Insomnia | Essays

Xerox and Infinity

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by James Benedict

This essay was originally published as part of Jean Baudrillard's "La transparence du mal: Essai sur les phénomènes extrèmes" (1990), translated into English in 1993 as "The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena".


If men create intelligent machines, or fantasize about them, it is either because they secretly despair of their own intelligence or because they are in danger of succumbing to the weight of a monstrous and useless intelligence which they seek to exorcize by transferring it to machines, where they can play with it and make fun of it. By entrusting this burdensome intelligence to machines we are released from any responsibility to knowledge, much as entrusting power to politicians allows us to disdain any aspiration of our own to power.
   If men dream of machines that are unique, that are endowed with genius, it is because they despair of their own uniqueness, or because they prefer to do without it -- to enjoy it by proxy, so to speak, thanks to machines. What such machines offer is the spectacle of thought, and in manipulating them people devote themselves more to the spectacle of thought than to thought itself.
   It is not for nothing that they are described as "virtual", for they put thought on hold indefinitely, tying its emergence to the achievement of a complete knowledge. The act of thinking itself is thus put off for ever. Indeed, the question of thought can no more be raised than the question of the freedom of future generations, who will pass through life as we travel through the air, strapped into their seats. These Men of Artificial Intelligence will traverse their own mental space bound hand and foot to their computers. Immobile in front of his computer, Virtual Man makes love via the screen and gives lessons by means of the teleconference. He is a physical -- and no doubt also a mental -- cripple. That is the price he pays for being operational. Just as eyeglasses and contact lenses will arguably one day evolve into implanted prostheses for a species that has lost its sight, it is similarly to be feared that artificial intelligence and the hardware that supports it will become a mental prosthesis for a species without the capacity for thought.

Artificial intelligence is devoid of intelligence because it is devoid of artifice. True artifice is the artifice of the body in the throes of passion, the artifice of the sign in seduction, the artifice of ambivalence in gesture, the artifice of ellipsis in language, the artifice of the mask before the face, the artifice of the pithy remark that completely alters meaning. So-called intelligent machines deploy artifice only in the feeblest sense of the word, breaking linguistic, sexual or cognitive acts down into their simplest elements and digitizing them so that they can be resynthesized according to models. They can generate all the possibilities of a program or of a potential object. But artifice is in no way concerned with what generates, merely with what alters, reality. Artifice is the power of illusion. These machines have the artlessness of pure calculation, and the games they offer are based solely on commutations and combinations. In this sense they may be said to be virtuous, as well as virtual: they can never succumb to their own object; they are immune even to the seduction of their own knowledge. Their virtue resides in their transparency, their functionality, their absence of passion and artifice. Artificial Intelligence is a celibate machine.
   What must always distinguish the way humans function from the way machines function, even the most intelligent of machines, is the intoxication, the sheer pleasure, that humans get from functioning. The invention of a machine that can feel pleasure is something -- happily -- that is still beyond human capacity. All kinds of spare parts are available to humans to help them achieve gratification, but none has yet been devised that could take pleasure in their stead. There are prostheses that can work better than humans, "think" or move around better than humans (or in place of humans), but there is no such thing, from the point of view of technology or in terms of the media, as a replacement for human pleasure, or for the pleasure of being human. For that to exist, machines would have to have an idea of man, have to be able to invent man -- but inasmuch as man has already invented them, it is too late for that. That is why man can always be more than he is, whereas machines can never be more than they are. Even the most intelligent among machines are just what they are -- except, perhaps, when accidents or failures occur, events which might conceivably be attributed to some obscure desire on the part of the machine. Nor do machines manifest that ironical surplus or excess functioning which contributes the pleasure, or suffering, thanks to which human beings transcend their determinations -- and thus come closer to their raison d'être. Alas for the machine, it can never transcend its own operation -- which, perhaps, explains the profound melancholy of the computer. All machines are celibate.
   (All the same, the recent epidemic of computer viruses does embody a striking anomaly: it is almost as though machines were able to obtain a sly pleasure by producing perverse effects. This is an ironic and fascinating turn of events. Could it be that artificial intelligence, by manifesting this viral pathology, is engaging in self-parody -- and thus acceding to some sort of genuine intelligence?)

The celibacy of the machine entails the celibacy of Telecomputer Man. Thanks to his computer or word processor, Telecomputer Man offers himself the spectacle of his own brain, his own intelligence, at work. Similarly, through his chat line or his Minitel, he can offer himself the spectacle of his own phantasies, of a strictly virtual pleasure. He exorcizes both intelligence and pleasure at the interface with the machine. The Other, the interlocutor, is never really involved: the screen works much like a mirror, for the screen itself as locus of the interface is the prime concern. An interactive screen transforms the process of relating into a process of commutation between One and the Same. The secret of the interface is that the Other here is virtually the Same: otherness is surreptitiously conjured away by the machine. The most probable scenario of communication here is that Minitel users gravitate from the screen to telephone conversations, thence to face-to-face meetings, and... then what? Well, it's "let's phone each other", and, finally, back to the Minitel -- which is, after all, more erotic because it is at once both esoteric and transparent. This is communication in its purest form, for there is no intimacy here except with the screen, and with an electronic text that is no more than a design filigreed onto life. A new Plato's retreat whence to observe shadow-forms of bodily pleasure filing past. Why speak to one another, when it is so simple to communicate?

We lived once in a world where the realm of the imaginary was governed by the mirror, by dividing one into two, by theatre, by otherness and alienation. Today that realm is the realm of the screen, of interfaces and duplication, of contiguity and networks. All our machines are screens, and the interactivity of humans has been replaced by the interactivity of screens. Nothing inscribed on these screens is ever intended to be deciphered in any depth: rather, it is supposed to be explored instantaneously, in an abreaction immediate to meaning, a short-circuiting of the poles of representation.

Reading a screenful of information is quite a different thing from looking. It is a digital form of exploration in which the eye moves along an endless broken line. The relationship to the interlocutor in communication, like the relationship to knowledge in data-handling, is similar: tactile and exploratory. A computer-generated voice, even a voice over the telephone, is a tactile voice, neutral and functional. It is no longer in fact exactly a voice, any more than looking at a screen is exactly looking. The whole paradigm of the sensory has changed. The tactility here is not the organic sense of touch: it implies merely an epidermal contiguity of eye and image, the collapse of the aesthetic distance involved in looking. We draw ever closer to the surface of the screen; our gaze is, as it were, strewn across the image. We no longer have the spectator's distance from the stage -- all theatrical conventions are gone. That we fall so easily into the screen's coma of the imagination is due to the fact that the screen presents a perpetual void that we are invited to fill. Proxemics of images: promiscuity of images: tactile pornography of images. Yet the image is always light years away. It is invariably a tele-image -- an image located at a very special kind of distance which can only be described as unbridgeable by the body. The body can cross the distance that separates it from language, from the stage, or from the mirror -- this is what keeps it human and allows it to partake in exchange. But the screen is merely virtual -- and hence unbridgeable. This is why it partakes only of that abstract -- definitively abstract -- form known as communication.

Within the space of communication, words, gestures, looks are in a continual state of contiguity, yet they never touch. The fact is that distance and proximity here are simply not relationships obtaining between the body and its surroundings. The screen of our images, the interactive screen, the telecomputing screen, are at once too close and too far away: too close to be true (to have the dramatic intensity of a stage) -- and too far away to be false (to embody the collusive distance of artifice). They thus create a dimension that is no longer quite human, an excentric dimension corresponding to the depolarization of space and the indistinctness of bodily forms of expression.
   There is no better model of the way in which the computer screen and the mental screen of our own brain are interwoven than Moebius's topology, with its peculiar contiguity of near and far, inside and outside, object and subject within the same spiral. It is in accordance with this same model that information and communication are constantly turning round upon themselves in an incestuous circumvolution, a superficial conflation of subject and object, within and without, question and answer, event and image, and so on. The form is inevitably that of a twisted ring reminiscent of the mathematical symbol for infinity.
   The same may be said of our relationship with our "virtual" machines. Telecomputer Man is assigned to an apparatus, just as the apparatus is assigned to him, by virtue of an involution of each into the other, a refraction of each by the other. The machine does what the human wants it to do, but by the same token the human puts into execution only what the machine has been programmed to do. The operator is working with virtuality: only apparently is the aim to obtain information or to communicate; the real purpose is to explore all the possibilities of a program, rather as a gambler seeks to exhaust the permutations in a game of chance. Consider the way the camera is used now. Its possibilities are no longer those of a subject who "reflects" the world according to his personal vision; rather, they are the possibilities of the lens, as exploited by the object. The camera is thus a machine that vitiates all will, erases all intentionality and leaves nothing but the pure reflex needed to take pictures. Looking itself disappears without trace, replaced by a lens now in collusion with the object -- and hence with an inversion of vision. The magic lies precisely in the subject's retroversion to a camera obscura -- the reduction of his vision to the impersonal vision of a mechanical device. In a mirror, it is the subject who gives free rein to the realm of the imaginary. In the camera lens, and on-screen in general, it is the object, potentially, that unburdens itself -- to the benefit of all media and telecommunications techniques.
   This is why images of anything are now a possibility. This is why everything is translatable into computer terms, commutable into digital form, just as each individual is commutable into his own particular genetic code. (The whole object, in fact, is to exhaust all the virtualities of such analogues of the genetic code: this is one of artificial intelligence's most fundamental aspects.) What this means on a more concrete level is that there is no longer any such thing as an act or an event which is not refracted into a technical image or onto a screen, any such thing as an action which does not in some sense want to be photographed, filmed or tape-recorded, does not desire to be stored in memory so as to become reproducible for all eternity. No such thing as an action which does not aspire to self-transcendence into a virtual eternity -- not, now, the durable eternity that follows death, but rather the ephemeral eternity of ever-ramifying artificial memory.
   The compulsion of the virtual is the compulsion to exist in potentia on all screens, to be embedded in all programs, and it acquires a magical force: the Siren call of the black box.

Where is the freedom in all this? Nowhere! There is no choice here, no final decision. All decisions concerning networks, screens, information or communication are serial in character, partial, fragmentary, fractal. A mere succession of partial decisions, a microscopic series of partial sequences and objectives, constitute as much the photographer's way of proceeding as that of Telecomputer Man in general, or even that called for by our own most trivial television viewing. All such behaviour is structured in quantum fashion, composed of haphazard sequences of discrete decisions. The fascination derives from the pull of the black box, the appeal of an uncertainty which puts paid to our freedom.

Am I a man or a machine? This anthropological question no longer has an answer. We are thus in some sense witness to the end of anthropology, now being conjured away by the most recent machines and technologies. The uncertainty here is born of the perfecting of machine networks, just as sexual uncertainty (Am I a man or a woman? What has the difference between the sexes become?) is born of increasingly sophisticated manipulation of the unconscious and of the body, and just as science's uncertainty about the status of its object is born of the sophistication of analysis in the microsciences.
   Am I a man or a machine? There is no ambiguity in the traditional relationship between man and machine: the worker is always, in a way, a stranger to the machine he operates, and alienated by it. But at least he retains the precious status of alienated man. The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me. Video screens, televisions, computers and Minitels resemble nothing so much as contact lenses in that they are so many transparent prostheses, integrated into the body to the point of being almost part of its genetic make-up: they are like pacemakers -- or like Philip K. Dick's "papula", a tiny implant, grafted onto the body at birth as a "free gift", which serves the organism as an alarm signal. All our relationships with networks and screens, whether willed or not, are of this order. Their structure is one of subordination, not of alienation -- the structure of the integrated circuit. Man or machine? Impossible to tell.
   Surely the extraordinary success of artificial intelligence is attributable to the fact that it frees us from real intelligence, that by hypertrophying thought as an operational process it frees us from thought's ambiguity and from the insoluble puzzle of its relationship to the world. Surely the success of all these technologies is a result of the way in which they make it impossible even to raise the timeless question of liberty. What a relief! Thanks to the machinery of the virtual, all your problems are over! You are no longer either subject or object, no longer either free or alienated -- and no longer either one or the other: you are the same, and enraptured by the commutations of that sameness. We have left the hell of other people for the ecstasy of the same, the purgatory of otherness for the artificial paradises of identity. Some might call this an even worse servitude, but Telecomputer Man, having no will of his own, knows nothing of serfdom. Alienation of man by man is a thing of the past: now man is plunged into homeostasis by machines.