Information Bomb

(contribution to the "depletion design" catalogue, to be published by XMLab in saarbruecken, germany)

Wedding Bomb Collage

window display of bridal fashion store with war figurines advancing
on wedding dress in battle formation (multiple views)
valencia, spain
july 2007


Three Bombs

Following his decisive role in the birth of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent American military effort to develop an atomic capacity during World War II, Albert Einstein suggested that in the future the world would need to reckon with three imminent threats: the nuclear bomb, the information bomb and the population bomb. The first had already been detonated as a wartime weapon with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; the second concerned computer technologies such as the Colossus, Z3 and ENIAC, used not only to develop the applied mathematics of quantum theory but also as part of the effort to code and decode encrypted military messages; the third forecasted an exponential explosion of demographic growth worldwide, emerging from an expansionist vision of globalized political economy. Einstein’s hypothesis has become a motif woven insistently into Paul Virilio’s analysis of contemporary society and his war model of urban change. It is an astute conceptual choice for Virilio, since it was in the twentieth century that the implications of light speed and the theory of relativity continually unfolded to reshape social relations from the local community level to that of global geopolitics, punctuated most resoundingly by the twin detonations of Little Boy and Fat Man in 1945, and those of the Twin Towers in 2001.

Traces of these three bombs have dominated Virilio's thought in various ways for the better part of his life. A self-described child of “Fortress Europe” who grew up near the German bunkers that dotted the coast of France during the WWII occupation, he has consistently been interested in how the architectures of war organize space and—particularly since the rise of ubiquitous computing and light-speed connectivity during the past few decades—time. Indeed, for Virilio the questions of speed and time are at the heart of the information bomb and his understanding of its detonation, which we may describe broadly at the outset as those changes in social and political economy wrought by contemporary media and communication technology. According to Virilio, these produce and demand a sort of accelerated and generalized climate of interactivity, analogous to the radioactivity of the nuclear bomb.

Time is key. Virilio's position vis-à-vis the temporality of the information bomb is doubled. On the one hand he views the information bomb as an enduring condition of contemporary telematic societies, with the speed and interactivity of optoelectronic technologies having evoked a radical ontological and epistemological shift in the latter half of the twentieth century that continues today (and in this sense is more consonant with his thoughts on “grey ecology”). On the other hand he describes the information bomb more in the traditional terms of an explosion—that is, as a finite event, even if this event may not be precisely located along the timeline of history.

By way of contrast, when the artist Tom Sherman also speaks of an information bomb, or I-Bomb, he does so in a way that blends both of Virilio's approaches: as a qualitative shift in behavioural, social and commercial patterns emerging from changes in information technology that “exploded” specifically during the 1990s. Using a language of “before” and “after,” Sherman appears to bracket the explosion within the temporal parameters of the popular introduction of the WWW protocol and graphical web browser. Virilio ranges further, meanwhile, entertaining not only more complex genealogies of photography and electric technology, but also, for example, Quattrocento perspective in painting, science fiction-inspired futures scenarios, and Ancient Greek considerations of accidental properties in his critical analyses. The latter is where we shall begin to tease matters further apart, in the precarious middle of a detonation that is ongoing.

That said, the seductiveness of the bomb as motif proves problematic at times since Virilio himself weaves between the traditional understanding of a weapon and his true interest, which is the idea of bomb as a metaphor for the accident that is located within the substance of any technology—the information bomb being the accident of accidents, or the Integral Accident. Semantically fusing the weapon with the accident obscures those aspects of intent and agency required to instrumentalize properties of the latter for creating and detonating a bomb of the former type, which requires a certain degree of pulling apart wires to understand more fully (and hopefully taking care not to inadvertently cut the wrong one).

Dromology and the Integral Accident

Virilio's oeuvre revolves primarily around a “war model” of urban change, driven primarily by questions of speed and a proliferation of visioning technologies inscribed in apparatuses of power and movement. His emphasis on “dromology” (from the Greek dromos, for race or running) is not only concerned with the extreme phenomena of absolute speed in modern societies (Olympic world records, supersonic air travel, fibre optic telecommunications), but also with relative speeds and slownesses understood as thresholds of tempo. In this latter sense we find a resonance with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's interest in fluxes of movement-intensity as they emerge within processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization: the control of tempo itself becomes the key qualifier of power and agency in assemblages of bodies, technologies, information-flows and other forms of materiality—as well as the affects they produce. In his war model of change, Virilio offers not only blitzkrieg tank warfare as an example of relative speed's potential contra the sheer accumulation of armoured materiel, but also the invention of aerial photography in WWI, which extended the optical gaze to new geographies for reconnaissance purposes.

Already we see the emergence of what Virilio terms the “logistics of perception,” or the capacity to arrange a (primarily visual) field of sensory experience to produce strategic outcomes, which in combination with the control of tempo described earlier may alter the complexion of armed conflict. And as with the introduction of aerial photography providing intelligence to remote military decision-makers, this logistics of perception increasingly implies strategic action-from-a-distance, manifest at ever-quicker temporal intervals. With the invention of ARPAnet as a distributed communication network following the detonation of the nuclear bomb and the rise of a persistent nuclear threat between Cold War superpowers, the conditions of possibility for a militarized and decentralized global infrastructure began to germinate. In the introduction to his interview with Virilio and Friedrich Kittler titled “The Information Bomb,” John Armitage suggests that the genesis of this military effort has (at least publicly) been supplanted by multinational corporations and their forces of monopolization, for whom connectivity, bandwidth, databases and accelerated rates of information transfer have become drivers of the contemporary economy. Together with military and political actors, this increasingly connected economy has reached a density such that “an unhindered chain reaction occurs around the globe,” a condition ecological insofar as it forces a complete recalibration of space and time—which is to say the environments of dwelling and commerce—for every body (and animal and object) connected to the flows of interactivity.

Virilio's analysis of the rise and spread of optoelectronic technologies figures as a sort of media archaeology of the past half century: television remote control, low-orbit satellite, surveillance drone, videogames, internet, etc.—all demand a certain interactivity that allows messages to travel in multiple directions (contra a one-way broadcast model). When speeds of information transfer accelerate beyond certain thresholds or when vast volumes of data demand ready analysis, however, pressure mounts on cognitive attention spans to perpetuate electronic discourse, shrinking response times to reflex times at the expense of measured reflection. The logistics of perception take a qualitative turn and cede to automated systems. Though Virilio describes the Integral Accident as “an accident which is no longer local and precisely situated, but global and generalized,” we witness its global connectivity and accelerated, automated decision-making become manifest in systemic accidents such as the notorious Black Monday stock market crash of 1987.

These speeds compose not only the material body in its relation to the world, but also the psychic makeup of any individual whose imagined representations are born of lived movement: one's mental picture of Paris, for example, will be much different having walked the city on foot rather than driven in a car. Once we are describing the globalized real-time speed of electronic communication the psychic condition becomes a hyperaccelerated blur (what Kittler might refer to as “eyewash”) that permits no time for sustained reflection. Rather, we become collectively responsive to affects, whether the “joys” of everyday consumption or the numbing traumas of everyday news. Brian Massumi, for example, suggests that with the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster we have become psychically raw with trauma, as globalized interconnectivity spreads trauma much further than would otherwise be possible with the local accident. While the earthquake, tsunami and failed nuclear reactor have had very significant catastrophic effects on a localized basis in Japan, the trauma has radiated worldwide with the ubiquity of electronic communications, and that there is perhaps a “half-life” of decay to the affective tone it spreads on this global basis. In this we get a vivid example of Virilio's dictum that interactivity is to the information bomb what radioactivity is to the nuclear bomb.

Bomb as Accident-Weapon

But what to make of Virilio’s choice of the term “bomb” (also in the original French, which reads “la bombe informatique”)? Does this deference to the Integral Accident that is the information bomb not absolve or obscure the elements of intent and agency that foster the design and execution of what we would traditionally consider to be bomb-like? Certainly Virilio does not intend to eliminate intent, but in his articulation of “accident-weapons” the logic becomes a little fuzzy, and so the remainder of this entry will simultaneously attempt to make sense of his words while suggesting original interpretations of the accident-weapon.

While there are certainly naturally-occurring processes that morphogenetically potentiate themselves in the exponential power of the explosion (volcanic eruptions, etc.), the linguistic choice of the term “bomb” implies a modern technoscientific (and decidedly human) agency at work—in other words, the explicit attempt to control and weaponize the accident laying dormant within the science. A bomb is created to be detonated, even if ultimately this detonation remains in potential, as with the case of nuclear “deterrence” scenarios. In this sense, the information bomb becomes a question of design woven together with the complex threads of contingency.

It is important to note that, for Virilio, the accident-weapon is less concerned with the destruction of concrete substances, as with more traditional mortar artillery. Rather, it is moreso meant to be productive, specifically producing the simulacrum of an accident. He offers the example of the graphite bomb, detonated in Serbia during the Kosovo War, which was designed to create an electromagnetic pulse that would render telecommunication capacity inoperable while leaving everything else relatively intact. For Virilio, the Integral Accident of the exploding information bomb is such that the bomb-as-accident-weapon would be indistinguishable from the local accident of an electrical blackout.

Jean Baudrillard's postmodern read of the World Trade Center post-September 11, 2001 views the twin towers under the semiotic of closure: representative of American-style neoliberal capitalism, each turned only to face the other unchallenged on the Manhattan skyline. But the introduction of cameras to this assemblage irrevocably pried the closure open to new intensities and vectors of significance. Indeed, it is precisely because of this dual nature that we can speak of an information bomb rather than simply an event which had been archived. Once the camera is introduced to the architectural form—and most in the 9/11 audience had never seen the World Trade Center in person—any such semiotic closure is opened anew, dromologically-speaking, by the instant replay. The caveat here is that the visual dynamics were reversed: instead of a mediated replay serving to illustrate the preceding live event, we had an anterior replay of a plane hitting a building better preparing us to witness the live event of the second plane making explosive contact. The local accident (“did that plane just hit the tower by mistake?”) shifted to a more globalized accident (Virilio reports many TV viewers who believed they were watching a disaster movie until flipping channels to see the same images on every station), which shifted to the dawning horror of the reality of the terrorist attack.

It was the slowness of the planes that made them a particularly useful weapon that day. As opposed to the truck bombs used at the World Trade Center in 1993, which exploded so fast that television was only able to capture the damage done, the slowness of the airliners on 9/11 allowed one to position a personal videocamera in time to view the plane striking the tower—in other words, to witness the actual event taking place. It was only at this point of supercritical mass that speed accelerated to the absolute real-time of the kinematic image, the nuclear-style information detonation delivering an experience far more tactile and visceral than seeing the rubble after the fact.

Just as we opened our discussion with Einstein’s hypothesis of three bombs (nuclear, information and population), we close with a hypothesis of multiple potential information bombs and their differing shockwaves of interactivity: within the overarching detonation of the Integral Accident, an accident-weapon resembling a nuclear blast and perhaps others, such as the contagion-style transmissions of computer viruses. While Virilio has (perhaps fairly) been accused of retaining threads of an antiquated humanism in his analysis of contemporary society, his explicit focus on questions of tempo and underlying concern with responsibility remains relevant for emerging ecological thinking, even as these brave new networks threaten to accelerate beyond our control.



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Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2000.


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