Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Killing the thing you love: Predator Drones and the Internet

The title of this post is not intended to be playful. It is intentionally provocative. It is the title of a plenary talk given today at the Technology, Knowledge and Society conference at UCLA.

The point to the paper was the discussion of the relationship between the communcation tool that most everybody loves - the Internet - and its dystopian manifestation, predator drones. My intention  in addressing this particular dystopian manisfestations of the Internet was to provide an opportunity to critique contemporary warfare ideology. This discussion can be set in the context of the Obama presidency, which many people hoped would mark the end of the warfare ideology that emerged during the Bush 2 presidency, the Bush Doctrine.

The hoped-for about face against the use of US military power to enforce liberalism did not diminish with Obama, in fact, it seemed to escalate. Hilary Clinton has made a habit of publicly stating in the nicest possible way that the US / NATO model of liberalism will succeed, by force if necessary. This is the weirdness of the current situation: members of the political elite appear to embody American liberalism, and have no compunction about using US military might to enforce it.

The point driving the paper is that the Internet is used to impose acceptable US standards of liberalism on the world. This is a complicated topic which I will not unpack here - Vincent Mosco has already undertaken much of that thinking. 

The use of the Internet for managing and controlling predator drones that can then launch missiles to kill purported enemies is the end point of US discipline. The French Philosopher Michel Foucault in his lengthy ruminations on human behavior surely would not have imagined that "discipline" could take such an extreme form.  But frankly, that's what drones are used for - to extend US discipline to anywhere in the world.

Predator drones (pilotless) are used by the US Air Force to kill militants, mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They do not get a court case, or a warning, as far as we know. The drones are controlled by Air Force personnel based in New York State and Nevada, who identify the target, then use the Internet and computer game-style devices to kill at will. No "boots on the ground" by US forces. Just the anonymous hum of a plane as it releases a missle over a desert somewhere.

The discussion needs to be around comprehending this shift in warfare ideology in everyday language. These two terms are taken from a 1963 essay by Hannah Arendt, "Symposium on Space," in which she talked about both of these topics as a challenge given the rise of space travel and computerization. Her comments are still applicable to the investigation of the Internet in its relationship with predator drones.

Of special note then is the way the technology of the Internet has moved beyond public interest, beyond jurisprudence and associated ideas of morality.  (These are ideas I explored in Uprising, where proletarianization is the unanticipated consequence of the unregluated Internet.)

This is where Arendt's concerns are helpful. How do we comprehend predator drones? How do we find everyday language witrh which to critique the use of the Internet to run these tools of war?

Perhaps an even better set of questions result from a conversation about warfare ideology.