Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Weaponizing Bits

From Bits to Bullets

For a long time now, my views have been influenced by a remarkable editorial by Nicholas Negroponte in Wired magazine entitled “Bits and Atoms“. In that editorial from 1995, Negroponte spoke of how numerous goods were making and would make the transition from reality to the digital landscape and how the valuation of such digital goods was often wildly inaccurate because of our emphasis on things atomic. To make his point, he tells the amusing story of returning from abroad and having to declare the value of his laptop upon arriving at customs. The value of the laptop was, in his estimation, one to two million dollars. The security agents were, of course, skeptical and after examining the device, estimated its worth at about US$2000. What they missed were the bits. Negroponte, a well-known MIT professor, had a laptop with a hard drive that was no doubt packed with papers, published and unpublished, documentation and certainly software, perhaps even experimental unreleased projects. Surely all those bits were worth something. Still, today, We often overlook bits and how they change the value of goods, or in the case of the weaponization of bits, how they change the value of human life.

Whereas commerce has seen a sneaking and disruptive transition from atoms to bits with regards to its goods, war is undergoing a somewhat different change. That is, the bits of war are having a distinct affect on the material world; namely the de-localization of war and the disintermediation of the suppliers of weapons. Chief among the developments of the weaponization of bits are drones and 3D printers.

Drones and 3D printers are making headlines by allowing the distribution of bits to change what we mean by location and manufacturing. Drones are allowing the military to be anywhere, virtually, and they are making a lot of political waves due to this development (see “Obama To Work On Drone Policy With Congress from the Huffington Post)—including the distressing idea that the US government can justify the assassination of US citizens in some circumstances.1 3d printing meanwhile, seen primarily as the next wave in manufacturing technology, has also made possible the printing of guns (see “Ready, Print, Fire” via the Economist). In both cases, the developments have occurred due to our newfound abilities to cheaply and quickly disseminate bits.

Flight and Fight

To take a McLuhan-esque perspective, all media are extensions of our corporal bodies. From this perspective, if in nature we use our hands to kill, then guns give that ability a much greater reach. Add to that extensions to our eyesight and legs (via wireless cameras, GPS and jet engines), and our ability to kill becomes de-localized entirely. We can engage in warfare without even being present. Granted, this is not an entirely new phenomena; drones in one right or another have been around since the hot air balloon. But McLuhan’s point, beyond that media are extensions or ourselves, was that “the medium is the message,” meaning that these extensions of our bodies carry a meaning of their own right, regardless of the intent of the creators and users of the media. What can we take as the message inherent in drones and printers as weapons?

One perspective that McLuhan often took was that of hot versus cold media and the difference in effect found there. He considered the radio and the telephone to be “cool” mediums in that they left a great deal of detail left to the user of the medium. A podcast, for instance, is a cool medium in that it leaves much to the imagination: the size and shape of the room it takes place in, the appearance of hosts and guests, and even their facial expressions. From this point of view, a drone could be defined as a hot medium. Visuals transmitted via wireless cameras are far more extensive than human vision. Location transmitted via GPS systems is, in effect, the scaling up of our abilities to know our location. But how does the medium affect one of the most basic human systems, our fight-or-flight response? When put in dangerous situations, the chemical system that drives the fight-or-flight response has ample cognitive effects, changing our thinking, and yet the stimuli in the environment that would influence this instinctual system are removed entirely in the case of drones. In comparison to what a soldier experiences in real battle, fighting via drone is a cool medium. And to a large extent, this makes warfare easier. That is not an effect to overlook lightly. Drone fighting won’t stay in the air for long and when our soldiers are not materially in harm’s way, what will drive citizens to protest their government’s wars? There was a precipitous drop in protests between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, and much of that could be due to the fact that the government no longer utilizes a draft. To the American public, by and large, if it isn’t our children in danger, then there is nothing to protest.

No Knowledge Required

Gun printing results in a gun, an extension of our arms (not incidentally, the likely reason why we call them arms) and a hot medium. But that is not where the disruption caused by 3D printers originates. Whereas drones make presence irrelevant with regard to fighting, the increased dissemination of bits makes knowledge about guns irrelevant. Before 3D printers, in order to make a gun, an individual had to ascertain quite a bit of specialized knowledge. That knowledge was available in books, and given the wherewithal, anyone could manufacture a gun, should they make the effort. In the case of 3D printers, any effort is replaced by the push of a button. Once the plans for a gun are downloaded, the gun is all but made—no knowledge required. Therein, lies the message in the medium. The wide dissemination of bits means that knowledge isn’t something we have to possess; knowledge becomes far more transient. 3D printers make irrelevant the knowledge about how to make all kinds of things, from penrose triangles to—agh!—drones! What happens in a world where manufacturing can occur without the restraint of knowledge? The message of the medium may just be that with the rapid dissemination of bits as knowledge, things just aren’t all that important going forward. Moreover, possessing knowledge is not as important as access to it, devaluing the very people who generate the knowledge in the first place.

To wit, the US Congress wants to ban the plans for printing 3D guns, but banning knowledge has a spotty track record in human history, i.e. it has never worked. Given that I’ve had plastic guns all my life (I’ll grant they didn’t fire bullets but just made gun-like noises) I don’t see the wisdom in trying to stop their manufacture. We’ll have to define the difference between plastic guns that makes noise and plastic guns that kill. The difference, it seems to me, is in the bullet, so really, isn’t that what we should regulate? Going back to Nicholas Negroponte’s US$2 million or $US2000 laptop, the value is in the bits. When it comes to printing guns, the cost of manufacturing them all but falls through the floor, and their value is really construed from the bullets.

Not a New Problem: People Kill People

The weaponization of bits is an unstoppable shift. The increasingly rapid dissemination of bits means knowledge becomes far more easily transferrable. After the New Town tragedy, policy arguments revolved around the idea that we should have more or less guns. The left wants to license and regulate them; the right wants to put them in the hands of every teacher in school. I’m here to tell you that their argument is moot. The ability to make guns, along with the ability to make other kinds of objects (drones included) is quickly going to become ubiquitous, and the meaning behind those weapons is ultimately the devaluation of human life. I wish I had a simple solution to offer, but the solution is terribly complex. We must act as a society to do more to emphasize the value of human life. The day is coming when alibis are irrelevant to murder cases because you won’t have to be anywhere near someone to murder them. Banning the plans for weapons is an expensive proposition to say the least, and one that has a history of failing. The ability to take life, and take as much as possible, is getting cheaper. We need to balance the other side of the equation: we need to make life, and taking it, more expensive.

  1. This is a situation particularly baffling to me because I cannot see how the choice of weapon could or should affect the letter of the law. Regardless of policy or threat, a US citizens should not be executed without a trial. Period. 

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