War and the Walkman: Science and the Technologies of Remoteness

In his excellent article A generation lost in its personal space the science writer and Internet historian John Naughton ponders the enigma of a society in which the private sphere of individuals increasingly erodes those public spaces of social interaction often argued to be fundamental to community and democracy.

Our streets and campuses are now full of people oblivious to, or uncaring of their surroundings: youngsters lost in the music playing over their headphones as they focus on their latest text message; harried businessmen and distraught lovers who shout into their mobiles, exposing the most confidential details of their lives for all the world to hear. Naughton notes the relevance of the observation by phenomenologist philosopher and Nazi supporter Heidegger that ‘technology is the art of arranging the world so that we don’t have to experience it’.

Nowhere are the advances in technological remoteness more evident than in the development of weaponry. The ability to kill at a distance, insulated from the direct experience of another’s death, is the hallmark of modern warfare. What began with spears and arrows has found its ultimate expression in the inter-continental ballistic missile which can carry remote extinction to not one, but hundreds of thousand of individuals. It was their perception of the remoteness of the consequences – a perception we know to be illusory in the light of nuclear winter – that allowed American Cold War planners, emboldened by the ‘successes’ of Hiroshima and Nagaski, and led by the supreme rationalist mathematician, computer scientist and physicist USSR. It is the distancing provided by headsup flight displays in aircraft cockpits that turns the bombardment of living human beings with cluster bombs into an entertainment experience akin to a high quality arcade game. And this kind of remoteness is no longer only the province of aerial conflict; the humble foot-soldier, who previously had to be content with RPG’s, artillery support, and calling in air strikes, can now join in the fun offered by depersonalised slaughter. The BBC?????s report that the US plans to deploy remote-controlled robot soldiers in Iraq tellingly quotes the manufacturer’s claim that the only difference for a soldier is that ‘his weapon is not at his shoulder, it’s up to half a mile away’.

The technologies of war and the Walkman also have another, less literal kind of remoteness in common; their conception, design, manufacture, and distribution is ordered and overseen by a vanishingly small proportion of the people on this planet. These exclusive, highly organised groups of wealthy and powerful individuals, whose inextricably intertwined values and concerns led US President Eisenhower to ruefully refer to them as

3 comments


    Thankyou. I spend much of my life feeling out of synch with other people. The issues you discuss in this article, seem to me, to be extremely important. Unfortunately, almost every other person i talk to either seems to think that they are not important, or that even if they are, there is nothing that anyone can do about it. I feel this so strongly that, in recent years, i have often been forced to question my own sanity.
    If there is anything I can do to help in even the smallest way please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Gary Wagstaff.

    Mark Brake

    February 9, 2005

    Though not directly related to the thrust of Steve’s posting, this
    weekend sees the 60th anniversary of one of the most
    controversial Allied atrocities of WWII, the
    “Dresden bombing”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4257253.stm

    BBC2’s
    “The Culture Show”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/cultureshow/ featured a brilliant interview with SF writer “Kurt
    Vonnegut”:http://www.vonnegut.com/ . Readers will recall that
    Kurt made his major breakthrough with ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ his
    bitingly satirical anti-war and time travelling SF novel based on
    the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. Unlike 135 000
    others, Kurt was one of the few to survive the carpet bombing of
    innocent civilians, and considered Slaughterhouse 5 to have
    been a ‘work-in-progress’ for the 24 years prior to its
    publication.

    In the interview Kurt also reflected on the contemporary
    analogous fact that the “monkeys in Washington”:http://www.bushorchimp.com/ were not only
    remote from the atrocities being carried out in their name on yet
    another city of culture in Baghdad, but remote in their ignorance
    of the lessons of history and their subsequent failure to
    recognise you can not subjugate an entire nation with an
    invasion force of only 150 000 troops. (Avid readers of
    Vonnegut???s superb ‘Breakfast of Champions??? will recall his
    definition of Vietnam as a country that America tried to ‘stop
    being communists by dropping bombs on them from
    aeroplanes???). Kurt’s parting remarks in the interview suggested
    that whereas natural events such as tsunami can easily wipe out
    hundreds of thousands at a time, it takes a holocaust of humans
    to “raise” the level of death and destruction to “industrial levels”

    Perhaps on a more problematic level, Steve refers to the
    Military-Industrial Complex as ???highly organised groups of
    wealthy and powerful individuals, whose inextricably intertwined
    values and concerns??? are ultimately repsonsible for such ???depersonalised slaughter???. ???The scientific research they sponsor”, Steve suggests, “has little regard for the free and open exchange of knowledge???.

    Indeed. What troubles me greatly, however, is that there are scientists like us conducting such research on the behalf on the Complex.

    Mark Brake

    February 9, 2005

    *Brecht, Galileo, Manhattan and Iraq*

    In his play _The Life of Galileo_, “Bertolt Brecht”:http://german.lss.wisc.edu/brecht/ drew an historical
    analogy (he was very fond of them!) between Galileo’s
    submitting to the Church authorities’ demand for recantation
    with the social and political situation in WWII in which “Manhattan Project”:http://www.atomicmuseum.com/tour/manhattanproject.cfm physicists were turning over their expertise to aid the military. Brecht felt that scientists had gone too far by allowing their work to be turned over to and controlled by politicians. He felt they had betrayed a moral responsibility to society “to ease the suffering of man rather than add to it.”

    This relationship between a 17th Century physicist, who may
    have delayed the advancement of science by his actions, and
    20th/21st Century scientists, who advance science while
    developing weapons of mass destruction is not as strained as
    you may think.

    Steve???s posting and Gary???s reaction both show that the issue of
    resisting the powers of repression and social destruction are as
    contemporary as the conflict in Iraq. What would have happened
    if “Galileo”:http://galileo.imss.firenze.it/ had stood up to the authorities of his time? Would the results have been more positive? He had to deal with a clear threat of possible torture if he resisted. Easy for us to criticize.

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