Something something election blog something

The last Presidential debate just finished, and it turns out that I haven’t written anything about the election all year. It’s been hard to find enough substance to meet my standards. I loved the three ring circus that was the GOP primary (Herman Cain, any questions?), but we all knew Romney was the inevitable nominee despite himself. The state of the race to 270 Electoral College votes, and the hard work of turning out the vanishingly small number of undecided voters in the handful of swing states is beyond my expertise; I’ll leave that to Nate Silver.  I just don’t have the time to evaluate in detail the candidates’ platforms and policies; not that much detail is being released. And besides, not that it’s any surprise to any of my readers, but I’m a staunch cultural Democrat, in that I’m pro-women, pro-equality, anti-war, living proof that America is not a Christian nation.

This isn’t likely to change: My earliest political memories were 1) the Clinton-Lewinsky impeachment hearings 2) the 2000 election and the Florida Supreme Court debacle, and 3) the entire motherfucking Bush administration, who’s epochal combination of incompetence, arrogance, and short-sightedness left me unable to find a single decent thing that was accomplished by the American government from 2000-2008. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who campaigns with an “R” after his or her name without renouncing George W. Bush and all his works is entirely unworthy of respect.

Of course, just because I'm decided means that I can't have an opinion. And ((spoilers ahead)), that opinion is one of cynicism and disengagement. 

I won’t be voting for Mitt Romney, as the Obama endorsement from The Salt Lake Tribune explains why in more or less the same language I’d use. The constantly shifting positions, the refusal to share policy specifics, and the very real probability that he holds a Randian ‘takers-vs-makers’ view of society, as exhibited in his infamous 47% comments, all serve to disqualify him from higher office.

On the other hand, I’m not really inclined towards Obama, even after a strong showing in this last debate. What I wrote this January is still true.

I supported Obama [in 2008] because I believed that he could articulate a vision for American democracy in the 21st century. I thought that the author of Dreams from my Father, the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote, and the speech on Reverend Wright, would be somebody who could inspire America in the same way that Kennedy and Reagan did. We needed, and still need, inspiration more than any specific policy solution. I believed that roused to action, the American people would find their own solutions to major problems, like healthcare, energy, education, and the war.
 Instead, Barack Obama has presided over an ugly and secretive government. It is a government that uses drones to kill terrorists on the other side of the world, while making the absurd claim that “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” (according to senior counter-terrorism official John O. Brennandespite ample evidence to the contrary. It is a government that has failed to address basic concerns about hidden risks and ‘shadow banks’ in the financial system. And while the rancor and insanity of the 112th Congress is not Obama’s fault, the White House is little better. On the Keystone XL pipeline, and Plan B birth control pill, the Obama administration has given the impression that it does not make decisions based on evidence, or what he believes would be right for the country, but what is most politically expedient. 
I’d like a frank debate about jobs and the nature of work in the 21st century, because humans are losing to machines. We need to talk about communities and belonging, because our society is more fluid, more free, and more alienating than ever before.  We need to talk about war and peace, because we have an absurdly expensive white elephant of a military with no clear mission. And we need to seriously talk about energy and sustainability, because we get precisely one shot at technological civilization and the infrastructure that sustains us is far from secure.

But none of this happened, because the conventional wisdom is that voters care about pocketbook issues and the old staples of the culture wars. The big issues and questions don’t fit neatly into the ideological frameworks of either party. If campaigning is mostly about repeating the right set of meaningless shibboleths until 51%  of the voters decide to check the mark next to your name, then bringing up non-standard narratives is always a mistake. Who am I to criticize the electoral performance of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, James Carville, David Axelrod and all the other operatives who have honed the tools of campaigning into a lethal arsenal.  But if we can’t talk about these political problems during a presidential campaign, then when?

Go ahead and vote if you want to. I don’t really care (unless you live in Ohio). Obama has been an adequate caretaker president at a time when this nation needed so much more. Romney has failed to demonstrate why he should have the job, and personally, I just don't like him. He fails the "who-would-I-like-to-have-a-beer-with" test. Hell, he even fails the coffee test. But the 2012 election isn't about politics or likability, at best, it's about administration. Sometimes, it seems like the most powerful man in the free world has all the independence of thought and action of a middle-school student treasurer.

Maybe this time I'll write in Cthulhu.


Terror, Strategy, and Living Under Drones

Drones and the future of warfare are perennial interest of mine. My previous writing on drones was from the perspective of American politics and military strategy.  In brief, I argued that the armed drone has proceeded in concert with bureaucratic institutions of the ‘kill list’, from the context of democratic governance is dangerous because the institutions involved are free of external oversight, and above all, that this policy of ‘war by assassination’ developed without any form of public deliberation or participation.

What I did not write about was the consequences of drones on the ground, because I did not have that data, and would not presume to speak for the perspectives of people who I don’t understand. A recent report, Living Under Drones, by the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic), has provided that data, in the form of 130 interviews with Pakistani residents of the areas targeted by drones. I do not agree with all of the premises and conclusions of the report, but they have rendered an invaluable service by giving voice to an otherwise silenced population. I’d like to take a moment to discuss what this report reveals about the strategy of the drone war, and how that strategy can be improved.

The official word on the drone program, from counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan up to President Obama himself, is that drones are legal, ethical, and above all, precise. Strikes are conducted only on the best intelligence, on verified targets, in a manner that avoids civilian casualties. The metaphor of the Global War on Terror is cancer; terrorist cells must be cut out of the nation before they metastasize, and this can be done without harming the integrity of the body politic.

The three strikes described in Living Under Drones paints a very different picture. The stories differ in the details, but a common thread emerges as an attack on what the administration claims to be terrorist activity is described by locals as just daily life, including political council meetings and travel. The survivors, either just outside the blast radius of the relatives of the decease, describe the shock of the explosion, picking through ruined buildings for body parts, and trying to rebuild what remains. What through the lens of a drone looks like a terrorist, is to people in Waziristan a father, brother, son, economic breadwinner, friend, or local elder. Every death reverberates through the social fabric, individuals who are only weakly tied to legitimate targets in Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Haqqani network.

Those who live under drones describe the experience as one of fear amplified by uncertainty and helplessness into terror. “In the words of one interviewee: ‘God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack” (Living Under Drones pg. 81).  In practice, drones are terror weapons, with unanticipated psychological effects beyond their lethal impact. It is one thing for a democracy to avoid a debate on whether or not certain ‘bad people’ can and should be killed; it is another thing entirely to avoid that debate about whether a civilian population should be terrorized in pursuit of that policy.

These opposing perspectives on drones matter, because perspectives inform policy, which informs outcomes.  If drones are truly surgical weapons, than the matter at hand becomes identifying the relevant jihadist targets, and eliminating enough of them to shatter their organizations, or doing it rapidly enough to outpace their ability to regenerate, or simply staying at it at long enough that they go away. Unfortunately, regardless of its (arguable) successes in Waziristan, the proliferation of jihadist groups in Yemen, Libya, and Syria shows that years of this kind of ‘political surgery’ are not leading to victory. Attrition is the last refuge of the defeated strategist.

Drawing from Unrestricted Warfare, which presents the novel and profitable proposal “that the new principles of war are no longer 'using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one's will,' but rather are 'using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests'", the problems of drones as a terror weapon become clear.  The object of the drone campaign is not to surgically excise the Jihad, but to make the population turn against them on the belief that fighting Al Qaeda is a better option than allowing them to exist among them, thereby inviting the drones.

This strategy is riddled with weaknesses and little better than attrition. One strategic perspective views the Global War on Terror as one front in the struggle between the New World Order and the New World Disorder. Vis a vis futurist, sci-fi author, and guru Bruce Sterling and Professor Thomas Barnett of the Naval War College, there are places where the networks are open, the official economy encompasses pretty much everything, and rule of law applies, (if you’re reading this, you almost certainly live in one), and there are other places where the infrastructure is poor, power is held by small networks of personal charisma and authority, and the major economic activity is extortion, smuggling, and drugs. Terrorists, by and large, come from places like this, because they encourage the development of tightly-linked groups willing to kill. These groups don’t have the organizational ability to project power much beyond their neighborhood, but in rare circumstances they can hijack the infrastructure of the New World Order (airliners and subways, for example) to carry out mass attacks.

The point is that breaking up any particularly group is irrelevant, because the pervasive lack of economic opportunity and broader social meaning mean that places like these spawn terrorists, revolutionaries, and criminals in the same way that a garbage pile spawns flies. The isolation and provincialism of these places is hard to overstate, as interviews with three would-be Pakistani suicide bombers reveals:

“The common thread between the lives of these youths was their complete isolation from rest of the Pakistan and from the world at large. The lack of access to TV, Internet, and formal education meant they were almost completely oblivious to such massive events as 9/11, and as such they were unaware of where and what exactly the United States was. One of the boys mentioned that there was only one TV in their entire neighborhood, and even that one didn't work half of the time. Their only access to information was the radio, which has for years been dominated by the jihadists who were using the name of Islam to mobilize the people.”

If ultimate victory in this war is to be achieved by spreading the New World Order into the dark corners of the world, it is unlikely that terrorizing the population into mass anxiety, killing local leaders, and blowing up what infrastructure there is, is a fruitful step towards that goal.

I’m going to be cynical here, and say that regardless of its legality, ethics, or mass public opposition, the drone war is going to continue. In a tactical sense, armed drones are simply too good at killing terrorists for them to be abandoned as a technology. How then, might the strategy be recovered?

Foucault, in his classic Discipline and Punish, wrote about the Panopticon as both a physical structure and as a theory linking surveillance, punishment, and discipline. For Foucault, the power of the panopiticon’s architecture was that the possibility of being observed and punished at any time required the inmates to act in accordance to the wishes of the overseer at all times. When the inmates fully internalized the values of the overseer, and could be trusted to behave as he wished without active involvement, they had become ‘disciplined’. In this framework, the strategic aim of the Global War on Terror is extending American discipline in regards to terrorists to local populations around the world.

The theory of the panopticon is relatively simply, but its application is anything but.  Terrorist networks use intelligence tradecraft to avoid detection, making them elusive targets for surveillance. And from the perspective of civilians on the ground, the drone strikes appear random, leading to learned helplessness rather than an anti-terrorist discipline. I believe that to be effective, each drone strike must be linked to a clear American policy and ideology; and to an opportunity to for potential change behaviors and allegiances before being attacked. The drone war would become slower, more deliberative, and above all, more transparent.

Is this proposal ideal? Absolutely not. I’m not even sure if it’s a good idea. But what I am sure of is that the current strategies of the drone war as I understand them are not strategies that are capable of winning, and that endurance in pursuit of defeat is no virtue.


Science Fiction, Seriously.

Recently, ASU launched the new Center for Science and the Imagination to use science fiction in serious ways. Things like CSI are literally unbelievable; they could only happen at ASU, and it’s why I’m a grad student here. I’m look forward to working with the new center, and I have some ideas.

In the words of the center’s director, Ed Finn:
Our mission is to foster creative and ambitious thinking about the future. We want to bring writers, artists, scholars, scientists and many others together in collaboration on bold visions for a better future. But more than this, we want to share a sense of agency about the future, to get everyone on the plane thinking about how our choices inflect the spectrum of possibilities before us.

Right now, the center is bringing people together around big visions for the future, the most prominent of which is Neal Stephenson’s Giant Space Tower. Unlike a space elevator, which would require tens of thousands of kilometers of catbon nanotube fiber at an unprecedented production scale, Neal’s tower is only 10-20km tall, and built out of conventional materials like steal. However, by getting a launch platform above the thickest parts of Earth’s atmosphere, rockets could reach orbit much more efficiently, opening up new frontiers in space travel. The idea is that as a potential rallying point for interdisciplinary studies in engineering, sustainability, the politics of siting the tower, economics of operation, design of human living quarters high in what climbers call the ‘death zone’. It’s a big vision, but are we really thinking about choices and possibilities?

The tower is a fascinating project in many aspects, but as a spaceflight critic, I have my doubts. The tower is an interesting idea, but it’s closest analog isn’t the Apollo program, it’s large scale infrastructure like the Panama Canal, which was at its time an incredibly ambitious and fraught undertaking, cost $375 million, was politically tied to the imperial domination of Central America and moneyed shipping interests, and killed tens of thousands of workers. While it was a bridge between worlds in its time, and a worthy and impressive project, these days, its most enduring legacy is not heroic engineering, but cheap consumer goods and the Panamax ship standard.

Science fiction asks us to dream big, but history tells us we should be cautious. The legacies of innovation are rarely what we think they will be. The most important technologies are rarely the most impressive ones, human genome projects and particle accelerators and rocket ships. The science and technology that impacts us the most are quiet, omnipresent, invisible, things like air conditioning and standardized forms, forms of transportation that are cheap, efficient, and safe, buildings that stay up in storms and earthquakes, and the millions of other things that modern living requires, and which we notice only when they break.

We live in an era characterized by technologies, and as Langdon Winner noted in his classic The Whale and The Reactor, these artifacts have politics, but their values, costs and benefits, and forms of responsibility disappear into a fog of engineering details accessible only to experts. The architectures of technological systems structure and direct our lives in subtle ways, and yet we lack good tools to evaluate these technologies. I can think of three primary ways we approach technology: elegance, expense, and inertia. Technophiles love the newest most technically sweet solution or gadget for its own sake. Accountants are concerned with how much it will cost, and who will pay. And most people approach technology from a position of minimizing disruptions in how they live their lives, and interoperability with the current standard.

When people to come together to discuss technologies, the result is all too frequently confusion because they are coming from mutually incomprehensible perspectives. Rationality is not a fair and even-handed way of adjudicating between perspectives; demanding rationality is a way of enforcing the use of only one perspective. Cost-benefit analysis and similar “rational” techniques of technology assessment and governance take in only a very small slice of the human experience. For democrats, people who believe that everybody should have a fair say in the development of the community, this ungovernability of technology is a perennial problem.

Instead of bemoaning the perennial irrationality of the public, or elite decision-makers, or the morons who programmed the menu system on my internet enabled BluRay player, I think we should look for a different way of communicating. People may be irrational, in that they do things other than how we would have done then, but their actions make sense internally. They are never unreasonable.

Walter Fisher, in his work on the narrative paradigm delimited his theory that:
(1) Humans are essentially story tellers; (2) the paradigmatic mode of human decision-making and communication is “good reasons” which vary in form among communication situations, genres, and media; (3) the production and practice of goods reasons is ruled by matters of history, biography, culture, and character… (4) rationality is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings-their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes a coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives… (5) the world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation.

In short, good reasons are the stuff of stories, the means by which humans realize their nature as reasoning valuing animals. The philosophical ground of the narrative paradigm is ontology. The materials of the narrative paradigm are symbols, signs of consubstantiation, and good reasons, the communicative expressions of social reality.

We need to bring reasons to the forefront, and stories are some of the densest, most fruitful areas for discovering reasons. We need to start taking stories seriously, and specifically stories about technology. We need more people telling stories about technology, better stories about technology, and better channels for getting good stories out there. And for better or worse, science fiction is the genre of stories that deal with technology and the future. As Clark Miller and Ira Bennet, two professors at CSPO wrote, “Science-fiction is technology assessment for the rest of us.”

Jay Oglivy, a futurist with the Global Business Network, argues that, “Part of the role of futurists… should therefore be to articulate in an understandable and appealing way images of a better future. We need an antidote to Blade Runner, a foil for A Clockwork Orange, a better sequel to 1984, a truly humanized Animal Farm.” I hope that the new Center for Science and Inquiry can take up this challenge, creating a community of interdisciplinary scholars and methods to use science fiction to articulate, discuss, and create this better world. Anything less would be a betrayal of our ambitions.