Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom

A Pale Rider Upon a Gunmetal Steed

Weapons of mass destruction are a curse that humanity bestows upon its children. Be they chemical, biological, or nuclear once such weapons are introduced into the world the frenzied panic about the threat they pose to the survival of the species reaches feverish levels. While world militaries have played important roles in driving technological change and “advancement,” weapons of mass destruction stand out as that rare thing: machines built specifically not to be used. It is, to quote Lewis Mumford, (from In the Name of Sanity):

“the story of a pride that begot blindness and of infinite power that became incompetence, for the kind of intelligence that has invented and exploited the bomb has so far shown no aptitude for controlling its undesirable social results.” (Mumford, 63 ItNoS)

Concern about the life annihilating danger such devices represented may have reached its apex during the Cold War, when the threat of a war fought between two nuclear armed antagonists threatened to turn this blue green marble into a blackened one. The madness on display as both sides amassed ever larger arsenals of doomsday machines gave rise to no lack of technological criticism couched in a disgusted despair at the ways in which governments were using the advances of science to dream up new methods for genocide with the click of a button. Yet the Cold War ended without the world being reduced to a cinder and even if the “red menace” vanished from propaganda the silos were still filled with the rider named death on a gunmetal pale horse.

The danger of our nemesis possessing WMDs slowly turned into the fear of “rogue nations” who might have such devices; the fear of global extinction was replaced by the more nefarious panic of a single weapon being deployed in a populated area. The threat of WMDs remained strong for they were still out there in the world: thus President George W. Bush could use the threat of WMDs to galvanize a terrified public into marching to war, and thus President Barack Obama can point to the usage of chemical weapons in Syria as a reason why it is now (when tens of thousands have perished) that the US (and its allies) must act.

It is not the death of tens of thousands in Syria that has quickened the US resolve to act, it is that Syria has (or at the very least is being accused of) violating the “rule” when it comes to WMDs: these are not machines to be used.

The absurdity being, that when a technology is introduced into the world (be it an instrument of life or death) it cannot truly come as a surprise when it is used. The arsenal of contemporary warfare for all of its sheen and supposed accuracy remains simply a more advanced means towards the very old end of delivering death to one’s adversaries. From siege engine to cannonade to artillery to machine gun to tank to plane to bomb to atom bomb to drone to tomorrow’s scythe the history of technics is replete with examples of ever more reapers. The added bonus being that with each advancement the one lighting the fuse, pulling the trigger, or pushing their buttons kept their clothes clean of the literal (if not metaphorical) blood. Yet the indiscriminate death that is brought by WMDs remains particularly troubling, as every usage of such devices is a reminder of the vast stockpiles of them to be found around the world, and the precarious mode of living that existence assumes in a world such as ours.

Indeed, in a world filled with WMDs (to say nothing of one in the throes of climate change) all of humanity shares a certain similarity with Schrodinger’s Cat – at any moment a poison gas could be released or a nuclear bomb could go off and thus the fate of our species hovers closer to death than we would prefer to think. What is offered for salvation in such moments is the idea that the usage of such weaponry will be met with the force of those whose arsenals are so rich in the creative arts of doom that they can use the Weapons of Mass Destruction that are not called Weapons of Mass Destruction to bomb their foes (and those unfortunate enough to be near their foes) into oblivion. Yet from the weapons deployed by a regime in the midst of a civil war to the weapons that may be deployed against that regime what is taking place is a conversation spoken in corpses as to the ways in which governments can and cannot bring death to the people of the world.

The WMDs and their cousins that do not share quite that name are de facto authoritarian technics to use the terminology of Lewis Mumford (for a fuller discussion of this context see section 2 in the link) or to put it in the words of Jacques Ellul (from The Technological Society):

“Even if one wished to limit it, war is total because the means are totalitarian.” (Ellul, 285)

The systems of power and control that arise in civilizations to first create, deploy, and than madly attempt to prevent such things from being used (whilst reminding the world “we still have these”) is an object lesson in technological systems that render the common person irrelevant before the face of complex structures of power. To create, control, regulate, and protect such weapons seems to demand and indeed enshrine the very ethical troglodytes who are responsible for creating such devices. Thus a clever bait and switch is performed in which one set of those possessing the instruments of death projects itself as the protector of a populace against others who possess similar instruments, even whilst the former dreams up awe inspiring new death machines that will inevitably fall into the hands (or be sold directly to) the very types of regimes who now must be punished. It is as Lewis Mumford wrote (in The Pentagon of Power):

“In our present death-oriented culture, the official stamp of approval, justified as scientific advance or military necessity, is supposed to cover up, or if exposed, to completely excuse, these dehumanized plans and these criminal acts. The willingness of modern nations—Sweden no less than the United States—to countenance this strategy, which is potentially as fatal to their fellow citizens as to the putative enemy, is a sure indication of both our moral degradation and our defective, or paralyzed, intelligence.” (Mumford, 261 TPoP)

Thus warfare unfolds as a double tragedy: the first case being in the death and destruction brought about by the usage of advanced weaponry, and than a secondary tragedy in the human recognition that these machines for bringing death were brought about by humanity’s own lust for suicide. When a hurricane leaves destruction in its wake a human solidarity can emerge against this “force of nature,” but when a bomb, gun, or chemical weapon leaves destruction in its wake we are forced to contend with the fact that in this case the “force of nature” is humanity. While “the machine” may be “ambivalent” in the way it is used, its very creation invests within it certain moral and immoral aspects – an argument can be made between opposite sides as to the benefits and deficiencies of Internet technologies, for example, but it is harder to put a humanitarian gloss on a device for which the purpose is to sew destruction (whilst making weapons contractors wealthy).

Yet so long as this violence remains hidden people are happy to ignore it, and the drone with its payload represents a way in which people can fantasize about their government bringing “justice” to the “rogue” without it actually infringing upon their own life. The ever more highly technological systems of death are the very gloss that provides a docile citizenry with the cover they need to ignore the monstrosities created with their tax dollars, and hides the fact that one day this threat may loom over them as well. As Mumford noted:

“That callous public indifference to the results of our daily commitment to power and speed helps explain our tolerance of massively technological assaults in every other area of life. So two generations have grown up for whom ever variety of mindless violence has become the constant accompaniment to ‘civilized’ life, sanctified by other equally debased but modish customs and institutions.” (Mumford, 350 TPoP)

Weapons of Mass Destruction (which, frankly, are all weapons) are a pestilence upon humanity more dangerous than any plague that has despoiled our species in the past. Furthermore, this is a disease of our choosing. There is no diminishing the tragedy and horror of war, but it should come as no surprise that where complex and fearsomely efficient methods of turning humans into corpses have been created they will be used. The usage of chemical weapons and the usage of drones are indictments against the systems of power and technology that would create such weaponry in the first place. From the bombs that rain upon our government’s foes (who yesterday were its allies) to the shiny toys (through which the government spies on us) that allow us to focus on anything but the grim reality of our world, we must awaken to the unsettling truth of what technological progress is doing to our species. As long as humanity unleashes new nightmarish systems of delivering death these tools will inevitably come to represent a threat in the hands of the enemy of the moment, and this threat will be used to further subjugate an already apathetic populace.

As Mumford wrote (italics in original):

Unless our political or social inventions are equal to our scientific and technological inventions, we confess complete intellectual and moral bankruptcy.” (Mumford, 97 ItNoS)

Our political, social, scientific and technological systems have become intellectually and morally bankrupt. Warfare and shiny toys are just the power system’s desperate attempt to bail itself out.

And as with all bailouts, we are the ones who will pay for it.

Works Cited

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage, 1964.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2 – The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt, 1970.


About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

4 comments on “A Pale Rider Upon a Gunmetal Steed

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This entry was posted on August 27, 2013 by in Culture, Ethics, Government, History, Impending Doom, Philosophy, Technology, US Politics and tagged , , .

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