I D É E S   F O R T E S    Issue 1.02 - June 1995

The Perfect Crime

By Jean Baudrillard

There is always a camera hidden somewhere. It may be a real one. We may be filmed without knowing it. But we may also be invited to replay our own life on whatever television network. The virtual camera is in our head, and our whole life has taken on a zero dimension. We might believe that we exist in the original, but today the original has become an exceptional version for the happy few. Our own reality doesn't exist any more.

We are exposed to the instantaneous re-transmission of all our facts and gestures on whatever channel. We would have experienced this before as police control. Today, it is just like an advertising promotion. It is irrelevant to get upset with talk shows or reality shows. For they are only a spectacular version, and so an innocent one, of the transformation of life itself into virtual reality.

TV and the media have left their space to investigate real life from the inside, and to substitute themselves into it exactly as a virus does in a normal cell. We don't need digital gloves or a digital suit. We are already moving around in the world as if we were in a synthesised image. We have swallowed our microphones and headsets. We have interiorised our own prosthetic image and become the professional showmen of our own lives. Compared with this, reality shows are only side-effects. In indicting them as manipulation the critics assume that there is somewhere an original form of life, and reality shows would be only the parody and the simulation of it.

It is the same thing for virtuality. All this digital, numerical and electronic equipment, is only the epiphenomenon of the virtualisation of human beings in their core.

Live your life in real time, that is live and die directly on the screen. Think in real time, and your thinking is immediately transferred on to the printer. Make your revolution in real time - not in the street, but in the broadcasting studio. Live your love and passion in real time, by videotaping it as it happens.

This conversion of the mediatising to the immediatised is already implied in McLuhan's formula "The medium is the message". McLuhan gives us a prophetic definition of the collapse of the medium as the message. He is the prophet of the vanishing communication process - a process that includes the assumptions he emphasised. "The medium is the message" stays as the emphasis of the communication era, its password, and the sign of its end.

So what is exactly at stake in this trend to virtuality? What is the ideal of the virtual? It seems that it would be the unconditional realisation of the world, the transformation of all our acts, of all matter of substance into pure information. This is the same as Arthur C Clarke's fable about the names of God. In that, the monks of Tibet devote themselves to fastidiously transcribing the 99 billion names of God, after which, they believe, the world will be accomplished and the end will come. Exhausted by this everlasting spelling of the names of God, they call in some IBM types who install a computer to do the job. A perfect allegory of the achievement of the world in real time by the operation of the virtual. As the technicians of IBM leave the site, they see the stars in the skies fading and vanishing one by one.

Maybe if there is an allegory of our technical transfiguration of the human species, it would be that we have been invested - without knowing it - with the task of programming, by exhausting all its possibilities, the code for the automatic disappearance of the world. It is the very idea of the virtual.

All forms of high technology illustrate the fact that behind its doubles and its prostheses, its biological clones and its virtual images, the human being is secretly fermenting its own disappearance. For example, the video recorder connected with the TV. It sees the film in your place. If it hadn't been for this technical possibility of devolution, of a vicarious accomplishment, we would have felt obliged to see it, for we always feel a little bit responsible for films we haven't seen, for desires we haven't realised, for people we haven't answered, for crimes we haven't committed, for money we haven't spent. All this generates a mass of removed possibilities. And the ideal is that a machine is there that can deal with these possibilities and can filter them: an answering machine, a personal organiser.

And then, artificial intelligence. A brain, adapted to an artificial environment. Thinking becomes a high definition operation, suppressing all distance, all ambiguity, pressing the very illusion of thought. Just as the illusion of the image disappears into its virtuality, just as the illusion of the body disappears into its genetic inscription, just as the illusion of the world disappears into its technical artifacts, so the natural intelligence of the world disappears into its artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence is everything except artificial. It is definitive of real thinking, as in real politik, fully materialised by the interaction of all virtualities, analyses, and computations. Not the slightest feeling in all of this of the illusion of artifice, of seduction, of the more seductive game of thought.

Such are the stakes involved in the virtual realisation of the world, and we must take it as irreversible. The logic of this goes to the end, to the final solution. Once performed it would be the equivalent of the perfect crime. This future extermination which would result from the absolute determination of the world, and of its elements, would leave no traces at all. We would not even have a choice. All this artificial intelligence, telesensual reality, virtual reality and so on - this is the end of illusion. The illusion of the world, the world illusion of passion, of thinking, of the aesthetic illusion of a scene. Of true and false, the whole illusion of death, of living at any price, all this is volatised in psycho-sensorial tele-reality in all these sophisticated technologies, which transfer us to the virtual, to the contrary of illusion, to the radical disillusion.

Fortunately, all of this is impossible.

It will never succeed. Fortunately. Not that we trust in human nature, or in a future enlightenment, but because there is actually no place for both natural and artificial intelligence. There is no place both for the illusion of the world, and for the virtual copy of the world. There is no place both for the world and for its double.

When the virtual operation of the world is finished, when all the names of God have been spelt out, which is the same basic fantasy as the declination of the human genome or the world wide declination of all data and information, then we too shall see the stars fading away.

Edited from Jean Baudrillard's recent ICA lecture.