remote control

According to media reports more than 7,000 drones of all types are in use over Iraq and Afghanistan, and remote control is seen as the vanguard of a ‘revolution in military affairs’ in which U.S. military and intelligence agencies are heavily invested, in both senses of the word.  With the integration of Hellfire missiles, the first armed version of the Predator drone (designated MQ-1) was deployed in Afghanistan in 2002 as part of what the U.S. military names Operation Enduring Freedom (originally Operation Infinite Justice), under the auspices of what George Bush declared in September 2001 to be a  Global War (without end) on Terror.  In 2001, the U.S. Congress gave the Pentagon the goal of making one-third of ground combat vehicles remotely operated by 2015.  A decade later, under President Obama’s less colorfully named ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’, the amount of money being spent on research for military robotics surpasses the budget of the entire National Science Foundation.

‘War would be a lot safer, the Army says, if only more of it were fought by robots’  (John Markoff, NY Times, November 27, 2010).  Statements like this at once assume the reader to be one of the ‘we’ for whom war would be safer, while deleting war’s Others from our view.  This erasure is rendered more graphically in the image that accompanies Markoff’s article, titled ‘Remotely controlled: Some armed robots are operated with video-game-style consoles, helping to keep humans away from danger’ (my emphasis).  These reports valorize the nonhuman qualities of the robots which, Markoff reports, are ‘never distracted, using an unblinking digital eye, or “persistent stare,” that automatically detects even the smallest motion. Nor do they ever panic under fire … When a robot looks around a battlefield [says Joseph W. Dyer, a former vice admiral and the chief operating officer of iRobot], the remote technician who is seeing through its eyes can take time to assess a scene without firing in haste at an innocent person.’  But the translation of bodies into persons, and persons into targets, is not a straightforward one.

My thinking about the human-machine interface to this point has focused on questioning assumptions about the fixity of its boundaries, while at the same time slowing down too easy erasures of differences that matter between humans and machines.  I’ve been particularly concerned with machines modelled in the image of a human that many of us in science and technology studies and feminist theory have been at pains to refigure; that is, one for whom autonomous agency and instrumental reasoning are the gold standard.  In the interest of avoiding essentialism, I’ve tried to base my arguments for difference on the ways in which different forms of embodiment afford different possibilities for reflexively co-enacting what we think of as shared situations, or reciprocity, or mutual intelligibility, or what feminist scholars like Donna Haraway have proposed that we think about as ‘response-ability’.  This argument has provided a generative basis for critique of initiatives in artificial intelligence, robotics and the like.

“Some of us think that the right organizational structure for the future is one that skillfully blends humans and intelligent machines,” [says John Arquilla, executive director of the Information Operations Center at the Naval Postgraduate School]  “We think that that’s the key to the mastery of 21st-century military affairs” (quoted in Markoff November 27, 2010). Hardly a new idea (remembering the Strategic Computing Initiative of the Reagan era), this persistent vision of mastery-to-come underwrites old and new alliances in research and development, funded by defense spending, taken up by academic and industrial suppliers, echoed and hyped by the media, and embraced by entertainment producers and consumers. So how, I’m now wondering, might I usefully mobilise and expand my earlier arguments regarding shifting boundaries and differences that matter between humans and machines, to aid efforts to map and interrupt what James der Derian (2009) has called ‘virtuous war’ – that is, warfighting justified on the grounds of a presumed moral superiority, persistent mortal threat and, most crucially, minimal casualties on our side – and the military-industrial-media-entertainment network that comprises its infrastructure.

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  • Maggie Mort  On September 25, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Today’s news about Living Under Drones, the new report from Stanford and New York universities details the conditions under which communities in Waziristan live every day.
    While the drone strikes and their civilian death toll make chilling reading, somehow I found the description of the sound made by the drones to be particularly distressing.
    Clive Stafford Smith’s piece in today’s Guardian newspaper: speaks of six Predator drones circling at any one time over towns or villages which emit a buzzing sound (bangana, buzzing wasp) and which can be seen and heard constantly.
    The drones are ‘watching’ via high resolution cameras, but what is actually ‘seen’ thousands of miles away by the drones’ operators? As I try the impossible, to imagine what living under drones is like, somehow it’s the sound, bangana, as heard by children, and the naming of that sound, that most disturbs.

  • Lucy Suchman  On September 25, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks Maggie for pointing to this report
    This has got to be one of the most important things that has happened in the campaign to end US drone wars – I hope very much that someone puts it in front of Obama.

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