Sunday morning brought this little documentary gem of existential anxiety to my digital doorstep: The future of modern warfare: How technology is transforming conflict. Long gone are the days when a newspaper delivery, thrown from a footpath and having missed its mark might shatter our living room window, allowing us the superficially satisfying retort of a few choice, colourful words aimed back at the inaccurate shoulder that launched the missile. The ubiquity of technologically-mediated information flows now means that a well-informed analytical survey and assessment streamed half-way around the the world can finds its mark and proceed, not to break windows but to utterly shatter hearts and for such an experience there really is no simple response.
My heart, indeed, is broken and not because the Deutsche Welle analysis was inaccurate but because it was precisely on point. We are currently all swept up and away in the accelerating hyper-inflation of a technological arms race that no one controls and that, if anything, only ever truly benefits the technologies themselves. I’ll let you watch the video if you want to wash yourself in the anxieties that opening one’s eyes to the cold hard facts of cyberwar, nuclear war and autonomous weapons systems that is already upon us and will only get worse, on current trajectories.
It is quite plausible that competition as conflict and geographic (as much as ideological) territorialism are a necessary component in the evolutionary history of intelligence on this planet. The sad fact that sings a requiem-like and melancholy melody in my heart is that, regardless that the competitive adversarialism that got us all this far is potentially the only way that history and the adaptive complexity of Global civilisation could ever have played out, we have arrived at a point where we no longer require it. This has become a game of leverage and insecurity that the world plays only to continue playing the game. It is not even as though anyone chooses to play it, initially, but being born into a world for which all the magnetic lines of force require an orientation towards this conflict, fear and endless cycle of suffering, we take it for granted that it is necessary, natural, normative and inevitable.
It is not inevitable. There are infinitely many different ways to organise and self-organise social, economic and political systems that do not include a natural bias towards conflict and potential self-extinction. The shaping gravity and effect of historical facts is not itself unchangeable and influences the available paths of probable achievement and freedom from imprisonment in normative assumptions regarding war and conflict. A central issue is that we have (all) quite positively incentivised the kinds of behaviour, partisan difference and adversarial teeth-gnashing that pushes us all into conflict without even understanding why or even how this works.
This is the game that plays itself through us and it is really only human pride that denies us the wisdom to acknowledge or understand this. Technology will only ever get more complex but the time has probably come to admit that this has all quite concretely gotten away from us now. Conceding that there is a problem is the first step in remediating it and the issue simply does not get bigger than that in which we might accidentally destroy our own Global civilisation and, quite possibly, extinguish pretty much all life on this planet.