I am less impressed with Daniel Wilson’s new book than my frenemy Drezner appears, and quite possibly because I so wanted it to be what Wilson admits, at the end of this diavlog, that it is certainly not:World War Z for anti-zombites, a fictionalized near-future scenario that throws lights on present-day socio-political conditions through the metaphor of killer robots rather than supernatural threats.
In my view, there is almost no politics involved: nothing about how political institutions or political actors respond to or enable zero hour, or how they relate to one another as the war unfolds. International relations scholars will be particularly disappointed: the only nations that figure prominently (America, the UK and Japan) operate largely without one another yet in seemingly perfect coordination. It is a techno-utopian scenario brought about by… technological collapse. Really? Who would have thought a book about a zombie plague would have seemed realistic by comparison?
What passes for political narrative is remarkably unsophisticated. Humans appear to have only a single identity after zero hour, that of ‘non-machine,’ quickly banding together in all sorts of unrealistic combinations to fight ‘Rob’. The argument seems to be that when faced with an existential threat dumb city-dwellers will perish or hang their hopes on Red America… one waits in vain for predictable tensions to emerge among the human characters as life becomes increasingly brutish and short, but any that arise are quickly resolved, leaving the book plotless and dry. Factionalism among the robots themselves is somewhat more interesting but ultimately unexplained.
The most interesting aspect of the book is Wilson’s depiction of human vulnerability to technological dominion. His emphasis on specific technological foils with which to critique humanity’s increasing reliance on robotics – which as Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen phrase it in their book Moral Machines, might be termed “bonds, bondage and bombs” – is curiously selective. True, Wilson explores sex-bot culture and the genuine emotional ties humans are developing with electronic objects, detailed more by David Levy’s recent nonfiction work Love and Sex With Robots. And he mocks humans’ emerging reliance on smart cars and smart houses, though in the diavlog he quite rightly points out that these are no doubt positive trends from a human security perspective.
But Wilson barely explores cyborgism at all – or rather how knowledge and socio-political identities themselves are being mediated by humanity’s interface with machine intelligence… and Robopocalypse is largely disconnected from the trend in real-life robotics that has most brought the debate over artificial intelligence and killer machines to the fore: the movement toward the development of autonomous lethal robots.
2: Your GoT satirical post of the week. (H/T Steve.)
3: No, I haven’t read it yet, though this is definitely on my summer beach-book-list. Judging by the critical reviews (Robopocalypse is being compared to World War Z) my immediate sense is that the zombie craze of which Drezner speaks may be coming to its end, and that Glen Weldon’s new novel may be the start of the latest greatest trend in ” post-apocalyptic chronicle of decimated humanity” fiction.
It may be the presence of this beating human heart beneath Robopocalpyse’s cold, genocidal surface that helps explain why Steven Spielberg has optioned, and plans to direct, the film version, due in 2013. The fact that Spielberg did so before Wilson had even finished his first draft, however, suggests that Hollywood sees something it likes in the way the book exploits our anxieties about artificial intelligence — something it finds very, very marketable.
(And not a moment too soon, if you ask me.) Now, back to work on my case study about autonomous warbots…
We also talk about Libya, R2P, Wikileaks, gender, and why Dan should give critical theory a second chance despite how they left things.
I do feel compelled to explain the weirdness around 21:20. We had a tech fail (I blame the Cylons) and fixing it disrupted my original plan to cite my co-blogger Vikash Yadav on some very important insights in this post. So I asked Sang Ngo at BHTV to splice in a clip I recorded afterwards, making the shout-out. He obliged me, though despite his techno-wizardry it didn’t turn out quite as I’d hoped only because I was rather more sloshed at the end than in the middle… (also, watch how I try in vain to get my mouth around the term ‘territorial non-aggression norm’ at 44:35). But hey, it was late on a Saturday night, and don’t forget drinking while blogging heads is an Internet tradition.
This panel, by the way, was voted among the “Top 20 ISA Panels of All Time” by a “senior academic sitting in audience” via Twitter. My post-ISA content analysis of the conference Twitter hashtag also shows that ‘zombies’ was the fifth most commonly tweeted word – beaten only by ‘#isa2011’, ‘rt,’ ‘panel’ and ‘http’, and surpassing the words ‘power,’ ‘libya’ and even ‘bitly’ as well as references to the IPad contest being thrown by Routledge Press. What this suggests about the state of IR as a discipline one can only wonder, but Steve Saideman has a few choice thoughts.
The drone and the cyborg were born near the dawn of the nuclear age (i.e. the Vergeltungswaffen and the Kamikaze), and appeared in several previous conflicts, but they did not simultaneously reshape the dynamics of war until after 2001.
The armed drone represents a displaced subjectivity that eludes the laws of war and Eurocentric/ anthropocentric notions of sovereignty. The soldier operating the drone spies, hunts, and kills from thousands of miles away; s/he murders combatants and non-combatants without taking any risk or responsibility. The drone violates the sovereign territory of foreign powers for days at a time – the drone is becoming a permanent armed presence in the skies of the targeted zones. The armed drone is the manifestation of a literally disembodied soldier on the battle zone; the armed drone is an avatar. The cyborg seems to be the opposite of the drone; s/he is flesh over mind. There is a temptation to view the cyborg as more human because of the relatively primitive technology employed in its manufacture. Nevertheless, the cyborg is also transhuman or a portent of a posthuman future – s/he fuses flesh and explosive matter in a manner that becomes indistinguishable. As Faisal Devji reminds us:
“And indeed the cyborg as a sign of the posthuman future is nowhere more clearly made flesh than in the figure of the suicide bomber who transforms his own body into an explosive device. Can the human and nonhuman parts of this cyborg be distinguished from one another so that we can say which does the killing and who does the dying?” (Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity, 2008).
Like the drone, the presence of the cyborg has grown rapidly in the zone of combat. Before 2002, for example, Pakistan had only had one cyborg attack. Last year, there were ninety. In fact, the cyborg is increasingly integrated as a component of insurgent attacks.
Both the drone and cyborg are immoral and extralegal instruments of terror and vengeance. (If war is socially sanctioned murder, then neither technology has been socially sanctioned. The cyborg has been explicitly condemned by the ‘ulema). Both technologies are highly accurate, nearly unstoppable, and devastatingly lethal. These technologies are marked by a moral and tactical equivalence at least in the public statements of insurgents.