Last month Patrick Crogan wrote a great, pithy blogpost about the conduct and conceptualisation of war in relation to the relentless gaze of drones arrayed with computer vision technologies that originate from professional sports video analysis. Folding together Derek Gregory’s recent detailed reading of Gregoire Chemayou’s ‘Theorie du Drone’, the work of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and Bernard Stiegler’s theorisation of the industrialisation of memory, Patrick highlights how software systems embedded within the complex surveillance and attacking capabilities of drones that are becoming quasi-autonomous are operating in the very constitution of the events of war, not merely reacting or functioning as equipment, but proactively producing events. Reproduced below…
This post is to start some ideas circulating from work I am increasingly becoming preoccupied with concerning military robotics and AI, as a particular (and also particularly important, in many ways) case of automatizing technologies emerging today. This is a big topic attracting an increasing amount of critical attention, notably from people like Derek Gregory (whose Geographical Imaginations blog is a treasure trove of insights, lines of inquiry and links on much of the work going on round this topic), and Lucy Suchman who is part of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and brings a critical STS perspective to drones and robotics on her Robot Futures blog.
I’m reading French CNRS researcher Gregoire Chamayou’s Théorie du drone, a book which has made a powerful start on the task of philosophically (as he has it) interrogating the introduction of these new weapons systems which are transforming the conduct, conceptualisation and horizon of war, politics and the technocultural global future today. Many riches in there, but I just read (p. 61) that the U.S. Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, looking for ways to deal with the oceans of video data collected by drones constantly overflying territory with unblinking eyes, obtained a version of software developed by ESPN and used in their coverage of American football. The software provides for the selection and indexing of clips from the multiple camera coverage of football games to enable their rapid recall and use in the analysis of plays which (as anyone who watches NFL or College football coverage knows takes up much more time than the play itself in any given broadcast). The software is able to archive footage (from the current or previous games) in a manner that makes it immediately available to the program director in compiling material for comparative analysis, illustration of player performance or tactical/strategic traits of a team, etc. The player and the key play can be systematically broken down, tracked in time, identified as exceptional or part of a broader play style, and so forth.
These capacities are precisely what makes the software desirable to the US Air Force inasmuch as the strategic development of drone operations deals with effectively the same analytical problem: the player and the key play, the insurgent/terrorist and the key act (IED, ambush, etc). The masses of video surveillance of the vast ‘gridded’ space of battlespace, a vast ‘arena’ similarly zoned in precisely measurable slices (but in 3D) must be selectable, taggable and recoverable in such a way to be usable in the review of drone operations. And the logic (or logistic as Virilio would immediately gloss it) of this treatment of ‘battlespace’ is realised in what has recently emerged unofficially from the Obama administration-Pentagon interface as the emerging strategic deployment of drones by the CIA (which runs a significant and un-reported proportion of drone operations globally). This targeting strategy is based precisely on pattern analysis both in tracking known suspected enemies of the state and in identifying what are called ‘signature targets’ (the signature referring to a ‘data signature’ of otherwise unidentified individuals, one that matches the movements and associations of a known insurgent/terrorist – see Gregory’s post on this in Geographic Imaginations ).
The ethical and juridical-political dimensions of this strategy are coming under increasing and much-needed scrutiny (more to come on this). As a media/games theorist, the striking thing about this felicitous mutuality of affordances between pro sport mediatisation technics and those in development for the conduct of drone operations is the reorientation to space it not only metaphorically suggests (war, become game now steering the metaphoric vehicle back in the other direction) but enacts through an ‘eventization’ (Stiegler) operating in the very constitution of the ‘event’ of war or counter-insurgency (or what James Der Derian called ‘post war warring’) . While there are many complicit actors benefiting from the profitable mediatized evolution of American football into a protracted, advertising friendly broadcast, no such ‘partnership’ exists between key players ‘on the ground’ and those re-processing their data trails.