Networks and primal accidents

”It is urgent that we rethink the accepted philosophical wisdom according to which the accident is relative and contingent and substance absolute and necessary,” Paul Virilio argues in his essay The Primal Accident. It is indeed a very important essay for me since it shows how accidents or modes of destruction need to be thought simultaneously with modes of production. Instead of thinking accidents as surprising failures that “unexpectedly befall” the machine, system or a mechanism Virilio argues that they should be considered as specific failures typical for the machine. What he means basically is that machines are produced and molded against their typical accidents. Cars are designed to avoid and survive road accidents. Ships are designed to avoid from sinking and so on. It is the destruction as a primal accident that lurks behind the design of our machines. It is always implied but simultaneously obscured almost to the point that it disappears.

Quite clearly we can talk about disconnection as the primal accident of the internet. As the old myth goes, the internet was built to resist nuclear attack. It led to the discovery of the packet switching protocol. The core idea was that if the network is decentralized it will survive attacks that are targeted against individual nodes. Hence the primal accident became the founding principle of the technical and political development of the internet and we still see it in action. Mode of destruction works as the mode of production.

However we can also take an inversed perspective and think of the mode of production as the mode of destruction. Now the internet was built to survive from the destruction of an individual mode, but it could also be used to destroy an individual node. It’s mode of survival (that is packet switching in de-centralized network) could be reversed and turned into a war machine of distributed denial-of-service attack. That is an attack from multiple systems against one remote host.

We see the complexity of ethical judgment here since the same system could potentially be used to good and evil In fact one starting point for digital ethics could be not to judge but to try to focus on affects and potentialities of digital networks. One possible reference here, in addition to Deleuze, Spinoza and the usual suspects, could be Alain Badiou since ethics for him ethics take place in breaks and ruptures of a situation, that is with or within primal accidents.


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