Saturday, July 22, 2006

Science, technology, war and ethics

I'm teaching two classes this year: a second-year intro to social studies of science and tech, which I've taught twice before, and a fourth year seminar on the same, which is new to me.

The seminar is well suited to one or two themes that can be explored in depth, and I'm considering "science, technology and war" as one possibility. Cheerful, I know, but probably quite irresponsible to ignore - especially these days.

At the upper level, I figure it'll be easy to bring in De Landa and Virilio on the military-scientific complex and the technological mediation of war. Plus, covering Virilio on play and gaming could lead us into Alex Galloway's work on protocol and McKenzie Wark's GAM3R 7H30RY. But by then things are getting too structuralist for me, and I want to move on.

Joost has been posting some excellent writing on terror, security and the new world order - thesis 1 | thesis 2 | thesis 3 - over at spaceandculture that I think has interesting implications for science and tech studies. This also reminds me of Mike Davis on the history of the car bomb.

I'd also like to go over CAE's ideas about digital resistance and electronic civil disobedience. And maybe Wark's Hacker Manifesto? We could also spend some time on nuclear and nanotech, as well as computers and bioethics.

And last week I read Rebecca Goolsby's 2005 article, Ethics and Defense Agency Funding: Some Considerations. She's an anthropologist working in the US Office of Naval Research, as part of their efforts "to bring social science research, particularly various forms of modeling, gaming, and simulation, into developing new approaches to disrupting terror networks, discovering their membership and activities, and training military personnel to more effectively handle unconventional terrorist networks."

Frankly, the group's research makes me really really uncomfortable (this connection between war games and street games is picking up speed again and the nasty ethical implications are getting ignored) but Goolsby asks some good questions:

"Should social scientists accept defense funding? How [is] defense funding different from other kinds of government agency funding? How [is] it different from research funded by private businesses and industry?"

and more pointedly, citing Doerfel,

"Do we want to forego rich understanding of social relationships because such knowledge gets into the wrong hands? Do we want to be part of research – like that of the Army’s – so that we can have a chance to intellectually and ethically influence such endeavors?"

She basically claims that our current codes of ethics are woefully out-of-date, answering to Cold War era tensions between "legitimate" research and intelligence gathering. I think she fails to make the case that we've actually moved past this tension, and she does not once question her loaded assumption that "the need for improved scientific tools to understand, model and apply knowledge about social networks and their dynamics to terrorist networks is pressing and important". She also follows an individualist, rather than a social, ethics - which isn't my thing.

Nonetheless, Goolsby did bring up something that seems obvious now but hadn't occurred to me before: Is the research classified, "sensitive but unclassified" or unclassified? (A.K.A. the intellectual property question: Who gets access to the product? And the process? What gets shared with whom, when, how and why, is at the centre of all ethical research - whether in corporate, academic, artistic or military settings.) She also stresses the relevance of a research programme's "goals and technical objectives":

"Today, military funding organizations are interested in 'transitions' – in moving research up the 'supply chain' so that it can be incorporated into tools and decision aids and then 'fielded'.”

Sounds just like business-speak, doesn't it? The kind of thing that leads to "rfid" being replaced with "contactless technologies."

In the end Goolsby suggests that it is an individual choice whether or not to do defense research, based on one's understanding of the restrictions of classified research and the intentions and ultimate power of the military. What a cop out! A social and relational ethics necessarily marks the relevant context as one between people - not as singular or internal arenas like our own minds. (The only social connection she calls on is the old structure/agency dichotomy, and to a lesser extent, the notion that what some scientists do affects other scientists. Well, duh.) And if it is an individual matter, then everyone is equally entitled to their ethical position - and then where does that leave us? How are we made to account for, and be accountable to, others?

This reminds me of a really interesting discussion over at i cite, Jodi Dean's blog, on how students are no longer willing to debate someone or something. I'm not sure if it is the pathetic aftermath of political correctness, but I've seen something like this and it is indeed a matter of politics and ethics. If we're not willing to take a stand, however temporary, how can we disrupt things, or force a change in direction or perspective? You can't always be on the move without stopping sometime and, thank you Barbara Kruger, your comfort is my silence.

But back to the point of the post: if anyone has any other ideas about science, tech and war that would be good for a fourth-year seminar, please let me know. And actually, if you think that's a dreadful topic altogether, please let me know that too - and feel free to toss out alternatives.


Blogger DilettanteVentures said...

Quick edit - it's not Thacker's GAM3R 7H30RY, it's McKenzie Wark's, but you probably knew that and just missed it.

Anonymous Abe said...

I think you miscredited GAM3R 7H30RY to Thacker instead of Wark.

This topic sort of begs jumping into all the cybernetics stuff particularly all of Norbert Wiener's objections to the militarization of research. Some of Hayles stuff is pretty relevant here as well. The US Defense Department's funding of the internet is also deeply in need of some critical reinvestigation, although that's probably a bit beyond the scope of the class.

Alex Galloway's "Politics of Code" syllabus is probably a good reference point:

Looking over that I'd also highlight Arquilla and Ronfeldt's _Networks and Netwars_. If you want to go even deeper into the military theory, then it might be worth digging up some of the stuff on John Boyd. His MO was 6 hour briefings, so he never published any relevant books, but there are some reconstructions of his slides online, and a couple bios out there.

To pull it back to realm of theory, D&G War Machine chapters in ATP might be worth revisiting, if a bit vague.

And if you want to go way out onto the other end of the political spectrum there Hayak has plenty to say on the subject, although it can be hard to stomach the politics...

Anonymous nick knouf said...

You probably already have it on your syllabus, but Eisenhower's speech about the coming (in 1960) milary-industrial complex was extremely prescient.

Thanks for the other links; they'll by quite useful in the context of the reading group I'm developing!

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Anonymous anne said...

sheesh, i'm getting sloppy - thanks for the heads up dilettanteventures!

some good suggestions there, abe, cheers!

anon - ouch indeed! but am i the only one who is disappointed that he's not being really vocal about what's happening right now? surely he's got something to say about what the israeli military is doing...

(ps - i find it curious that there has been a marked increase in the number of anonymous comments here over the past few months. what's going on?)


Post a Comment

<< Home

CC Copyright 2001-2009 by Anne Galloway. Some rights reserved. Powered by Blogger and hosted by Dreamhost.