What We Do is Secrete: Paul Virilio, Planetarity, and Data Visualization


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What We Do is Secrete
On Paul Virilio, Planetarity and Data Visualization1

Benjamin H. Bratton
University of California, San Diego

Perhaps three years ago, I was speaking with the architect, Neil Denari, about how, in the 1980-90’s, French theory of technology had been approached, fetishized, absorbed, and mobilized by experimental design practices, such as his own. About Virilio, he said something like, “we were trying to figure out what the architecture would look like that would embody his theory.” Clearly Virilio’s own early collaborations with Claude Parent were not it. “We kept hoping that the answer would be on the next page, but it never was.” The text below, considers one belated or at least delayed --and certainly problematic-- candidate for what Virilio’s thought looks like: Exit (2008)

1. Is Space Digital, Is Earth Space?
Craig Hogan is an Astronomer at the University of Chicago, and was a member of the High-z Supernova Search that helped discover Dark Energy, the substance which, as it turns out, may comprise most of the universe, all the way out to the edges of space where time began. Dark energy not only fills space, but as it grows, it expands space. The amount of dark energy is actually increasing, and so not only is the universe expanding, but its rate of expansion is accelerating. Acceleration, the speed of speed, is a physical fundament of reality, perhaps the most fundamental fundament. Of late, Hogan has been working on another project of similar scope and significance: an experiment which would prove that the absolute fabric of space is not smooth and continuous but chunky and blocky.2 In a way, Hogan’s experiment would demonstrate that at its tiniest scale space is digital, comprised actually of the finest possible state oscillations. The implications of such an insight might be incredible, or they might be met with a shrug, or with assumption that the formal “metaphor” of the digital, of Informationalism, has found another way to naturalize its fragile, historically-contingent appetite. (Or, the implications of “digital space” may be incredible, barely comprehensible in the span of our immediate history, and met with such incredulousness.)

Meanwhile, Paul Virilio is a Philosopher based in Paris, who has written scores of texts attempting to provide a negative apologetics of globalization and the subsumption of the continuity of the Earth, as experiential terrain, into the omnivorous universalisms of cyberinfrastructure. The “world” is a casualty of its appearance in digital images of itself. It cannot survive its own testimony. It is shrunken, eaten, defamed by its reduction to a plateau of digitalized time. What, for Virilio, is the technique of this death? Where difference and analogy are naturally functions of distance, in the ecumene of global information the ecology of distances has collapsed. For Virilio, digital space is its own kind of dark energy, one which instead of expanding space and elongating real distances, flattens the space of analogy into the ubiquity of network time. What is the image of that ubiquity? What is the Time-Image of the World? What is our own acceleration, displacement, elongation, migration, vector, line, link? Can it be properly drawn, presented, framed without replicating the terms of reduction that Virilio’s metaphysics of the digital image would want to escape? In other words, when is the digital diagram, the interfacial network visualization, also a cosmogram (a diagram of the whole of the Earth and its cosmic situation)? What violence does its interactive speed do to the depth (or depthlessness) of the global space that it models? What can we do with these pictures of the data that we, the world, secrete: what do they want from us?

Native Land, Stop Eject, a 2008 exhibition at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, curated by Virilio and Raymond Depardon, featured extensive visualizations of qualitative and quantitative data to demonstrate an Informational Earth-ontology of generalized mobilization. Known first as Exit 2, to differentiate it from Virilio’s curatorial statement, Exits House, and then later simply as, Exit, these indexical, diagrammatic polemics and their immersive environmental staging was realized as a collaboration between statistician-artists, Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, who developed the physical data display, and architects, Laura Kurgen and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in collaboration with Stewart Smith, Robert Gerard Pietrusko, Aaron Meyers, Michael Doherty, and Hans-Christoph Steiner, using a projection system created by Bernd Lintermann and managed with Niko Völzow, both of the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM).3 The result is an iconic, magnificent immersive panorama that works as a cipher for the paradoxical symmetries between various geopolitical emergencies and paradoxes, for example the forced migration of indigenous populations, on the one hand, and the forceable prevention of migration of undocumented persons, on the other. Exit, the cosmogram, sees the Earth as digital, or least as a digitizable construct, or perhaps it takes that supposed digital composability as the object of its critique. But what is most urgently at stake, in its rendering of Earth-as-data-in-motion plus Earth-in-motion-as-data, is the geometry of geography from which sovereign claims to the planet --and sites upon it, and within its envelope, including our own persons-- can be configured. In examining Exit am interested in a geophilosophy of (data) visualization. We don’t have such a resource, or perhaps instead we are drowning in it. We are up to our eyeballs in network visualizations but without sufficient meta-language to make sense of the patterns of the patterns weaved from patterns. Or, on the other hand,  and in light of recent commentaries by Bruno Latour and Lev Manovich, perhaps the network-images provide an alternative syntax, grammar, vocabulary --even a new anatomical channel of cognition-- that makes those old meta-languages of meaning meaningless4 Is it one or the other? Because Virilio has been one of the most militant and nuanced critics of how the “grey ecology” of digital information distorts and diminishes the visual field, and with it the scalar integrity of the Earthly horizon, this chapter will draw links between that one and that other. It does so through the example of Exit, and its use of complex data visualization as an auto-pedagogical platform. Through this, we may see how the intensively affective landscape of interactive surfaces, and their liquid digital semiotics, both is and is not constitutive of what Virilio might call accidents of perception and the governability of human movement. We can consider a ‘Virilovian’ critique of data visualization in relation to this exhibition, its ambitions, and its insights. Perhaps such critique will validate this particular panorama and perhaps it will not.

2. Processing: The Relative Motility of the Image of Relative Motility

    “The voyage stacks space upon space, concrete space upon the space of knowledge, the space of practical communication upon the former two. It therefore stacks map upon map, world-map upon world-map, the uniform space of plains and seas, the space of techniques, the space of knowledges. When the first cycle is exhausted, a second cycle is constituted from it; when the second is finished, a third, and so forth. The voyage is inscribed on several maps at the same time: thus there is a vertical component, thus, interchanges between the world-maps, passages between the maps. There are folds, there are faults, there are breaks, there are passages.”
--Michel Serres, “Jules Verne’s Strange Journeys”5

    “I’m nostalgic for the world’s magnitude, of its immensity.”

The exhibition with two curators and two names has two themes. First, Depardon’s Terre Natale, “Native Land” refers to an interest in the loss of “native” geographies, territories, concepts of space --homelands-- through the homogenization of global grids and their extrinsic, comprehensive, trans-terrestrial perspectives. Just as the global careers of Sanskrit, Latin, French, English endangered and ultimately eradicated tens of thousands of fully formed human languages, mature technologies of expression, so too have telescopes, microscopes, telegraphs, satellites, fiber-optics, supply-chain synchronization protocols, TCP/IP,  QR codes, Google Earth, etc. absorbed other possible territories into their master systems. For example, in the exhibition catalog, Bruce Albert discusses the transformation of “Yanomami territory” from urihi pata (“the whole world”) through its translations and encounters with Colonial cartographies, up to the present. Spoiler: it gets both smaller and more specific. “Native spaces,” the diversity of human geography, is eaten alive, like native languages, until only network time fills up the Earth. Second, Virilio describes “Stop-Eject” (the English phrase is used7) in terms that might suggest a more melancholy version of William S. Burroughs/Brion Gysin’s admonition that we, the species, are “Here to Go.” By that, the innovators of the Cut-Up meant that evolution from one body to the next, from one interior to the next, from one planet to the next is based on a genetic-existential restlessness and desire for flight. For Virilio, the compulsion to movement is instead a kind of absolute inverse incarceration within a Total Space that requires everyone and everything to live (if to live at all) under the governance of a regime of relative motility. You are not allowed not to move. That is, unless your movement, like that of sans-papiers, represents some exact contradiction within a global capital-demand-labor-conflict apparatus that compels migration but punishes and polices its legal representation. 
 These are the stakes for the exhibition, and specifically for the main showpiece, Exit, to exhibit and give representation to the grids that engineer these eradications and compulsions, and, ironically/problematically/purposefully to embarrass and make nude such processes in the real natural language of grid-time itself: the network visualization.  So once again, what is network visualization as a cosmogram, or as what Heidegger called a “World-Image?” I wonder if that is not really the question most at stake as outlined by Virilio for this project? An open question of planetarity and its portraiture? After all what is on display is this logic of display itself. If that is the case, what do we make of the fact that the exhibition suggests no outside of this total network space, but only returns that metrical gaze upon itself? Specifically, Exit is not one visualization, but a series of immersive, panoramic cinematic-diagrams conceived, designed and programmed by that extraordinary Superteam of artist-coders-architects8 (Perhaps soon, that combination of skill-sets will be the norm for any serious work of seeing-inhabiting-analyzing, which is to say, “urbanism”.) Spectacularly in-the-round, the exhibition screens cinematic visualizations based on data relating to the following (themes as named in the catalog): natural disasters, political refugees and forced migration, speechless and deforestation, rising seas, sinking cities, population shifts:cities, remittances: sending money home. (So that my commentary is not too abstract, the reader should pause from the text now and view still images and videos of Exit on the Fondation Cartier channel at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xb7pwl_native-land-stop-eject-copenhagen_creation. See also links to all exhibition videos in column right). For more stills and some commentary on the design, see http://stewd.io/w/exit and/or http://vimeo.com/album/95133)

To compose these patterned-events/evental patterns, and to project them as ultimately visual realities, is both timely and fragile. There is a paradox is at work. Exit, it would appear, exhibits the information that explicates Virilio’s commentary, whereas Virilio and his commentary, it would appear, undermines this innocence of information, and the disposition toward visual translation and exhibition. Insofar as the exhibition and Virilio are neighbors, in situ, what does Exit really say about Virilio when their conjunction suggests at once the philosopher’s commentary as a metatheory of visual culture, or a particular definition of visual culture as information, or an example of that culture, or even perhaps the visual culture of that commentary? How best to account for the works of designer-programmers juxtaposed to the commentary --or to that philosopher’s physical person in this case-- which are posed as its expressive translation: a visualization of the argument about visualization, indeed against even the culture of the visual per se, but which this work is nevertheless itself as an undeniably expert example? At question is the tension between (1.) the exhibition of an image of information, a figure which would characterize, distance, challenge the presence of “information” as world-substance and as an agent of dromocratic mobilizations, and which would serve as analogy to the eschatological condemnation of Informationalism in Virilio’s texts, and (2.) an appearance of the image rendered from information, an immanent diagrammatic constellation of the traces produced by the placement and displacement of connections across time and through space, an indexical smear coded in Processing, OpenGL, drawn from spreadsheets, its rows and columns populated by the accumulated instances of causes, transitions, and effects of the forces of relative global motility, from micropayments to megacities, “every person represented by one pixel.” In this tension two accidents come into focus: network visualization as failed cosmogram, and the dissolved subject of data visualization. More on these below.

Figure one: From Exit, the Earth rolling over the panorama space unfurling data on the projected population of its megacity nodes.

Figure two: Can you find yourself in this image? From Exit, Exhibition attendees viewing a visualization of the flows of remittences from one country to another. Above images courtesy Stewdio.

Figure three: “pixels represente...” From Exit. Still from amateur video of the exhibition, in which, for some visualizations one pixel represents every person.

3. From World-Image to World-Visualization
The coupling of geographic visualization and remote sensing technologies with ever-more accessible gigaflop computing capabilities allows researchers in a broad range of contemporary sciences, from climate modeling and comparative genomics to satellite-based archaeology and population epidemiology, to render intensely vivid representations of worldly processes as “networks” and to calculate and integrate discontinuous information flows into precise planetary-scale instruments.  Exit both references critically and exemplifies this coupling. Data visualization megaprojects are not only an increasingly normative means for doing science across disciplines, they often form the basis of general purpose technologies, letting you and I situate and organize our lives and interests through them or in their image.

For example, the Quantified Self (“QS”) movement evangelizes the potential for such transparent feedback systems to improve personal performance and well-being. In the rendering of life as data, our subjectivity is rendered, comprehensively, as the “User.” A second- or third-order cybernetic architecture is at work: global visualizations (like we see in Exit) are composed to sift patterns within landscapes of informational events and actors, which may be already piloting themselves according to more local indexes, diagrams and feedback loops (such as the self-accounting regimes of QS) which in turn may also be responding directly to modulations in the global system in which they see themselves as an embedded actor (like the drivers who all refer to the same Google Maps road traffic data updates and switch freeways all at once, effectively causing new traffic jams or even alleviating the snarl from which they tried to escape: the regulatory equilibrium of self-mapping swarms). After all in Exit, “every person is represented by one pixel.”9 Its global visualization describes a universal system monitoring particular events, which are, in turn, monitoring themselves in relation to the universal system, and back again. Here the “global” is not some master abstraction, and the local is not an autonomous thread of events and instances. Instead both are interwoven, mutually-embedded scales of assemblage which comprise and delimit one another. As in the Exit visualizations, the multiplied accumulation of smaller scale assemblages (information events such as a single cash remission or cross-border movement) cascades across the plane of the Earth composing the global scale as the pattern-space of these interlocking network flows (as in this case the patterns of the financescape.) At the same time, the scale of the global assemblage provides top-down structures (legal, geographic, semiotic) governing and delimiting bottom-up multiplications, and so recomposes forces “back down” to regional and molecular levels, determining in advance the kind of flows that can and cannot be initiated and sustained. In this architecture, the global and the local are not dichotomous, but are mutually embedded one inside the other.10 While this is not exactly big news for social theory, it is worth pointing out again for this context in light of, and as a corrective to, some of the current discourses about networks and visualization. I am specifically referring to Latour’s reading of Gabriel Tarde’s sociological monadology vis a vis data visualization, which is positioned by him against Durkheim’s macrologic abstractions, and leads him to conclude, in characteristically reductive fashion, that there is “no global” and “only” nothing but the local at different scales.11 But instead I find that the sum of parts-that-busily-sum-themselves is always both more and less whole than the whole-which-sums-their-sums. In this recursion --the measurement of phenomena that already order themselves with mechanisms identical to those used to do the measuring-- underscores that such planetary information infrastructure and the cultures of a data diagrammatics as a general purpose epistemological method, is a means not only to scan a world but to compose one as well. Data visualization is, for good or ill, a kind of worlding.

However, as Virilio has repeatedly articulated in dozens of different ways in as many books, one persistent irony of Modernity’s auto-technologization is that as the capacity for very high resolution representations of worldly space scales quantitatively, our own individual and collective abilities to comprehend and access the world as a coherent situation correspondingly wane.12  The Modern ethos of disclosure, transparency and enlightenment is channeled into ever higher degrees of informational, diagrammatic density and more operative means to circulate, socialize, represent and instrumentalize these sums, which in their provision of one world and worlding, efface others. They eat languages and territories. This chronic disjuncture between systemic complexity and representational fidelity on the one hand, and the dissipation of meaningful situadedness on the other has been characterized by critical philosophical discourses variously as metaphysical catastrophe, political disorientation, and a pervasive precarity of social cognition).13  In his 1938 essay, “The Age of the World Picture,” Heidegger  lamented the homogenization of knowledge under the rubric of a technoscience that invests its energies in the construction of increasingly rationalized images of the world, and in the disciplining of these images mistaken for an advanced comprehension of the world. But since then the situation has also changed, has both been radicalized and involuted. The emergence of Information Visualization as a mature design and scientific discipline is based less on the Enlightenment’s curation of carefully harvested bits of precious data points, than as an adaptation to the challenge of an overabundance of information. Its job is to simplify, summarize and attempt to give some narrative to stores of data that come at us too fast and too complex for unmeditated interpretation to handle. That is, the answer to a query about the world proves so complicated that another question must be asked of the first answer to make it legible and practical, and so on into further recursion. Our eyes are burned by the light of this abyss, so we shield them with the shade of diagrams. In this cycle, the singal-to-noise ratio of everyday life is at stake. Again, whereas the first Modernity of science was predicated on the precious rarity of data coaxed from formal experiment, and the performance of close readings upon it, the second is being designed to manage the oceans of chatter that have resulted from the globalization of computational surveillance, tracking, monitoring, storage and compositional technologies (and to automate pattern recognition without the depth or prejudice of primate hermeneutics). 

Now inside the critical tension of Exit, between image of information (“what is information doing in the world?”) and image from information (“what is the world as information?”) is couched another tension between cosmogram and territory as such. The basis of delineation itself is at stake for the contemporary “world picture” (let’s say now “world visualization”) now  no longer drawn but programmed.  No less now than before, the production, display and consumption of the image-territories, constitutes the irresolvability of political geography through the always shifting terms of interiority and exteriority by which one geography is nested inside another by different social actors for different purposes. What is local for me may be global for you. We can ask then: from the age of the world-image to the duration of the world-visualization, what is delineation within globality, including borders, when as in Exit, they are derived both from and as the programmed image-assemblage of interlocking assembled image-events? Every claim on globality, every cosmogram, is not only a description of what fills space, it is also claim for the very quality of space in which it imagines itself to be and into which its politics would ever move. It is not merely that the global, what Jean-Luc Nancy defines as “an indistinct totality grasped as a whole,” is sufficiently vast and objective that it might contain the multiplicity of movements made within it, but that its very positing, position, and projection already constitutes a medium of distance and differentiation. Further, for the global, it is not only that its conditions of translation would require visualization, they are only ever being visualized and re-visualized over and over without resolution, generating the blurred quality of geography by putting it to work, as image, and transforming the world into a territory of interfaces specific to its quantifiable characteristics and agendas.14 This interfaciality is, as I will discuss below, critical for the specific cosmogrammatic claims of Exit. And so we must, contra Heidegger et al., entertain the notion then that the chronic disjuncture between information fidelity and phenomenological depth, is not a pathology of the Modern but a condition of worldliness per se, of the inscription of territorial information as a reductive “framing of the earth,” and as the fundamental basis first of architecture and then of art, of any synthetic identification and projection: of design itself.15 Or, even, going back to Manovich and Latour, is it a matter of learning another way of thinking through exegetic pattern recognition? But even if we wish to make that particular leap of faith, immanence, even immanence of the emergent diagram, is despite its role in the Deleuzian turn, hardly a fully secular move. For Virilio, the Christian, the global conversion --from catholic cosmogram and the axis mundi that named the temporal immensity of “the world” to the shrunken, flattened, two-dimensional and affectless network time of the “planet”that fills it up on screen-- is an absorption, secularization and profanation of the divine. He remarks in a recent interview with Sylvère Lotringer on the financial crash, that today’s qualities of technology --“instantaneity, ubiquity, immediacy”-- are those “associated with the divine.”16 Indeed the classical immanence of the divine in the world is more overdrawn than overthrown by the immanence of the emergent programmed image, appearing in, on, and as the world in the form of recursive data visualization.

But even so not all parts of Earth are equal. Heidegger obsessed about the ground, but as Catherine Malabou writes, he “forgot all about the air.”17 For Exit, the emergent, immanent programmed world-visualization is literally drawn by lines extending across a sub-divided plane, new longitudes and latitudes cross-segmenting into finer and finer grained grids and alter-grids. This doesn’t only segment space, it generates it. In The Nomos of the Earth (1950) the infamous, and now posthumously ubiquitous, Carl Schmitt unfolds a European history of such linear partitions as both primordial taking and occupation, and the projection and abstraction of jurisdiction in the image of its territorial division.18 Land and water provided an initial difference between the firm ground as one mode of Earth that is durably occupied and which demands the legal and military claims of the sovereign State, and another liquid surface which was, instead, a vast interstitial commons, dissected by naval strategies and logistical intrigues. The taking to the air, and the ongoing technologization of aerial warfare (from USA Civil War balloons, to World War 1 Allies/Axis airplanes, to the drones over the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan) floating above land, not on land, somehow not inside the land’s jurisdictional space, transforms that ungrounded ground into something more like the omnidirectional surface of the open ocean. Virilio’s career argument, from la Vitesse et la Politique (1977) to La Guerre et la Cinéma (1989) to L’horizon Négatif (1984) to Open Sky (1997) bends, extends, reforms, and innovates the political theology/geography of Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth from the philo-jurisprudence of war toward what replaces it: planetary media as the means without end. The mutability of the spatial segment, both Schmitt’s and Virilio’s, is not in the past, today it itself accelerates. The line which might partition (and separate) plus the line which might link (and conjoin) is also the line of velocity. This explosion of subdivision, the emergent image of planetary subdivision, and this abstraction through deep materialization of the unfolding of the real events of network time (radio spectrum allocation, air rights provisioning, micropayment targeting, minority language extinctions) is what Exit demonstrates and what it literally does. This is what Exit repeats in miniature upon its panorama, this globality composed in the first instance by the primordial taking and abstraction of network visualizations of an unequal Earth in motion and of motion.

4. Cosmograms That Show Something, Cosmograms That Do Something
The last chapter of the Native Land/Stop-Eject catalog book is called “Animated Maps: Data Sources.” It provides a basic bibliography of the sources from which the Exit design team drew the raw data with which they composed their visualizations. The datasets themselves are not made available, nor the exact methodology employed to express them, nor the source code of the programs running along the panoramic wall, all disclosures that might be expected by the disciplinary norms of peer-reviewed science. This transparency is there to ensure the reproduction of results and the reliability of knowledge produced. Bad data sources ensure bad visualizations, regardless of the honorable methodologies executed upon them. But the expectations for data and art, or data and philosophy, or data art that seeks to explicate philosophy, as in this case, are less defined. The bibliographic inclusion of legitimate sources is more a gesture toward responsibility than an invitation to replicate their results. What would that even mean anyway? What is the result, true or false, of the explication and expression of a philosophical intervention? Where the title card next to a work of art in a museum might normally describe its source materials, date of completion, dimensions and so forth, when and how should it communicate or verify or directly make available in some way the source data so that, for other criteria, we might be able to guarantee the quality of the work? Does data intensive art-design demand a different kind of peer-review? Does it resist it, does it instead stage that transparency as a kind of seductive truth-affect? In the dispositions of art (and design, architecture, philosophy) do we even know what to do with information other than to stare at it? Or as put bluntly by Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak in her lecture, “Imperative to Re-imagine the Planet” “globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control. Information command has ruined knowing and reading. Therefore we don't really know what to do with information.”19

Now this may be because many of our methods of knowing and reading require revision and yet are are hesitant, to say the least. For example, while the real history of worldwide quantification, the statistical imaginary, of managerial numeracy, probabilization, stochastic accounting, etc. is substantial, it is not as well philosophically developed as it might be, Frankfurt School dismissals of bureaucratic rationalism, not withstanding. (In addition to Foucault’s work on the history of population medicine, key histories of the quantification of society might include Governing by Numbers: Figuring Out Democracy (1991) by Nikolas Rose and The Taming of Chance (1990) by Ian Hacking. There are many others, but, to Spivak’s point, Theory is playing catch-up.) As Manovich points out, statistical modeling has long been based on the selective sampling of representative data points and the inference of general patterns from them. Sampling is a function of both the efficiency of reductive synthesis and of the difficulties (technological, communicative, conceptual) in gathering all points in a given data set. In this, the statistical imaginary is designed to favor the regularization of data points and the establishment of mathematical norms across fields of samples. Averages and means organize and structure statistical inquiries, and this is how the statistical imaginary framed its subject and subject matter: average patient, typical voter, ergonomically normal user. But under conditions of data abundance, and even population comprehensiveness, when every point in a field can be accounted for and represented, where n of sample = n of population, then the modality of pattern shifts off-center from one of reductive average to other emergent, shifting, plural clusters of likeness, difference, relation, proximity, and inferred causality.20 Multiple and unlike queries of one set are more easily expressed, such that one data point might be more or less significant depending on what is asked about the entire population as a whole. The mean is no longer the spine of the diagram, but instead the possibility of a less final form of incremental variation within an open field without center.21 Because of that plurality, the seeing and recognizing of patterns within diagrams becomes a more contingent and partial reading delimited as much by the textuality of inquiry as by the materiality of the inquired-upon. Imagine the superimposition and stacking of multiple, layered visualizations of the same information, diagramming different distributions, each the result of differing inquiries (models really) upon its matrix of data points. Eventually the accumulated diagrams become absolute, opaque, over-coded, hyper-imposed within one another; all points made to appear according to some possible model: pattern not as mean or median but as torque. That arc toward a heterogeneity of response tilts away from spinal averages and toward the opposite of information (noise) and the inverse of pattern (the plainness and openness of the well-blackened canvas).

As indicated, Latour’s interest in data visualization is closely linked to his invocations of Gabriel Tarde’s  Monadology and Sociology (1899) which was already invested in the rising tide of statistical science.22 Tarde wondered, “if statistics continues to progress as it has done for several years, if the information which it gives us continues to gain in accuracy, in dispatch, in bulk, and in regularity, a time may come when upon the accomplishment of every social event a figure will at once issue forth automatically, so to speak, to take its place on the statistical registers that will be continuously communicated to the public and spread abroad pictorially by the daily press." Today we might recognize that statistics don’t just fill newspapers they are the actuality of news and newness. Not only are statistics an important rhetoric of civic truth-telling, but data-driven diagrammatic-instruments (what we call interfaces) are the permanent frames through which embedded systems announce their state conditions and through which we in turn act upon them. As we have in Exit, the statistical image-as-diagram, or cinematic diagram, cannot be finally separated from the diagram-as-interface. Just as for software, there are numbers which mean something, which we call data, and there are numbers that do something, which we call programs and instructions and algorithms. Here there are images that mean something, which we call visualizations, and images that do something which we call interfaces. Between and across the two, number and image,  is an architectonic of the diagram within the abstract time of computation. In turn, governance through statistics (and statistical visualization) is itself not finally separable from the frame and discipline of the interfacial image. Statistics is by its very operation a reductive abstraction of a larger landscape of information, and this capacity to reduce and render pattern from otherwise unreadable datasets is what allows statistics to draw lines across the axes of a graphic plane or, as for Exit, the planar geography of the planet. While the interfacial image may be graphically indistinguishable it instead activates the diagram by making it into a tool and putting it to work back upon the events or data that it represents (another cybernetic recursion of representation and the represented.) In doing so, the interface-instrument repeats the reductive abstraction of the statistical visualization, but does to not only in the synthesis of what patterns are to be figured, but also in the array of which possible actions can be undertaken with interface as it shuttles intention back down into the system. With the accumulation of layers and windows into its specialized regime, the interface begins to unfold and unpack its reductions and abstractions, demanding and training finer grain expertise on the part of its users, to manage manipulate data closer to the bone. In short, the interface not only graphically frames and synthesizes what it itself can do as an interface, it also reduces and abstracts what the machine that it describes can do. In that interfaces are a data visualization of the technical affordances of systems, interfaciality is the actual medium of the map-and-user recursion between the global and the local.

In Exit, the actual character of the globe itself is weird, as is its interfaciality. There are more than one globe, but each is in its way total. The flattened landscape is the ground on which a round planet Earth rolls, like a master pinball in a tracked groove. But as it rolls, the Earth-figure activates and reveals the key diagrams and visualizations on the dioramic screen. As recognized in the interface discussed above, we see here not Earth as limit horizon or absolute address, but Earth as cursor.  We see the earth un-peeling across the screen, delaminating itself in the round, as the panorama is shifts away from a virtual satellite photographic perfective toward a horizontal command and control array. Earth is a dog carrying its own leash, stripping for some curious observer. A forensic confession. Of what? Of an ambition for the interface as both tool and cosmogram, more than just a collapse of tool into ground, as for any landscape architecture, but a collapse of technology into the image-of-the-world that would locate ground in the first place. Now we could say that the world is always, for those of us doing the looking, dependent on its capacity to qualify imagery. Alphonso Lingis makes this point, when he says that he “set out to recognize that the things themselves engender ‘images’ or doubles of themselves--shadows, halos, the images of themselves they project on water, on the glass of windows---and also on the surfaces of the eyes of mammals, birds, fish. For example, the puddle of water that appears shimmering on the surface of the road ahead in a hot day is not ‘subjective,’ produced by the mind; it is engendered by the road and the sun and everybody in the car sees it.”23 Images are, not images of. Image immanence above all. As we’ve seen, some discourses on diagrammatic data visualizations make that distinction differently, and perhaps not as well. On the one hand, it is said that such diagrammatic visualizations are the direct expression of the underlying data, the unmediated presentation the monadological networks of the real. Latour at times veers himself toward this conclusion. On the other, the image itself is valorized a highly flexible, mutable representation of a network condition out there in the world, a external pattern that we can now see and coordinate through its diagrammatic appearance to us. Our life is given pattern by its appearance as a data-point in that image, as both the subject and object of its emergence. But here, for Exit, such slippages are suspended and staged in the posture of Earth-as-cursor. It is not only a figure, it is at least rhetorically, an interface, but for whom does the Earth display itself in this way? Who is the “user” of this cosmic interface? Is it one of the lives rendered in the visualizations here now recognizing herself as one of 7 billion drifting pixels? Or instead some transcendental entity? By scale, we might presume that the user is not only situated at some Archimedean outside, but is literally floating in outer space surveying the vast Earth machine.24 I wonder about the Marvel Comics characters, the Silver Surfer and Galactus, the later of which marauds through the cosmos looking for planets to eat. Should the Surfer have had to prepare a convincing, thoughtful business plan on the suitability of Earth for this appetite, would it look like Exit?

5. What We Do is Secrete
Virilio has much to say about the psychic life of the “user” (perhaps in lieu of a three-dimensional theory of the subject), and in the sense described above, Exit’s exhibition of his philosophy of mobility, displacement and globalization, hinges on its construction of the user as a core component of its pedagogy. Virilio is, of course extremely gloomy in his assessments of what digital media does to people and their self-identities. My interest is in thinking with and against both Exit and Virilio (not the same thing) about the conditions of the appearance and disappearance of the user, of each of us, in Virilio’s theory of visual-digital culture, which might provide some progress toward a more lasting answer to Neil Denari’s initial question.

Appearance and disappearance both show up and go away at strange times and in strange ways. I wonder, not without some perverse pleasure, what Virilio might make of my friend and colleague, Larry Smarr’s near decade-long interest (obsession some might say) with the rational self-quantification and observation of data pertaining to the health of his biological person. Originally a mathematician and astrophysicist, Smarr is now Director of Calit2, the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, the University of California system’s flagship IT research institute, here in La Jolla. Smarr was the founder of NSCA, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which among other things brought forth Mosaic, the web browser that became Netscape. He is among the key pioneers in cyberinfrastrucure, scientific visualization and what he calls “planetary scale distributed computing.” But as of late, the information platform that has captured his most intense interest is his own body. While the Quantified Self movement, championed here in California, has many precedents, Smarr’s own quest reminds me most of Buckminster Fuller’s own notebooks, called the Dymaxion File, in which he recorded every single activity. The personality type of those who see the design of planetary technologies as their daily vocation seems to suggest an interest in modeling the activities of the day itself as if it were a problem of astrophysics. For others in the Quantified Self scene, the pursuit may instead have more to do with narcissism, or an unhealthy internalization of Neo-Liberal evaluative criteria of systems performance and benchmarking applied to the existential void of the office park. Smarr and I have discussed this at some length and it’s clear to me that his interest is much larger and far less individualistic than that, and his regime more holistic. Smarr tracks his health at a fine-grain level that most of us could probably not manage, even or likely want to.25 It demands forms of data-mining that he is uniquely prepared for (he diagnosed himself in adult-onset Crohn’s disease years before doctors confirmed this). His blood is drawn and analyzed according to a dizzying array of tests every few weeks, he has monitored and quantified his food intake for years, he’s had his personal genome mapped at a resolution few other ever have, and perhaps more interestingly he has also done the same for his microbial gut biome, the ecology of microscopic life that inhabit our body and do much of the work necessary to keep each of us alive. The genome of the microbial biome inside our guts has evolved over millions of years in line with the human species (sometimes beneficially, sometimes pathologically) and without them our bodies would crash. Over the course of our individual lives, our bodies provide selection pressures on how our individual microbial biomes change and evolve inside us. What we eat, in particular, can fundamentally alter the alien ecology in our gut, for better or worse. Smarr’s current focus on the microbial biome as a key to his personal medicine is unusual in that the focus is shifted from the self-regard of his own purified somatic body toward the curation and gardening of his internal microbial civilization. That shift is based in Smarr’s intellectual project for the establishment of digital medicine at a systemic level which envisions the co-embodiment of information at the scale of 7 billion humans and unfathomable zillions of genes, environmentally-bound molecules, proteins, microbes. This is planetary biocomputation. It suggests the explosion of traditional, individuated patient models into pluralized software platforms in which everyone’s genomic, nutritional, neuronal, microbial, environmental data would be systematically aggregated into a information commons where new kinds of analysis and pattern recognition would dissolve the individuation of the singular patient, into alternative patterns of biological plasticity, and which would surely deform our definitions of ‘disease’ along with them. Synthetic biology turns that commons into a tool-kit, and in the larger context of massively transparent digital biology, what’s a ‘doctor’? Artificial intelligence systems might be designed to interpret the exabytes of realtime and historical data, and produce interpretive causal models, images of emergent patterns, that startle us. What we surely would realize in this bright digital future is that causality and pathology zig-zag across scale from microbe to bioregions and back again in utterly surprising ways, and that our basic conceptions of organ, body, group, collective, etc. are available to alien re-categorizations, ones which when revealed in patterns of data will appear as self-evident, but which we can today scarcely anticipate.26 Fast-forward into the light. 

To be sure, the biopolitics therein are ambiguous, paradoxical, dangerous and weird.27 Our at-hand ideas about sovereignty, transparency, therapy, jurisdiction, privacy, etc. are unreliable tools to model a cosmopolitanism of biocomputation based on the composite information that each of us secretes. This is part of what makes Exit utterly incomplete in its premature gestures to totality. What is required is less a textualization of the information trace, than a protocol politics of the stigmergic smear, not so unlike the Earth-figure-cursor rotating its way around the panoramic territory of its own location, leaving a trail of data visualizations along its path. With this in mind, it should also be noted that Smarr collects his own shit, and has it expertly analyzed. Doing so is the best way to keep tabs on the state of his gut microbes, and in some ways on the general state of his own health. Grandparent toilet-bowl stool diviners, you were right. Considering the density of DNA from microbes, from one’s own internal fluids, and from the DNA of the remaining food stuffs one ate, the human stool is one of the most information-rich, information-dense substances you’re likely to regularly encounter. Bit by bit, your stool is far more information-dense than your iPhone. All metaphors aside, we secrete more information than we constitute as static entities. In their aggregation, are our shadows more substantial that what casts them?  If so, can we imagine a social bioethics for which the refusal to submit our data trails to holistic ecological monitors and models, and to refuse to participate in the care of the larger biological population that each of us is inevitably both consuming and secreting at once, is analogous to today’s noxious stunt of refusing a vaccine? Put another way, when systems and individuals become indistinguishable, not to mention redundant, in such radically transparent environments, we can well ask wonder if the accountability of individuals, as the subject-users such digital regimes can remain a viable criterion? 

Now with regards to the discussion of Exit and Virilio, that question should be qualified by the juxtaposition with Gayatri Spivak’s remark, from her lecture on planetarity mentioned above, that, “the most pernicious presupposition today is that globalization has happily happened in every aspect of our lives. Globalization can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being except insofar as it always was implicit in its vanishing outlines.”28 I take this to mean that “globalization,” which for Spivak, as for us, is but one version of planetarity, does in fact “happen” to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being exactly through making the outlines of that being disappear. Virilio’s take on Smarr’s odyssey of self-quantification might suggest that before that disappearance there must first be the making-appear of the cybernetic subject position of the “user,” and that making of the world, even the direct experience of the embodied self as such, into an interactive platform. Here we pin-point a critical oscillation between appearance and disappearance that characterizes the cultural resonance of Big Data. First, the fine-granular composition of data turns techniques of verification and measurement born of big-box supply-chains and re-assigns them to making heretofore unseen patterns visible, knowable, actionable as interfacial diagrams. Positions, subjects, agents, effectors are drawn and strongly interpolated, as discrete image-objects of knowledge. Users are given firm and visible outlines that convince us and them of their stable contiguity. This is an updating of the Lacanian mirror-stage for the exabyte ego, and in this, Spivak has it wrong. Globalization, in the sense that she defines it here as the the planetary career of electronic capital as ubiquitous grid, is very much experienced at the level of sensory equipment precisely because it, at least initially, makes possible and over-traces their outlines as the validation of a subject produced in their image.  But finally, as shown in the example of the exploded Quantified Self, the ultimate effect of the inclusion of information from extrinsic (if also internal) sources into an economy of identity, also has the opposite effect, and exactly the one Spivak names: the vanishing of outlines. To the extent that the composition of the ‘user’ as a biopolitical subject also includes vectors of data --genomic, microbial, microeconomic, meta-ecological, etc.-- into the living diagram of interpolation, then the site of the subject is seen as so infused and overcome with extrinsic flows of multiple scale, that the coherency, stability and confidence previously invested in the visual outline of the quantified self quickly perforates and liquifies. The somatic ego of homo economicus, especially the one reflected in the mirror of Big Data burns brightest in its extinguishment. Capitalism, as ever, fabricates subjects, even universalizing them as transhistorical actors, only to melt them down as the raw material of another project.29
Conclusion: “Planetarity” and the Database Aesthetics of Disappearance
The same, to a degree, goes for planets. At the cusp of 1960’s and 70’s (the high water mark of Modernity some say) the “Earth rise” images from Apollo and the “blue marble” photographs of the singular planet against a ground of black metaphysical void, concretized the idea of Earth as a synchronic ecology, as one single thing separate and stranded. This surely did much to support the pop-Copernican conception of the Earth as an astro-object delineated not just by an Archimedean master perspective from the air, or of the permeability of the horizon, but by an outside and an outline, an icon. That imagined outline in turn made the program of Ecology as self-evident as the unknown, unmapped zones of colonial maps had once made Geography. But at the same time, just as for the User, the misrecognition of a prematurely singularized body is at work here. Earth is no less multiple than any other body, rather more so in fact.  Latour and Sloterdijk compete to agree more emphatically than the other that the image of the globe has also provided the detours that mis-think globalization as a top-down conclusion that coheres all networks and spheres, in turn, into a falsely coherent abstraction.30 But my point is not theirs. While indeed the images from Apollo promise exactly the Apollonian program of comprehensive closure of a singularized, bound domain, this comes is at the expense of what? The Dionysian promiscuity of interwoven, multiversal points and edges? I don’t believe so if that is taken to mean a geophilosophy in Nietzsche’s or Shelling’s romantic tradition of the grounded horizon, however cosmically inspired it might be. Instead the inverse of Apollo, the more radical Copernicanism, requires yet another rotation from the residual “Ptolemaic” subject-as-center/ center-as-subject positions. Reza Negaristani locates “geophilosophical realism” in the promise of concluding and extending the Copernican rotation in this way: the “remorseless displacement of the unthought that thinks it is a center into the exploded, perforated horizon of the universal open. ”31  For that rotation, the Earth, as such, can not be presented as the natural ground from which our senses of velocity, duration, embodiment are deranged, and on whose behalf we are, like Virilio, supposed to be permanently scandalized. Nor can it stop at the scopic outline of the absolutely synchronic subject of literally world-scale closure, nor the claustrophic territory of the screen which stands both for the scale of the diagram, the grid of the data-to-be-diagramed, and the temporal register of its unfolding.  These are neo-Ptolemaic Earths for misplaced users.

As such, the digital Earth described and signaled by Exit enjoys enough elasticity that its panorama (and cursor) can unfurl diagrams of worldly flow that appear to suggest a generic universality. Any bit, sign or exchange within the field is already accounted for before it even collapses from wave into pixelated particle. However this closed genericity is, as should be clear, only a simulation of the universality for which it stands. In this Exit well performs the logical closure of the worldly network that both Virilio and Spivak have spent their very different careers tilting against. A parallel observation can be made regarding (or against) the master concept of plasticity in the work of Catherine Malabou. Malabou makes the comrehensivess and emphatic (for that awkward) distinction between, on the one hand, plasticity as the absolutely generic capacity of the world to be made anew, and in essence, to hold its form just long enough to provide sufficient resistance that history can actually take shape, and on the other, flexibility, that is, the bad momentum of fast capitalism to absorb, immolate, disassemble and recombine everything within its general economy of rearrangements within production and consumption cycles. But as others have noted, it’s not clear finally where plasticity starts and flexibility stops (perhaps that boundary is itself plastic!).32 

Now leaving Exit on behalf of our specific geophilosophical question, one for which the plasticity of planetarity as such is really the crux of matter (along with what can and cannot count a a center: user, mean/median, line of sight) perhaps this chapter has identified three possible open hinges around which that question teeters, and which we’ll have to leave even more ajar than we found them.

Appearance/disappearance. The capacity to collect, sort, pattern and display the secretion of world-as-data, in near realtime, has the effect of first over-subscribing and over-delineating the simulation of single subjects (bodies, persons, planets), and second, the criss-crossing of data into and over the site of that corpus to fragment it to the point of dissolution and disappearance.

Closed recursive spaces/ open formal universality. The point of differentiation between the plastic and the merely flexible may rest on the quality and openness of the world that is undergoing change and staging the emergence of new things. The flexible prefers closed loops and the exploration of the phase space of possible state conditions of a finite set of binary resources, like the board of Go. The plastic, on the other hand, presumes that the table of the elements and alphabet of proteins is but a sample of the ultimately available building blocks of things and worlds.33 Its ethics of otherness rests not on the novelty of innovation but, as Negaristani writes, on absorbing new traumas coming our way from the absolutely extrinsic, abyssal scale of the universal.

Present center/absent center. To visualize this point, consider it by way of Copernicus’s revision of the Ptolemaic cosmogram that shifted the Earth from the natural centripetal center, and replaced it with the royal Sun.34 Today any cosmogrammatic idea is complicated by the preponderance of dark matter and dark energy, expanding space, and these sorts of all-but-incomprehensible evidences. But thinking more locally, our neighborhood, the Milky Way, is composed of curving arcs, logarithmic spirals filled with millions of stars around which countless little planets twirl. At the center of our teaming local whirlpool, at the core of the Milky Way, is what we call the Galactic Center. Current astrophysics suggests that the Galactic Center is a Black Hole. A real, carnivorous void is what holds it all together. And so, to close, it’s not about de-centering exactly. There is a center that gives shape and weight and distance to all that encircles it. However the center is precisely absence. 

has it backwards, but in an interesting way. I doubt very much if this describes more clearly what it is that Virilio’s philosophy looks like, but it may go some way toward describing what it sees.

1 Yes, the title puns What We Do Is Secret EP, The Germs, Slash Records. (1981).

2 See Michael Moyer, “Is Space Digital?” Scientific American Magazine,  January 17, 2012. 

3 These more complete credits are from Stewdio’s own site, http://stewd.io/w/exit

4 Some recent theoretical initiatives discover a positive program for this emergent digital granularity, and sees for it a shift in the complexity of the visual field, the activity of networks, and even the objectivity of interpretive analysis, for example,  my colleague, Lev Manovich’s, “From Reading to Pattern Recognition” (2011) and “The Whole is Always Smaller Than Its Parts: A Digital Test of Gabriel Tarde’s Monads” by Latour, Pablo Jensen, Tommaso Venturini, Sébastian Grauwin, and Dominique Boullier. (2011)

5 Michel Serres; Maria Malanchuk, “Jules Verne's Strange Journeys,” Yale French Studies, No. 52, Graphesis: Perspectives in Literature and Philosophy. (1975), pp. 174-188.

6 See the interview with Virilio in the exhibition catalog book,  Native Land/ Stop Eject, Virilio and Raymond Depardon et al., Actes Sud. (2010). 

7 The thematic metaphor (“stop/eject”) is drawn from the old mechanical interface for magnetic tape cassettes (it is unclear from Virilio’s conversation with Depardon in the catalog if the anachronistic quality of the reference is intentionally meaningful.) 

8 The official credits from the catalog are as follows. Exit (2008). Installation using Java, OpenGL, and Processing software. 12' (370 cm) high, 29' (8.8 m) diam. Diller Scofidio + Renfro (USA, est. 1979), Laura Kurgan (American, born South Africa 1961), Mark Hansen (American, born 1964) and Ben Rubin (American, born 1964) in collaboration with Stewart Smith (American, born 1981) and Robert Gerard Pietrusko (American, born 1979)

9 From an online interview with Stewdio’s, Stewart Smith, one of Exit’s programmers, citation above.

10 Manuel De Landa’s work on assemblage theory articulates this recursion between scales most clearly, in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London. Continuum. (2006). It should be said that the principle of the systemic reflexivity for the subject who possesses an incomplete diagram of the social structure in which they are acting yet who acts recursively in relation to that diagram, is not dissimilar to that described by Anthony Giddens, et al. and the thesis of Reflexive Modernization. See for example, Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity. Palo Alto, Stanford. (1991).

11 See Latour’s comments in Melik O’Hanian and Jean-Christophe Royoux,  Cosmograms, Lukas & Sternberg, (2005), and his re-enactment of the Tarde/ Durkheim debate with Bruno Karasenti and Louis Salmon, which can be viewed online at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/354. 

12 In this paragraph I am paraphrasing my own essay, “On Geoscapes and the Google Caliphate: Reflections on the Mumbai Attacks,” Theory, Culture & Society December 2009 vol. 26 no. 7-8 329-342

13 For example, Heidegger’s “World Picture,” Fredric Jameson’s “cognitive mapping,” and  Ulrich Beck’s “risk.”

14 Once again, this idea is discussed in Bratton (2009)

15 The connotation of “framing” is inspired by Elizabeth Grosz’s Deleuzian-Darwinian usage in Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. Columbia University Press. (2008). 

16 Virilio remarks, “in this case too, if time is money, speed is power.  This is why we are constantly in a race.  What is a race?  It means taking hold of power by getting there first.  And at the same time we are on horseback, on foot or driving a car.  It’s very clear that speed=power, and power=speed, and instantaneity, ubiquitousness and immediacy are the prerogatives of the divine.” from “Itineraries of the Catastrophe,” an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, 2008.

17 See Alexander Galloway, Catherine Malabou, or the Commerce in Being, French Theory Today pamphlet published by The Public School, New York. 2012. 

18 Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum. Telos Press Publishing. (2003)

19 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press. (2012)

20 Lev Manovich, “From Reading to Pattern Recognition” http://manovich.net/DOCS/reading_patterns.2011.pdf (2011)

21 One or many spimes?

22 For Deleuzian appreciation and critique of Tarde, see Éric Alliez, “Difference and Repetition of Gabriel Tarde,” Distinktion, Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp. 49—54. (2004)

23 Bobby George and Tom Sparrow, “Interview with Alphonso Lingis,”  http://singularum.com/interviewwithalphonsolingis (2012)

24 Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. MIT Press. (2010)

25 On Larry Smarr’s regime, see “The Patient of the Future,”  MIT Technology Review, March/April 2012.

26 On the use of artificial intelligence to analyze large quantities of health data, see Lee Hood’s research group at the Institute for Systems Biology. See https://www.systemsbiology.org/hood-group

27 Brian Massumi calls this military ambition a “full spectrum line of sight” in “National Enterprise Emergency: Steps Toward an Ecology of Powers,” Theory, Culture & Society. 26; 153 (2009)

28 “Imperative to Re-Imagine the Planet,” in Spivak, (2012). 

29 The overdetermination of the quantified self is a condition analogous to the blackened canvas, overwritten with all possible diagrammatic images of the same data, defeating the spine of the mean. It is also another telling of the parable of the Ship of Theseus, all its components replaced one-by-one, at yet it retains that same identity.

30 Again see Latour’s argument in O’Hanian and Royoux, (2005)

31 Reza Negaristani, “Globe of Revolution: an Afterthought on Geophilosophical Realism,” Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, issue: 17 / 2011, pages: 25-54

32 Again, see Galloway (2012)

33 The NASA Astrobiologist, Lynn Rothschild, disagrees. She argues that based on analyses of materials found on asteroids, its quite likely that the elements we know are all that there are, at least within our galaxy. Her comment to this effect was made at the Google/Arctic/Mars symposium co-organized by Geoff Manaugh, Ed Keller and myself at Columbia Architecture, Studio-X, May 8, 2012. 

34 In some ways it is Copernicus’ essential promoter, Rheticus, who should be credited. See Dennis Danielson, The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution. Walker & Co. (2006).

Tags: branding, virilio, data visualization, quantifed self, mobility

Published: 05.21.2012

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