TamTam Books News

Saturday, November 08, 2003:

  I found this brief article on the InfoWorld website. It is probably the first time I read the name 'Guy Debord' on a technical site. The article is written by Kevin McKean and it can be found at http://www.infoworld.com/article/03/11/07/44OPeditor_1.html

Editor's Note:
IT and virtualization
Matrix movies, student riots, and virtual advances in technology
By  Kevin McKean November 07, 2003 
With the third installment of The Matrix just out, I’ve been reading a slender but extraordinarily dense book called The Society of the Spectacle , which is sometimes mentioned in connection with these films.

  Don’t get me wrong: The second Matrix was certainly inferior to the first, and I hold little hope for the third, The Matrix Revolutions — aficionados here prefer the 1998 sleeper Dark City. But the series is still fascinating for its premise that ordinary life is just a vast virtual world — the Matrix — constructed by world-dominating machines to hold unconscious humans in thrall.

The Society of the Spectacle, written in 1967 by French leftist Guy Debord, describes an equally appalling but somewhat more plausible virtual world.

Debord contends that modern life is so shaped by consumerism and mass media that it amounts to a grand illusion he calls the Spectacle. In his view, most people do not experience life directly. They live instead like characters in a movie, conforming to a set of culturally determined images all of which support the capitalist status quo.

Debord and his supporters urged revolt against the Spectacle, and their ideas became a rallying cry for the Parisian student riots of May 1968.

Now I don’t pretend that the above summary does Debord justice. The mere fact that I wandered into his book through commercial fare like The Matrix probably lends support to his argument.

But it’s interesting that both Debord and The Matrix view their virtual worlds as necessarily evil. In IT, virtualization is often the necessary first step towards a world of good.

One concrete example: Most modern schemes of hardware management rely on creating a virtual layer on top of existing machinery so that diverse gear can be controlled from a single vantage point. Unless you virtualize the hardware first, you cannot manage it efficiently.

Similarly, products in the business intelligence and business process management fields seek to virtualize information. They can pluck data from diverse sources, including aging “legacy” systems, manipulate it and then re-insert it into the legacy apps to enable better control of a business.

This pattern shows up again and again in IT — including in this week’s review of a new breed of network mapping devices. These products capture information directly from the routers in order to draw a virtual picture of the network that makes it possible to detect and even prevent problems.

If Debord were still alive (he killed himself in 1994), he would likely find this defense of virtualization unconvincing. IT itself, he might argue, is simply another enabling mechanism for the capitalist Spectacle.

But I think it’s significant that virtualization is so critical to the advance of IT. The same may be true of society in some as-yet-unknown way — though the exploration of that idea would require much more space than is available here. Next week, back to less virtual fare!

Kevin McKean is editorial director and CEO of InfoWorld Media Group.

Tosh // 5:54 PM

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