a way, human ends vanish into thin
air in virtuality. It is not a doom-laden danger in the sense of
an explosion, but rather a passage through an indefinable space.
A kind of radical uncertainty. One communicates, but as far as
what is said, one does not know what becomes of it. This will
become so obvious that there will no longer even be any problems
concerning liberty or identity. There will no longer be any way
for them to arise; those problems will disappear a little below
the horizon. The media neutralizes everything, including, in a
way, power, and virtuality itself is not able to turn itself into
a political power..

What do you think about the notion that Bill Gates does not have
any real power?

One could not contest that Bill Gates has materiel strength and a
power, which appear as a form of mythology in the sense that it
has no relation whatsoever with the political relation, and that
it abolishes traditional structures . Furthermore, this thing is
quite capable of destroying itself. The sprawling monster can
develop linearly in an exponential way, then fall into a chaotic
zone of turbulence leading to accident, a sort of prevention and
precaution against the omnipotence of the system which turns the
meanings of things upside down. Accident can appear as silent
resistance, a sort of negative self-regulation of the machine. In
fact, virtuality is perhaps not a universal form of life, but a

Isn't this radical uncertainty brought about by virtual [Image]
reality likely to challenge man's vision of himself and
the world?

Certainly, because it is the system of representation that is at
issue. The image that he has of himself is virtualized. One is no
longer in front of the mirror; one is in the screen, which is
entirely different. One finds himself in a problematic universe,
one hides in the network, that is, one is no longer anywhere.
What is fascinating and exercises such an attraction is perhaps
less the search for information or the thirst for knowledge than
the desire to disappear, the possibility of dissolving and
disappearing into the network.

After all that has just been said, what about happiness?

Happiness is essential for both the individual and the group. The
possibility of having available all the means to attain it
creates a kind of electronic "high", a kind of happiness so
evident that it ends up having no more raison d'Etre. There,
there is a general problem of critical mass of the means which
puts an end to ends. What happens when everything has been
realized in modernity, when everything is virtually given? The
question is crucial: where does one go from there? That is the
problem: from the moment the subject is perfectly realized, it
automatically becomes the object, and there is panic. I am not
sure that with the virtual world we are moving closer still to
happiness, because virtuality only gives possibilities virtually,
while taking back the reference and the density of things, their
meaning. It gives you everything, and subtly, surreptitiously it
takes everything away at the same time. It is a game of which one
does not know the rule[s]. One loses what one wins and vice
versa. All that one can do is refuse to play, but it's not easy
in our times. Books and writing will subsist in a kind of
parallel existence; they will only be more precious for it
because they will serve as a reference. It is difficult to oppose
the virtual world because it harnesses all the polarity of the
system, the positive and negative poles; it absorbs everything.
One can hope that there is in each of us something singular that
will allow the development of a reverted, reverting defense

Interview by Claude Thibaut, March 6, 96
Translation : Suzanne Falcone

Baudrillard on the Web