Thomas Levin of Princeton came to Bard Tuesday to give a lecture to the Drones Seminar, a weekly class I am participating in, led by my colleague Thomas Keenan and conceived by two of our students Arthur Holland and Dan Gettinger. Levin has studied surveillance techniques for years and he came to think with us about how the present obsession with drones will transform our landscape and our imaginations. At a time when the obsession with drones in the media is focused on their offensive capacities, it is important to recall that drones were originally developed as a surveillance technology. If drones are to become omnipresent in our lives, what will that mean?
Levin began by reminding us of the embrace of other surveillance devices in mass culture, like recording devices at the turn of the 20th century. He offered old postcards and cartoons in which unsuspecting servants or children were caught goofing off or insulting their superiors with newfangled recording devices like the cylinder phonograph and, later, hidden cameras and spy satellites. The realization emerges that we are being watched, and this sense pervades the popular consciousness. In looking to these representations from mass culture of the fear, awareness, and even expectation that we will be watched and listened to, Levin finds the emergence of what he calls “rhetoric of surveillance.”
In short, we talk and think constantly about the fact that we are or may be being watched. This cannot but change the way we behave and act. Levin poses this question. What, he asks, is the emerging drone imaginary?
To answer that question it is helpful to revisit an uncannily prescient imagination of the rise of drones in a text written over half a century ago, Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees. Originally published in 1957 and recently reissued in translation with an introduction by science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, Jünger’s text centers around a job interview between an unnamed former light cavalry officer and Giacomo Zapparoni, secretive, filthy rich, and powerful proprietor of The Zapparoni Works that “manufactured robots for every imaginable purpose.” Zapparoni’s secret, however, is that he instead of big and hulking robots, he specialized in Lilliputian robots that gave “the impression of intelligent ants.”
The robots were not powerful in themselves, but they worked together. Like drone bees and drone ants—that exist only for procreation and then die—the small robots, or drones, serve specific purposes in industry or business. Zapparoni’s tiny robots “could count, weigh, sort gems or paper money….” Their power came from their coordination.
The robots “worked in dangerous locations, handling explosives, dangerous viruses, and even radioactive materials. Swarms of selectors could not only detect the faintest smell of smoke but could also extinguish a fire at an early stage; others repaired defective wiring, and still others fed upon filth and became indispensable in all jobs where cleanliness was essential.” Dispensable and efficient, Zapparoni’s little robots could do the most dangerous and least desirable tasks.
In The Glass Bees, we are introduced to Zapparoni’s latest invention: flying glass bees that can pollinate flowers much more efficiently and quickly than natural bees. The bees “were about the size of a walnut still encased in its green shell.” They were completely transparent and they were an improvement upon nature, at least insofar as the pollination of flowers was concerned. If a true or natural bee “sucked first on the calyx, at least a dessert remained.” But Zapparoni’s glass bees “proceeded more economically; that is, they drained the flower more thoroughly.” What is more, the bees were a marvel of agility and skill: “Given the flying speed, the fact that no collisions occurred during these flights back and forth was a masterly feat.” According to the cavalry officer, “It was evident that the natural procedure had been simplified, cut short, and standardized.”
Before our hero is introduced to Zapparoni’s bees, he is given a warning: “Beware of the bees!” And yet he forgets this warning. Watching the glass bees, the cavalry officer is fascinated. He felt himself “come under the spell of the deeper domain of techniques,” which like a spectacle “both enthralled and mesmerized.” His mind, he writes, went to sleep and he “forgot time” and “also entirely forgot the possibility of danger.”
Jünger’s book tells, in part, the story of our fascination and subjection to technologies of surveillance. On Facebook or Words with Friends, or even using our smart phones or GPS systems, we allow our fascination with technology to dull our sense of its danger. As Jünger writes: “Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms—around which, therefore, stands an uncanny but fascinating halo of brilliance—evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe.”
The protagonist of The Glass Bees, a former member of the Light Cavalry and later a tank inspector, had once been fascinated by the “succession of ever new models becoming obsolete at an ever increasing speed, this cunning question-and-answer game between overbred brains.” What he came to see is that “the struggle for power had reached a new stage; it was fought with scientific formulas. The weapons vanished in the abyss like fleeting images, like pictures one throws into the fire. New ones were produced in protean succession.” Victory ceased to be about physical battle; it became, instead, a contest of technical mastery and knowledge.
The danger drones pose is not necessarily military. As General Stanley McChrystal rightly said when I asked him about this last week at the New York Historical Society, drones are simply another military tool that can be used for good or ill. Many fret today about collateral damage by drones and forget that if we had to send in armies to do these tasks the collateral damage would be much greater. Others worry about assassination, but drones are simply the tool, not the person pulling the trigger. It may be true that having drones when others don’t offers an enormous military advantage and makes the decision to go to kill easier, but when both sides have drones, we will all think heavily between beginning a cycle of illegal assassinations.
Rather, the danger of drones is how they change us as humans. As we humans interact more regularly with drones and machines and computers, we will inevitably come to expect ourselves and our friends and our colleagues and our lovers to act with the efficiency and selflessness of drones. Sherry Turkle worries that mechanical companions offer such fascination and unquestionable love that humans are beginning to prefer spending time with their machines than with other humans—who make demands, get tired, act cranky, and disappoint us. Ron Arkin has argued that robot soldiers will be more humane at war than human soldiers, who often act rashly out of exhaustion, anger, or revenge. Doctors are learning to rely on Watson and artificially intelligent medical machines, who can bring databases of knowledge to bear on diagnoses with the speed and objectivity that humans can only dream of. In every area of human life where humans once were thought to be necessary, drones and machines are proving more reliable, more capable, and more desirable.
The danger drones represent is not what they do better than humans, but that they do it better than humans. They are a further step in the human dream of self-improvement—the desire to overcome our shame at our all-too-human limitations.
The incredible popularity of drones today is partly a result of their freeing us to fight wars with ever-reduced human and economic costs. But drones are popular also because they appeal to the human desire for perfection. The question is, however, how perfect we humans can be before we begin to lose our humanity. That is, of course, the force of Jünger’s warning: Beware of the bees!
As drones appear everywhere around us, you would do well to put down the newspaper and turn off You Tube and, instead, revisit Ernst Jünger’s classic tale of drones. The Glass Bees is your weekend read. You can read Bruce Sterling’s introduction to The Glass Bees here.
When people talk about the cost of entitlements or pensions, there is often a whiff of condescension, as if government employees don’t deserve their benefits. Often forgotten is the fact that private pensions are underfunded as well, and they are insured by the federal government. And now we are told that the military may have the biggest pension problem of all. Here is what the Financial Times reports:
Of all the politically difficult budget issues that Mr Hagel will face, few are more charged than the question of military entitlements which have risen sharply over the past decade. A report last year by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments concluded that at current rates, “military personnel costs will consume the entire defence budget by 2039”. Robert Gates, Mr Obama’s first defence secretary, once warned that these expenses were “eating us alive”.
Just as pensions and entitlements will soon crowd out all other government spending, so too will military pensions crowd out all military spending.
No one today can responsibly argue against pensions and health care. And no one can call the soldiers lazy burdens on the public weal. But neither can we fail to recognize that our addiction to entitlements is destroying our politics and our public spirit. We are sacrificing public action—be it the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the erecting of monuments, the education of our young, the building of infrastructure, and even a well-outfitted military—for the private comfort of individuals. It is no wonder that our political system is broken at a time when all incentives in the country lead interest groups to focus on parochial interests above the common good. It is inconceivable that this situation is not in some way related to the emergence of entitlements as the central function of government.
The question is one of principle. We have gone from a common sense that people are responsible for themselves and the government provides a safety net to a common sense that everyone should receive an education, everyone should receive healthcare, and everyone should receive pension benefits for as long as they live. It is possible to embrace the latter common sense, but with it comes a significantly higher tax burden and a much more communal ethic than has typically reigned in America. This is not a problem that hits only public employees. It is endemic throughout society. And our military.
There is probably no presidential speech more quoted in Academic circles than Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell speech, on the final day of his presidency. It was in that speech that Eisenhower warned of the danger of a military-industrial complex.
The need for a permanent army and a permanent arms industry creates, he writes, a gargantuan defense establishment that would wield an irresistible economic, political, and spiritual influence. In the face of this military-industrial complex, we as a nation must remain vigilant.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Eisenhower's speech was prescient. Particularly academics love to point to his speech to criticize bloated defense spending and point to the need to critically resist the military demands for more weapons and more soldiers. They are undoubtedly right to do so.
This is true even as today the military may be the one significant institution in American life where top leaders are arguing that America's world preeminence is not sustainable. In Edward Luce's excellent new book Time to Start Thinking, he describes how military leaders are convinced that the U.S. "should sharply reduced its "global footprint" by winding up all wars, notably in Afghanistan, and by closing peacetime military bases in Germany, South Korea, the UK, and elsewhere." The military leaders Luce spoke to also said that the US must learn to live with a nuclear Iran and "stop spending so much time and resources on the war against Al-Qaeda." Military leaders, Luce reports, are upset that "In this country 'shared sacrifice' means putting a yellow ribbon around the oak tree and then going shopping." Many military people seem to share Admiral Michael Mullen's view that the US national debt is the "country's number one threat—greater than that posed by terrorism, by weapons of mass destruction, and by global warming." One must think hard about the fact that military leaders see the need for "shared sacrifice" that will shrink the military-industrial complex while Americans and their elected leaders still speak about tax cuts and stimulus.
Too frequently forgotten in Eisenhower's speech, or even simply overlooked, is the fact that Eisenhower follows his discussion of the military-industrial complex with a similar warning about the dangers of a "revolution in the conduct of research." Parallel to the military-industrial complex is the danger of a university-government complex. (Hat Tip, Tom Billings (see comments)). Eisenhower writes:
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
Just as modern warfare demands a huge and constant arms industry, so too does the technological revolution demand a huge and constant army of researchers and scientists. This army can only be organized and funded by government largesse. There is a danger, Eisenhower warns, that the university-government complex will take on a life of its own, manufacturing unreal needs (e.g. a Bachelor of Arts degree in order to manage an assembly line) and liberally funding research with little regards to quality, meaning, or need. While the university-government complex is not nearly as expensive or dangerous as the military-industrial complex, there is little doubt that it exists.
Eisenhower warns of a double threat of this university-government complex. First, the nation's scholars could be dominated by Federal employment, and gear their research to fit with governmental mandates. And second, the opposite danger, that "public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."
The existence and power of just such a scientific-technological elite is undeniable today. On the one side are the free-market idealogues, those acolytes of Friedman, Hayek, and Coase, who insist that policy be geared towards rational, self-regulating, economic actors. That real people do not conform to theories of rational behavior is a problem with the people, not the theories.
On the other side are the welfare-state adherents, who insist on governmental support for not only the poor, but also the working classes, the bankers, and corporations. The sad fact that 50 years of anti-poverty programs have not alleviated poverty or that record amounts of money spent on education has seen educational attainment decrease rather than increase is seen to be no argument for the failure of technocratic-governmental solutions. It just means more money and more technical know-how are needed.
It is simply amazing that people in academia can actually defend the current system that we are part of. Of course there are good schools and fine teachers and serious students. But we all know the system is a failure. Graduate students are without prospects; faculty spend so much time publishing articles and books that no one reads; administrators make ever more - sometimes twelve times as much as full professors-and come more and more to serve as the lifeblood of universities; and it is the rare student who amidst the large classes, absent faculty, and social and financial pressures, somehow makes college an intellectual experience.
The idea and practice of college needs to be re-imagined and re-thought. Entrenched interests will oppose this. But at this point the system is so broken that it simply cannot survive. On a financial level, large numbers of universities are being kept afloat on the largesse of federal student loans. If those loans were to disappear or dry up, many colleges would disappear or at the least shrink greatly. This should not happen. And yet, putting our young people $1 trillion in debt is not an answer. For too long we have been paying for our lifestyles with borrowed money. We are now used to our inflated lifestyles and unwilling to give them up. Something will have to give.
The current cost of a college education is unsustainable except for the very top schools that attract the very richest students who then fund endowments that allow those schools to subsidize economic, national, and racial diversity. For schools that cannot attract the wealthiest or do not have endowments that protect them from market forces, change will have to come. This will mean, in many instances, faculty salaries will decrease and costs will have to come down. In other colleges, costs will rise and university education will be ever less accessible. Either way, the conviction that everyone needs a liberal arts degree will probably be revised.
I have no crystal ball showing where this will all lead. But there are better and worse ways that the change will come, and I for one hope that if we turn to honestly thinking about it in the present, the future will be more palatable. This is the debate we need to have.