As a new year’s resolution for 2012, I started a wordpress blog titled Robot Futures (see http://robotfutures.wordpress.com/about-this-blog/). The idea was to do some writing that could be more timely and critical than journal publications allow (though the deadlines of the latter and the rest of academic life have limited my posts!) about developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, particularly in the area of remotely-controlled war fighting. Increasingly distressed by the use of armed drones (see Medea Benjamin’s brilliant new book Drone Warfare: Killing by remote control, 2012, OR Books) and the arming of robots (including the 710 Warrior by Boston-based iRobot, makers of the Roomba vacuum cleaner), I’ve begun to focus my research on what James der Derian (Virtuous War, 2009) has identified as the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (MIME-NET), particularly as it has emerged over the past twenty years within the United States and Britain.
As someone who has made a concerted effort to avoid any involvement in military worlds, I face the challenge of how to locate myself as a researcher, and particularly as an anthropologist committed to an understanding of practices in situ. Following the MIME-NET thread and my own at-homeness in worlds of research and development, I paid a visit earlier this year to the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Given an extensive tour by the Lab’s director, I also had the great good fortune to meet a former member of one of the Lab’s premiere projects, Flatworld, who has provided me access to an extraordinary archive of project materials. While ethnographic work remains as an aspiration, archive fever offers a rich beginning.
The Flatworld project brings together practitioners from the Hollywood film industry, gaming and other modes of immersive computing to “create a modular and transportable mixed reality environment that can simulate a variety of real-world locations”; specifically, locations in which US military forces are currently engaged. Military analysts agree that despite their promise of illumination, information and communications technologies have intensified rather than dissipated what nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously described as the ‘fog of war,’ regenerating it in a matrix of ever faster and noisier channels of transmission. The enduring problem of ‘situational awareness,’ defined by military commentators as “the ability to maintain a constant, clear mental picture of relevant information and the tactical situation including friendly and threat situations” (Dostal 2001) is the tether by which I connect my own previous research to the indigenous preoccupations of contemporary war fighting (more on this in an article in press in the journal Mediatropes).
For the AAA in November, I’ll be part of a CASTAC/SCA session titled ‘Warfare and Healthcare: Action at a distance and bodies in contact’ along with Joe Dumit, Hugh Gusterson, Caren Kaplan, and Rachel Prentice. The papers consider projects to extend human capacities for action at a distance, and forms of proximate, embodied co-presence that characterize realities ‘on the ground,’ across the seemingly disparate but always connected arenas of war fighting and healthcare. Our focus is on technologies in their broadest anthropological sense, including techniques as well as devices, and claims about technology as much as configurations of hardware and software. These are the topics that join us as members of CASTAC, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with you in San Francisco.