Drone Wars Part 2

The New York Times recently published an absolutely astounding astounding expose on the Drone War, meticulously researched and sourced. This should be required reading for anybody who's interested in war today, but I want to draw out two points.
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
This kind of numbers game is to be expected whenever victory is measured by body counts, and numbers games are poison to victory. Once soldiers realize that all that matters is the stats, they'll only take action based on the stats. By classifying all military-age males as militants, a program designed to kill militants has little incentive to check the actual ideologies of its targets or victims. When a entity believes its own propaganda, it becomes a closed loop, blind to reality, and ultimately, doomed.

The second point relates to how the Drone War has become entrenched in the fabric of government, and what might result in its end.

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.
       This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia...
The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.
      Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.
       “He realizes this isn’t science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.”
       But the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.

Imagine, another election, another President. "Terror Tuesday" rolls around, and dozens of CIA and military officers come forward with the latest intelligence about threats against America. They all say, "Mr. President, you have the power of life or death over this man, this militant, this terrorist. What should we do?" In a the complexity and confusion of Washington DC, this kind of clarity and directness must be intoxicating.

On the whole, I trust Barack Obama's moral judgment, I believe he is a good man. But some forms of power are too corrosive for anybody or any political institution to wield for long.


The Gonzo Futurist Manifesto

I just saw this on Warren Ellis's blog, and had to repost. I've including author Justin Pickard's summary verbatim below. Still in the process of digesting this piece, of incorporating it into my gestalt, but then blend of Bruce Sterling, John Boyd, High Orthodox STS jargon (post-normal, actant), and most importantly the attitude that YOU can make a difference in an era of rapid change and complexity by being spiky, by drawing from sources ranging from fringe scifi fandom to academia to The Economist to locate patterns in the random streams of data coming at us is deeply appealing. Friends, comrades, and citizens of the future, hang loose and get strange.


In 1991, Bruce Sterling gave a speech in San Jose. Extolling the strengths and virtues of the power weirdo, he urged the audience to avoid the spring-loaded bear-trap of mediocrity:
You don’t get there by acculturating. Don’t become a well-rounded person. Well rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person. Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a puffer fish.
(Sterling, 1991)
With an idiosyncratic outlook and skill set, the power weirdo — and its subset, the gonzo futurist — is particularly well-placed to deal with a turbulent decade. With an eye on the road ahead, she can meet or dodge situations as they arise, charting a clear course through the VUCA battlefields of a turboparalytic world. One thing we can say: in 5-10 years time, ours will be a world of ubiquitous computing (in some form). When sensors are everyone, and the ‘big data’ of the post-normal threatens to bury us all in a torrent of noise, finely tuned sense-making capabilities may prove to be your greatest asset. For futurist Scott Smith, ‘warehousing massive amounts of data is simply an exercise in hoarding if we can’t see, contextualize, and use the patterns in the noise.’ (Smith, 2011) The pattern analyst is less likely to find her job outsourced or automated, but, to effectively lever the patterns in the noise, we have to be able distinguish between real patterns and the faces in the clouds.

We need pattern recognition. Pattern Recognition. The protagonist of William Gibson’s 2003 novel of the same name, Cayce Pollard, though something of a ‘self-facilitating media node’, provides a model for the gonzo futurist. For Cayce, the lived experience of 9/11 flipped a switch somewhere, hyper-sensitising her to the aesthetics of corporate branding. By the time the story begins, she’s found a niche as a coolhunter and creative consultant, exploiting her body’s physical, pre-cognitive reaction to logos (the bad ones induce nausea and panic).
Dorotea removes an eleven-inch square of art board from the envelope. Holding it at the upper corners, between the tips of perfectly manicured forefingers, she displays it to Cayce. (…) There is a drawing there, a sort of scribble in thick black Japanese brush, a medium she knows to be the in-house hallmark of Herr Heinzi himself. To Cayce, it most resembles a syncopated sperm, as rendered by the American underground cartoonist Rick Griffin, circa 1967. She knows almost immediately that it does not, by the opaque standards of her inner radar, work. She has no way of knowing how she knows.
(Gibson, 2003)
Though Cayce’s ‘base’ of domain-specific knowledge is both wide and deep — note the reference to Rick Griffin — she has no way of knowing how she knows. She’s aware of an ‘inner radar,’ but, as something separate from her conscious mind, has no idea how it works. Though Cayce leverages her capacities as a source of income, her role of sensitive-slash-coolhunter is more bodily disposition than career. Unpicking the details and implications of Gibson’s novel, literary theorist Lauren Berlant describes how Cayce’s disposition allows her ‘to ride the wave of the moment, to make her situation what it is, a thing to live through, be embedded in, and feel out’. Sounds a bit gonzo, doesn’t it?
Lacking Cayce’s near-supernatural capabilities, our gonzo futurist needs a prosthetic substitute; some kind of cognitive aikido. This would be a general framework that would allow her to easily grok the dynamics of the post-normal world, and identify the key sites and tipping points for action. To my knowledge, the closest currently existing equivalent is the OODA loop. Originally devised by US military strategist John Boyd, the OODA loop is a rolling heuristic cycle, a structure for those who need to make quick decisions under pressure. OODA. Observe, orient, decide, act.
The gonzo futurist is a super-empowered hopeful individual. She may have been a ‘graduate with no future’ (Mason, 2011), or the victim of public sector cuts, but has since grieved and moved on. She plays, tests, and play tests; making the best of the tools and technologies at her disposal. Comfortable calling on (and being called on by) her friends, peers, and tribe, her sense-making skills are social and connected. Her thinking may, occasionally, ‘be located inside the brains of other people.’ (Wheeler, 2011)

The gonzo futurist is a ‘deep generalist’ (Cascio, 2011) and ‘analytical polyglot’ (Smith, 2011). She has an ‘almost supernatural awareness of impacts and implications … [is] ready to adapt when necessary, building long-lasting systems when possible.’ (Cascio, 2011) Like Cayce Pollard, she is a ‘woman of affect, not of feeling (…) [an] empress of the amygdala.’ (Berlant)
The gonzo futurist is resilient. She works smart, not hard. She has one eye on the ‘adjacent possible’, switches codes, and contributes to the commons. She may be privileged, but has no time for competition, alpha male dick-waving, or beggar-thy-neighbour. Her success does not come at your expense.

Bombarded by stimuli, the gonzo futurist is an OODA cyborg. Observe, orient, decide, act.

Justin Pickard is a self-described ‘gonzo futurist’, freelance researcher, and associate at London-based design practice Superflux.  You can find him on Twitter @justinpickard.
And this is the direct link to A GONZO FUTURIST MANIFESTO.


Progress in Brain Machine Interfaces

The BrainGate group at Brown University has released a paper demonstrating control of a robotic arm by paralyzed individuals. I'm not sure whether the original article is behind a pay-wall, but the video (below) and press release should be accessible. Exciting times.



Drone Wars

Well kiddies, guess who just got an op-ed published in The Cairo Review. Guess this makes me some kind of international policy thing now.

 Warfare is partly defined by the images of its weapons, from medieval knights in armor clashing on the battlefield to the mushroom clouds of modern nuclear weapons. For warfare in the twenty-first century, consider the image of a video screen. In September 2000, the counter-terrorism advisor in the White House, Richard A. Clarke, watched a video of a tall man in white robes. The man was probably Osama Bin Laden, who by that time had organized the attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The man’s location was a compound outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. The videographer was a robot, an RQ-1 Predator drone aircraft.

Clarke, along with two senior Central Intelligence Agency officials who were also present, Cofer Black and Charles E. Allen, recognized the Predator’s potential to revolutionize national security by providing real-time intelligence for precision missile strikes—using manned or unmanned weapons—on enemy targets. Then they put the idea aside, waiting for an opportunity when a drone mission might be the best weapon for a job. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, armed drones were targeting terrorists as well as providing air support for Special Forces troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. One decade later, the armed Predator is a key instrument of American statecraft. Missiles launched by the drones rain down over the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, killing figures linked to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, Baitullah Mehsud, and Badar Mansoor, as well as thousands of foot soldiers and a significant number of civilians.

All of this is happening without very much awareness in the United States. The Pakistani government, the American Civil Liberties Union, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Amnesty International—among others—have condemned the ethics and legality of America’s Drone Wars. The strikes are deemed violations of national sovereignty and a tool of war that inevitably leads to the deaths of innocent civilians. These moral and legal arguments are important, but they have failed to stop the Drone Wars, or even initiate serious public debate on the uses, merits, and limitations of this kind of warfare. Perhaps before asking questions like “Is the Predator drone an ethical weapon?” or “Is its use in this particular conflict within the boundaries of international law?”, it is important to understand what the Predator drone is, how it came to be armed, how the armed drone changes military capabilities, and—most important­—how the drone program evades democratic accountability.

Read the Rest