The State, Democracy and Public Technologies

In his 2019 statement to the House Armed Services Committee, then DARPA Director Steven Walker detailed four focus areas for DARPA:

Defending the homeland from varied threats through cyber deterrence, bio-surveillance and biodefense techniques, and the ability to sense and defend against weapons of mass terror/destruction. Deterring and prevailing against peer adversaries through new capabilities across land, sea, air, space and the electromagnetic spectrum. Prosecuting stabilization efforts across the globe with more lethal fighting in varied environments like conflict zones and city warfare, and reliable models to predict adversarial moves prior to engagement. Lastly, pursuing foundational research in science and technology that makes never-before-seen capabilities possible.

Walker emphasized, “The goal of the Agency’s fundamental R&D investments is to ensure U.S. warfighters have access to the most cutting-edge technologies. Research funded by DARPA in the near term explores science and technology that will lead to “leap ahead” solutions for current as well as future challenges to military readiness across multiple operational domains.” This is in keeping with the Agency’s guiding directives. “DARPA’s mission and philosophy have held steady and yielded breakthrough technologies and capabilities for more than 6 decades, even as the world has changed dramatically — because the Agency always targets the future.”

This directive is only emboldened with greater and more rapid changes on the world stage. As the statement declared, “The rate at which those changes are arriving and affecting national security has accelerated. What had been a fairly well-defined global order punctuated by occasional surprises has transformed into an ever-shifting, complex, and less certain security picture. Troubling technological, social, economic, and geopolitical movements threaten U.S. preeminence and stability. These trends inform DARPA’s strategic priorities and investments into the next decade and beyond. As those threats change, so too will the Agency’s focus.” As emphasized repeatedly in the guiding focus areas, central to DARPA’s mandate is developing “capabilities” for the nation, or quite simply, advancing technologies to maintain US domination. Any analysis of our technology enterprise that ignores the power of the state and its final goal to maintain supremacy is incomplete at best and fictitious at worst. Today’s technical enterprise is very much a product of our state-capitalist system, which directs our scientific and technical capabilities to its own ends. In its quest for enduring hegemony, there are two populations that the state must contend with: that within the state, and that without.

Although these celebrated scientific discoveries and technical innovations fundamentally originate from eager, creative and industrious workers who have constructed the entire technological enterprise, these spirits cannot be allowed to form free associations and apply themselves to problems and needs they deem important to their own communities and lives. The state’s preponderance is everyone’s concern, and there are always enemies at the gates. Therefore, the specialists who manage the technocratic state must be allowed to operate freely for everyone’s sake, while the public must be relegated to the role of worker and consumer. As twentieth century political commentator, Presidential Medal of Freedom and Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Lippmann put it, “The public must be put in its place, so that the responsible men may live free of the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd, ignorant and meddlesome outsiders whose function is to be interested spectators of action, not participants, lending their weight periodically to one or another of the leadership class (elections), then returning to their private concerns” (Chomsky, Year 501). The state and its managers must be allowed to deploy technologies built by its collective genius and ingenuity without democratic input, better understood as interference from the “bewildered herd.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Woodrow Wilson’s Sec. of State Robert Lansing, Reinhold Niebuhr, “The great mass of the population, ignorant and mentally deficient, must be kept in their place for the common good, fed with necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications.” Indeed, the designers, engineers, planners, technicians, builders, machinists, mechanics and the large populations of participants in the technical endeavor must, in the final analysis, submit to the whims of the state-corporate complex that seeks supremacy through a wide range of technical means.

Describing the state’s existential thirst for hegemony, anarchist Rudolf Rocker observed that “every power is animated by the wish to be the only power, because in the nature of its being it deems itself absolute and consequently opposes any bar which reminds it of the limits of its influence. Power is active consciousness of authority. Like God, it cannot endure any other God beside it.” Hence, social cooperation amongst people must be replaced by social coordination of the people in service of the state. As a result, technology, that wondrous tool meant to enrich lives, is first subjugated to protect the interests of state power. As DARPA reminded, global trends that “threaten U.S. preeminence and stability” inform “strategic priorities and investments into the next decade and beyond.”

Eighteenth century philosopher Joseph de Maistre once observed in his advocacy of religious monarchy after the French Revolution, “Without the Pope, no sovereignty; without sovereignty, no unity; without unity, no authority; without authority, no faith.” We may rework these words for the modern technological secular state, albeit less poetically, but with no loss of accuracy: Without the religion of technology, no technological state sovereignty; without technological state sovereignty, no unity; without unity, no authority; without authority, no faith.” Cautious must be our reading of ‘sovereign,’ however. A state may be sovereign in relation to other states. But are its own people sovereign in relation to their own state?

Princeton University professor of politics Martin Gilens and Northwestern University professor of decision-making Benjamin Page showed in a 2014 Cambridge study that in the U.S, political preferences of the majority of the population are simply not reflected in policy. As the income spectrum is scaled, we see increasing correlation between political preferences and state policy. Where we hit the elite few on the income scale, the 0.1%, state policy is essentially written. As the authors describe, “Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.”

This view of state policy is also supported by the work of political scientist Thomas Ferguson, who developed his investment theory of politics in Golden Rule. As he shows, U.S elections are events during which alliances of private power converge make their investments to manage the state. He summarized, “Most election analysts in the U.S. habitually confuse the sound of money talking with the voice of the people.”

In the face of state operations that are not influenced by the majority, sovereignty of the population is but a tragic farce. Without such sovereignty, our astonishingly potent scientific and technical knowledge is directed by the technological aristocracy to service the aristocracy. Since “the public must be put in its place,” it is given the role of consumer and worker, and not decision-maker. Funded with the public purse, designed by the public mind and built by the public hand, the ostensibly cosmopolitan technical enterprise is nevertheless commanded by concentrations of power. To soothe any discontentment that may arise from technical waste or misuse, and replace it with enthusiastic approval, “emotionally potent oversimplifications” like the national interest or national security are evoked. As the Indian poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore observed, “The idea of the nation is one of the most powerful anesthetics that man has ever invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic program of the most virulent self-seeking without being the least aware of its moral perversion — in fact, feeling dangerously resentful when it is pointed out.”

Elaborating on Tagore’s characterization of the state as “organized selfishness,” Rocker observed that “we must not forget that we are always dealing with the organized selfishness of privileged minorities which hide behind the skirts of the nation, hide behind the credulity of the masses. We speak of national interests, national capital, national spheres of interest, national honor and national spirit; but we forget that behind all this there are hidden merely the selfish interests of power-loving politicians and money loving businessmen for who the nation is a convenient cover to hide their personal greed and their schemes for political power from the eyes of the world.” The technological enterprise continues to be heavily influenced by these interests, rendering lofty declarations of technological betterment of the human condition as quite simply, useful “emotionally potent oversimplifications.”

Into Oblivion

The aforementioned Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is an independent, non-profit organization comprised of globally recognized specialists who study nuclear risk, climate change and disruptive technologies. As part of their global efforts, the group maintains the famous Doomsday Clock, which was founded in 1947 by University of Chicago scientists who developed the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. The minute hand of the symbolic clock is moved (or left unchanged) annually, reflecting a global analysis of existential risks to humanity and the planet. Midnight, or 00:00, indicates terminal destruction. The group, along with thirteen Nobel Laureates, conducts this analysis, and the clock has become a universally recognized gauge of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and other disruptive technologies.

In 2019, the Bulletin had updated the time to two minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since 1953 in the early years of the Cold War. In January 2020, the clock was updated to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been in its history. The Bulletin’s President and CEO Rachel Bronson noted, “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers — nuclear war and climate change — that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond.” Underscoring the compounding risk of the presence of threats paired with absence of any mitigation, she noted, “The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

Detailing factors that are raising tensions and escalating risk of nuclear catastrophe, Bronson observed, “The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape. The arms control boundaries that have helped prevent nuclear catastrophe for the last half century are being steadily dismantled.” For instance, with the U.S withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Deal) in 2018, re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran and pressuring “other parties to the Iran nuclear agreement to stop their compliance with the agreement,” Iran responded and “increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, increased its uranium enrichment levels, and added new and improved centrifuge.” Furthermore, highlighting the consequences of the US military’s drone strike that killed a prominent Iranian general in Iraq, the report observes that “amid high US-Iranian tensions,” the Iranian leaders vowed to exact “severe revenge” on US military forces, and “the Iranian government announced it would no longer observe limits, imposed by the JCPOA, on the number of centrifuges that it uses to enrich uranium.”

In addition, the 2019 collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty will result in a “new competition to develop and deploy weapons the treaty had long banned” between US and Russia. Emphasizing the dangers posed by a recalcitrant US, the report stressed that the country “continues to suggest that it will not extend New START, the agreement that limits US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems.” Furthermore, the US may “withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which provides aerial overflights to build confidence and transparency around the world.” Russia, on the other hand, “continues to support an extension of New START.”

The report further details the exacerbation of nuclear risk as “the United States has adopted a bullying and derisive tone toward its Chinese and Russian competitors. This is counter to its declared “intent to bring China into an arms control agreement.” The countries are unable to pursue discussions on outer space, missile defenses, and cyberwarfare. Offering a rare issue that the countries agree on, the report notes that the countries mutually oppose the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that opened for ratification in 2017. Lastly, “U.S efforts to reach agreement with North Korea made little progress in 2019, despite an early summit in Hanoi and subsequent working-level meetings.”

The report issues a dire warning by noting that “without conscious efforts to reinvigorate arms control, the world is headed into an unregulated nuclear environment. Such an outcome could reproduce the intense arms race that was the hallmark of the early decades of the nuclear age,” and “any belief that the threat of nuclear war has been vanquished is a mirage.” Exacerbating these threats is the emergence of space conflicts. “Space has become a new arena for weapons development, with multiple countries testing and deploying kinetic, laser, and radiofrequency anti-satellite capabilities, and the United States creating a new military service, the Space Force.”

Another consequence of the abuse of advanced technologies is a global shift towards “complex, high-tech, highly automated, high-speed warfare.” The increasing use of AI for monitoring and controlling these systems has become a threat multiplier. “The computerized and increasingly AI-assisted nature of militaries, the sophistication of their weapons, and the new, more aggressive military doctrines asserted by the most heavily armed countries could result in global catastrophe.”

In August 2020, on the 75th anniversary of the US nuclear bombing of Japan, the city of Nagasaki held a ceremony to urge global leaders to adopt strong measures towards nuclear disarmament. Condemning the lack of cooperation amongst national leaders, and their committed and relentless march towards terminal disaster instead, the mayor of Nagasaki warned that the “threat of nuclear weapons being used is increasingly becoming real,” due to newer technologies such as miniature nuclear weapons. He noted that “the true horror of nuclear weapons has not yet been adequately conveyed to the world at large,” and that the hibakusha, or nuclear bombing survivors, will therefore continue to work to ensure that Nagasaki remain the last place of such a tragedy. Noted one survivor who was 14 on the day of the bombing, “There is not much time left for us survivors,” and “I’m determined to keep telling my story so that Nagasaki will be the last place on Earth to have suffered an atomic attack.”

Turning its attention to the second existential threat, climate change, the Bulletin noted that while some countries have taken action to combat climate change, others, “including the United States, which formalized its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement [in 2017], and Brazil, which dismantled policies that had protected the Amazon rainforest — have taken major steps backward.” Echoing U.N Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ request to the UN Climate Action Summit that countries come not with “beautiful speeches, but with concrete plans,” the report noted that “the 60 or so countries that have committed (in more or less vague terms) to net zero emissions of carbon dioxide account for just 11 percent of global emissions. In addition, the 2019 U.N climate conference in Madrid fell apart, as “the countries involved in negotiations there barely reached an agreement, and the result was little more than a weak nudge,” merely requesting countries to consider reducing their emissions. The agreement, if one may call it so, “made no advances in providing further support to poorer countries to cut emissions and deal with increasingly damaging climate impacts.”

As global talks remain indecisive, undisciplined and intangible, “exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels continues to grow.” A recent UN report finds that “global governmental support and private sector investment have put fossil fuels on course to be over-produced at more than twice the level needed to meet the emissions-reduction goals set out in Paris.” Expanding on just some of the dire consequences, the report cites the current catastrophic effects of climate breakdown in several regions, noting that “India was ravaged in 2019 both by record-breaking heat waves and record-breaking floods, each taking a heavy toll on human lives. Wildfires from the Arctic to Australia, and many regions in between, have erupted with a frequency, intensity, extent, and duration that further degrade ecosystems and endanger people. It is not good news when wildfires spring up simultaneously in both the northern and southern hemispheres, making the notion of a limited fire season increasingly a thing of the past.”

The report chastised global leaders in influential positions who continue to “denigrate and discard the most effective methods for addressing complex threats — international agreements with strong verification regimes — in favor of their own narrow interests and domestic political gain.” Rebuking the endless complacency, thoughtlessness and nihilism displayed by those in power, the report noted that “some of these negative trends have been long in development. That they could be seen coming miles in the distance but still were allowed to occur is not just disheartening but also a sign of fundamental dysfunction in the world’s efforts to manage and reduce existential risk.”

Detailing a range of solutions to these crises, the report called for reinstating nuclear arms control treaties, modernizing agreements instead of modernizing nuclear stockpiles, and executing large-scale energy, agriculture and infrastructure projects to target concrete carbon emission limits. Nevertheless, the report insisted that the impotence of our institutions and the rudderless leadership that operates them are of grave concern, and “the world’s institutional and political capacity for dealing with these threats and reducing the possibility of civilization-scale catastrophe has been diminished.”

The report therefore concluded that popular engagement is critical to steer our technologies and institutions towards a denuclearized global arena that includes sustainable energy, agriculture and production systems. In summarizing its call to action, it noted that “mass civic engagement will be necessary to compel the change the world needs,” and that citizens can “demand — through public protest, at the ballot box, and in many other creative ways –that their leaders take immediate steps to reduce the existential threats of nuclear war and climate change.” Reiterating the severity of these risks, the report noted, “It is now 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation humanity has ever faced.”

Two years prior to the record-setting risk displayed by the Doomsday Clock, the 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued grave warnings of unspeakable consequences if we are not able to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 C within 12 years. As the Union of Concerned Scientists has detailed, and as populations worldwide can attest to, the effects of climate breakdown are already underway. These include, among others, “rising seas and increased coastal flooding, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, more destructive hurricanes, more frequent and intense heat waves, severe droughts, and increased pressure on groundwater and food supplies.”

A mere month after the U.N IPCC report was released, then former President Obama repeated a familiar boast during a speech at Rice University, declaring, “That whole, suddenly America’s like the biggest oil producer and the biggest gas [producer], that was me, people.” Referring to the 88% growth in oil production during his two terms, he reminded the audience, “You wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president.” Seemingly unsatisfied with the pace of global average temperature increase under his predecessor, President Trump appointed two heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler during his term — both vehemently against environmental protection standards. As the New York Times reported, the administration had undone a hundred environmental protection standards by July 2020, including various carbon emission restrictions. A few days before the 2018 IPCC report, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had projected a 7 degrees Celsius temperature rise by 2100 under our current policies. The administration used these projections to undo certain fuel efficiency standards. As the suicidal logic went, the inevitable eventuality meant there is no need for action now. Given the destruction unfolding at 1 degree Celsius rise compared to pre-industrial levels today, a 7 degree Celsius increase would mean terminal destruction several times over, making the Trump administration report one of the most heinous and savage documents in human history. “The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” observed one scientist.

In the nuclear weapons domain, President Obama’s 2017 defense budget included a $1 trillion nuclear weapons funding plan. Emphasizing US’s commitment to expand its nuclear dominance, President Trump’s Special Envoy Marshall Billingslea addressed the arms race with Russia and China during a May 2020 online presentation to a Washington, D.C think tank, declaring, “The president has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here. We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.”

In its pursuit of domination and security, the state will use every technology at its disposal to achieve its aims. The aims need not be challenged, for the state’s supremacy is axiomatic. That it imperils its subjects is but an inconsequential objection that ignores the nuances of mass destruction. Technology is merely a tool for the state to maintain its “preeminence and stability,” as DARPA noted. That such reckless use of our technical capabilities may result in flagrant violations against humanity is too trivial a detail for statecraft. Rocker observed, “For the perfect power politics every crime done in the service of the state is a meritorious deed if it is successful. The state stands beyond good and evil; it is the earthly Providence whose decisions are in their profundity as inexplicable to the ordinary subject as is the fate ordained for the believer by the power of God. Just as, according to the doctrines of theologians and pundits, God in his unfathomable wisdom often uses the most cruel and frightful means to effect his plans, so also the state, according to the doctrines of political theology, is not bound by the rules of ordinary human morality when its rulers are determined to achieve definite ends by a cold-blooded gamble with the lives and fortunes of millions.”


Next: Engineering Illusions Part II: State and Technology -III

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