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Exterminate! The Dalek and the Drone Assassin

Dalek ExterminateThe Daleks, the most feared race in the science fiction universe of Doctor Who. But is their terrible warcry of "Exterminate!" just a chilling historical reference to the Nazi's 'Final Solution', or is it also a horrific reflection of our own willingness to let our technology distort our ethics when it comes to violence?

There is an incredible scene in the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in which the military strategist Kongmong (or Zhuge Liang) commiserates with his enemy, the barbarian chieftain Meng Huo. Putting aside the radical differences with the historical personages these characters are based upon, what is striking about the scene is that two warriors who might be considered brutal by today's moral standards do something we can no longer countenance: they share in the grief of an enemy. Meng Huo's forces have been using rattan armour, a lacquered wood that is proof against the swords and spears of the invading forces. Kongmong reasons that if this mysterious defense is proof against both metal and water (the battleground being around dank forests), it must be vulnerable to fire. He thus sets an incendiary trap - but it is too successful. The laquer ignites and the soldiers are all burned to death. But rather than boast of his victory, Kongming weeps with Meng Huo over the terrible loss of life. Despite the savagery of this era, it is still devastating to Kongming to have caused death on such a scale. And so he weeps both for, and with, his enemy.

By comparison, the fictional Daleks shed tears for no-one. They are absolutely assured of their racial superiority, and thus have a mandate to eradicate all other species except when their own plans require enslaving the lesser races instead. Terry Nation, who created both the Daleks and the dystopian science fiction show Blake's 7, modelled the Daleks upon the Nazis, a theme that is most explicit in the final Dalek story of the classic era, Remembrance of the Daleks. Although extermination was a thematic element of the 1960s Dalek stories, it wasnt until 1972 that "Exterminate!" became their de facto warcry, an outcome that owed as much to British newspapers popularizing the phrase in connection with these cybernetic murdererers as anything else.

Fiction is the mirror of our moral selves and we can learn a great deal about ourselves from how we relate to ethical situations portrayed in stories. In the cases described above, we have two odd extremes of a some kind of ethical scale: war is an accepted tool by both Kongming and the Daleks, but the former aims not at the eradication of the enemy but in fact hopes to make them allies, something the aliens from the planet Skaro could not possibly contemplate. We cannot, I suggest, see ourselves in the Daleks, who are as close to absolute examples of moral wrongness as we are likely to find. But we also cannot see ourselves very well in this particular Kongming story - since when do we commiserate with our enemies these days?

The chilling fact of contemporary warfare is that we are far closer to Daleks than we are willing to admit. The familiar 'pepper-pot' shape of the Dalek is a machine (a 'travel machine', as it is called in Genesis of the Daleks) intended to house the mutated descendants of a dying race of humanoids on the planet Skaro. The scientists who make this device have in mind only their ability to continue as a race, but the twisted genius Davros adds a weapon to the casing and genetically engineers the organic occupants to have greater aggression and an absence of empathy and pity. There is a sense, therefore, of the Daleks being destined towards extermination. But in many respects, it is the addition of the weapon to the travel machine that transforms the Daleks from a means of survival to a means of extermination - and this parallels contemporary usage of robotic drones.

UAVs, as the military penchant for acronyms renders them - 'unmanned aerial vehicles' - are also a kind of 'travel machine'. They allow telepresence in remote locations, such that an operator in the United States can fly a drone (as I shall insist on calling them) on the other side of the world. Technology, our Enlightment mythology assures us, is morally neutral, and we should only be concerned about the ways we use our tools and not the tools themselves. Yet for some reason, we are not on the whole significantly concerned about the CIA mounting explosive missiles upon these drones and using them to strike at targets in Iraq and Pakistan. I suggest this is because we think of such deployments as being used 'against terrorists', despite an endless array of evidence that these drone assassinations have resulted in many hundreds of deaths among civilians who simply have the misfortune to be neighbours of those who have been marked for death by military bureaucracy. The facts of this horrific practice are not in dispute. Yet still, we do not weep for the enemy, nor even for the innocents slain in pursuit of the morally reprehensible goal of mechanized extermination.

I'm saddened to report that not long ago I discovered that someone in my circle of acquaintance was working on autonomous guidance systems for military drones. I am reluctant to force my moral values upon others but I had to confront him on this. "They only use drones to kill terrorists" was his shocking reply. Even if that were the case, which it manifestly is not, are we now so far from critically challenging our technology that we would walk into developing not mere Daleks, which after all are still vehicles, but autonomously murderous machines? Never mind the mythology of Doctor Who, this is the nightmare future of The Terminator we are sleepwalking into!

There is an oft-quoted comment from one of Heideggar's lectures that is usually quoted with horror:

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

Excluding militant vegans, who value non-human animals radically more than most people, this line is taken as a sick conflation of the moral value of a chicken or cow to that of the Jewish people. (I have never seen the lives of the Japanese civilians slain by the hydrogen bombs brought into this expression of outrage, however.) While Heideggar's remark was certainly ill-chosen, at its heart is a recognition of the risks of pursuing death as an automated process. The Daleks and the Terminators are science fictional expressions of this concern. Drone assassins are its horrific manifestation in contemporary war. If we cannot recapture some scintilla of the remorse Kongming shows in accidentally exterminating enemy combatants when we face down our intentional extermination of innocent civilians, we must urgently ask those who serve in our armed forces to find new moral values for the battlefield. For today, it is our own forces whose warcry has unknowingly become 'exterminate!'

You'll find more detailed discussions of drone assassination, the relationship between science fiction and ethics,  and other contemporary moral problems in my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.


The Echoes of Genre

Over on ihobo today, a reply to Jed Pressgrove's blog letter about defining RPG genres, exploring the plurality of what the role-playing game genre entails. Here's an extract:

It is worth being clear that generating a  character - valorised in the Western cRPG culture as an expression of agency - was not essential to the tabletop games. Some game systems (e.g. TSR's The Adventures of Indiana Jones), and even more individual scenarios, allocated specified characters to players, inviting players to take on that clearly-defined role. This may seem to resonate with the Japanese lineage - except in those games the developer did almost all of the role-playing when they sketched out the narrative during the early stages of the project. The players of the Japanese RPGs are left with limited opportunities to play as the roles given to them. And ironically, in the Western lineage the dominance of agency as an aesthetic value means that you can do 'anything' as long as it doesn't involve expressive character interactions (the quintessence of 'role-playing'), which cannot be easily modelled on computers. So neither lineage takes up the torch of the 'role-playing' aspect very effectively, and instead both follow on directly from the 'game' aspect of early RPGs.

You can read the entirety of The Echoes of Genre over at ihobo.com. This is my eighth blog letter since December, so I am more or less on target to deliver my target of twelve before the close of the Gregorian year.


The Narrow Space for Artistry in Commercial Media

In an interview, the legendary film director John Ford made this remark:

It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises - the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations.

Even though it is a dangerous mistake to think of games designers as architects given the necessarily iterative aspects to software development, this idea applies equally well to commercial videogames. What we still seem to lack, alas, are visionaries like Ford or Kurasawa who can marry the challenges of the technologically-yoked commercial games industry with Ford's creativity-within-limitations.

Cross-posted from ihobo.com.


Expertise as Involvement

Over on ihobo today, a blog letter on what makes someone an expert, particular in the context of games:

On the whole, ‘expertise’ is a fascinating concept – and particularly because I, like most ‘game experts’ am self-proclaimed as such. I was arrogant enough in my youth to think that my tiny corner of knowledge was brilliant enough to make me an expert and just started writing as f I was one. In later life, I have had this ‘officially certified’ by claiming a bckdoor doctorate (a PhD by Publication), which is a nice endorsement of my smugness – but it doesn’t really change the fact that my expertise is only really my willingness to be identified as an expert. Honestly, it is quite different to ground the concept of an expert these days in any other way!

Check out the entirety of Expertise as Involvement over on ihobo.com!


No-one is Independent

indie bronx graffiti Certain media creators are proud of their status as ‘indies’ – but is anyone today actually independent of corporations?

Suppose there were a certification programme for media that declared itself ‘independent’, parallel to organic certification in food. To be labelled ‘organic’, produce must be grown under certain rigorous conditions – no chemical pesticides or fertilizers should have been used for up to three years at the farm in question, for instance. It’s tough to get organic certification, because the conditions are so stringent. Let’s say our imagined ‘independent certification’ requires only that the media in question has been produced without the involvement of any organisation with a hundred or more employees. That condition would ensure that essentially nothing made in Europe, the US, Australasia etc. could be certified ‘independent’. There certainly could be no certified independent videogame, since no computer has ever been manufactured independently.

The Indie Ideology

Today The word ‘indie’ is oft used these days to valorise (often self-valorise) certain media. Short for ‘independent’, the term originated in the UK sometime during the rock and roll years but became cemented in music during the 1980s, when musicians (often those being played by offbeat DJ John Peel) began to appropriate indie as a branding to help sell their records to those teenagers and young adults eager to set themselves apart from the corporate-dominated mainstream. Since then, the term has gained currency in all forms of media – comics, movies, games and so forth will be identified as ‘indie’ whenever the creators want to draw a line between what they do and what the perceived commercial middle ground does. The label is heavily disputed, for a variety of reasons, but it is not usually doubted that there is something that warrants being called ‘indie’. The trouble is, little to nothing made in the cultures that use the word is genuinely produced without corporate involvement.

The defence of ‘indie’ as a meaningful term relies upon an aspect of contemporary mythology intimately connected with the desire to assert this form of imagined independence. It rests on our capacity to ignore tools as ‘neutral’, and thus focus solely upon the usage of those tools (irrespective of the circumstances of their manufacture). This perspective directly descends from the Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which also gives us the split into ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’. Because people are subjects and tools are ‘merely’ objects, we largely ignore them except when they come into clear focus for some reason. Heidegger gives us the classic example of a hammer, which only comes to mind when it breaks. Otherwise, it is just taken to be a seamless extension of the skills of the person wielding it, unnoticed in itself.

Rather than ‘independent’ media being produced quite apart from corporations – like organic food that sets itself quite apart from agribusinesses with their chemical and genetically-modified arsenal – the situation is much more intimate. We could use the iceberg, with only 10% of the frozen mass visible above the water, as a (familiar) illustrative metaphor. The indie is the tip of the iceberg, but sure enough the corporate ‘ice’ is still what they are firmly standing upon. Corporate media stands out because there is more ice above the sea to be seen – it looks far more monolithic at first glance. But under the waves, the vast slab of frozen water remains just as large in either case.

The Megacorp Mythology

Weyland Megacorp A viable objection here is that we don’t care about corporate production of tools, we only care about the quality of the media produced. Purportedly ‘independent’ movies, games, comics, and music have certain aesthetic qualities that we value, and this is the reason for valorising independent media-production. In other words, it doesn't matter that corporations underpin indie media because its still ‘better’ than corporate media. (I could and may yet challenge this claim, but let's accept it now for the sake of argument).

Now the question arises whether we actually care about corporate power and influence when we valorise ‘indie’ media – because on the face of it, this is what independence is supposed to connote. Perhaps there are people for whom concerns about corporations are solely about the aesthetic effects they have on media – but I find this unlikely. A key part of my doubt here comes from the stories of the prevailing shared mythology today, namely science fiction. For positivists, it tends to be their main or only mythic system, whereas for Christians, Muslims, Hindus etc. it is a supplemental mythology. Either way it is the only widely shared imaginative system today, for all that individual instances can be wildly different.

Over the same period of time that ‘indie’ was gaining currency as a term, the cyberpunk movement (i.e. Bruce Sterling, William Gibson etc.) and its associated media (e.g. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Alien films) changed the focus of science fiction away from far future space opera and impending or recent apocalypse (although these never went away...) and towards a new kind of near-future paranoia about the growing power of the transnational corporation. Today, the evil future corporation is so familiar as to be passé, primarily because we all share these concerns about what corporations might become – or have already become.

My claim is that the evil corporation mythology could not have become a cliché unless the majority of us accepted its premise. This would mean that we all share concerns about the power and influence of big commercial organizations, although of course our actual concerns may be different. Some might be worried about wealth inequality, others about environmental impact, still others about political distortion caused by the concentration of influence corporations create. Different values create different perspectives on the nature of the problem – but few see no problem at all with the rise in both the power and the ubiquity of major corporate interests. If this is the case, then the Enlightenment philosophy of ethical subjects and neutral objects isn't going to be enough to render the so-called independents conceptually disjunct from the corporations whose tools and infrastructure they are undeniably reliant upon.

Lesser Dependence

Modern Tech Despite what the mythological implications of 'indie' are supposed to entail, the people claiming this label are entirely dependent upon the giant commercial organisations they use as a contrast case to justify the claim to independence. And this isn't even a surprise, once we examine these issues, because no-one is independent from the corporate world, not when they live in the world of cars, computers, and telecommunication. I do not make this point to condemn indies but to provoke thought on an issue that is not honestly considered – especially by those who invoke the ‘indie’ label. To be sure, such creative groups are submitting to slightly less corporate involvement in their lives – but they are not truly independent, and could not be given their actual practices.

We are all wholly dependent upon corporations now. ‘Indies’ simply operate with a lesser degree of corporate dependency – perhaps we could more honestly call them ‘lessies’? If the concerns raised in science fiction are more than just anticipated risks, we had better begin discussing in earnest how we would like our relationships with corporate organisations to develop over the decades to come.

For more discussions such as this one, check out my latest book, Chaos Ethics, available 26th September 2014.


What is a 'game expert'?

Over at Game Intellectualism, DapperAnarchist/Joseph writes a short blog letter asking: what does it take to be a ‘game expert’:

I’m pretty sure you know that the original Republic of Letters was made up of men (yeah, mostly men) with expertise in some subject - philosophy, law, natural science, history, whatever. This Republic of Bloggers is made up of… who? Experts in games? What then is an expert in games? … You’re clearly an expert, if any such thing exists. Do you feel like one? How do you think you became one? And do you think there are necessary things to be an expert?

I’ll be replying shortly, I’m sure other replies would also be welcome!


DNA as Destiny?

FetusDo the arguments mounted against religion rely upon a naive understanding of DNA?

This is the argument I mounted in a piece entitled DNA as Destiny? that ran in On Religion magazine late last year. Since I'm not quite ready to post new material, I thought I would share this in lieu of a post this week. Here's an extract from the article:

To be prejudiced against a black woman because she is black or because she is a woman (the argument runs) is irrational, but to be prejudiced against a black woman because she is Muslim or Christian is not to be bigoted towards her but rather to pursue rational criticisms against those faith traditions. The tacit basis for this kind of claim is that those aspects of our selves that are not subject to change or choice are the fixed points of reference for our identities, whilst everything else is open to appraisal and can be rejected if it is irrational. While rationality is certainly part of the ideal being applied here, beneath this sort of argument lies a dependence on genetics to resolve questions of diversity.

You can read the entirety of DNA as Destiny? over on the On Religion website. Comments and discussion is welcome here!