The role of militarized science and technology

By Hamish Robertson


In the first part of this exploratory essay, I explored some of the links between state power over the past two centuries or so and the rise of militarism as an accepted social norm. In this second part, I want to connect this argument to some of the more overt aspects of militarised science and technology and the assumptions that underpin the extension of military violence into various civil domains, including the surveillance and control of public spaces, and the increasing disassociation with violence and death. In the third and final piece I want to show how the expansion of compulsory military service, the rise of uniforms and uniformity, and the role of increasingly militarised policing has contributed to this general concept of a militarization of everyday life – a term that I did not invent but which seems to helpfully connect so many of these otherwise disparate happenings and trends in the neoliberal regimes.

Science and Technology

The intersection of the techno-scientific with the military paradigm is now so familiar and so extensive that we find it hard to imagine any other version of events, even though this too is largely a product of the last century. This process started with the ‘need’ for the application of scientific methods to warfare, but the technological innovation spiral that resulted extended outwards in a numerous directions. Today we are surrounded by the civilian versions of technologies that were initially funded through military research and contracting programmes including the increasingly pervasive global positioning systems (GPS) technology and its various applications, ‘tough’ laptops, retail Humvees and all the rest.

The development of not only nuclear weapons but the incipient space programmes following World War II  produced the missile technologies to inflict mass death on now legitimate civilian targets (once reviled, now normalised), as well as the computers and computer programmes needed to ‘deliver’ (i.e. effectively navigate) those missiles to civilian targets. The Cold War programme linked notional political ideology, techno-science, militarism and industrial power into one tidy bundle. This reached its apotheosis in the creation of the neutron bomb concept that aimed to kill ‘targeted’ populations while leaving their physical infrastructure and assets relatively intact.

Currently we can see how governments will privilege the military on the one hand while constraining their civil obligations on the other in a process that re-affirms the military role of the military to an exclusion of other possibilities. This includes advancing certain forms of advocacy for the military and their families, making them beholden at a certain level to executive political, rather than democratic, power. Not only does this create additional forms of recompense including access to integrated healthcare and high quality education, but these privileges are enacted in systems that run parallel but separate to those available to civilian populations.

The differential nature of the split between what ordinary citizens can expect to access and what specific groups of individuals can access that is the interesting point of differentiation. If the rationalization for such privileges is duty in the face of danger then the comparison between the ongoing provision of healthcare to armed service personnel, compared to, for example first responders during the events of 9/11 in the US, such as firefighters, police and the public, must be made. In addition, of course, is the question of how citizens are made to accept and pay for these differential entitlements for specific groups of the population, which in the light of the same dangers and potential consequences (including injury and death) do not extend to them or their families.

The French sociologist Emannuel Todd has also written of the difficulty of taking an alternative public position on acts of terror in the midst of such events, illustrating how we are increasingly coerced into either agreement with or silence on official responses. These public discourses almost always emphasise some sort of claim to exalted values. The state is acting to protect ‘our’ values by whatever means necessary.  And these domestic values that don’t necessarily apply in foreign policy, business practice or other ‘excluded’ contexts. Thus liberal democratic countries with large arms industries dissociate their weapons exports and consequences from their domestic claims to public virtue and judicial process.

The aim, I suggest, is to create classes of people whose actions and behaviors cannot be questioned or, if questioned are excused, and about whom it becomes far riskier to voice such concerns publicly. This in turn makes it harder to question the authorities who direct our military in a process of upward unaccountability – if the base of the pyramid is virtuous then so too is the hierarchical apex. The language of ‘un-(insert nation here)’ illustrates how dissent from these new orthodoxies is increasingly framed as disloyalty and even treasonous behavior in the new neoliberal state, a state that is always at war with someone – often including sections of its own citizenry.

The Surveillance and Control of Public Spaces

One of the correlates we can see with this process is the growing geographic analysis of how public spaces are managed and regulated. The transfer of knowledge between the securitised state and its military, and back again, is hardly surprising but some aspects can get if not ridiculous then at least quite repugnant. Clearly we are increasingly subject to technical surveillance while going about our daily lives by CCTV and related technologies. These can make us safer or perhaps at least make some prosecutions easier to pursue. Police drones are already on the rise so surveillance will be increasingly active, even prospective, rather than passive or reactive. This of course brings its own issues in that prevailing ideas of who is likely to act in a criminal manner is already a deeply socially embedded construct. The people and locations which will be monitored most closely will probably (and probablistically) come as no surprise.

Public spaces can, once again, be regulated through the design and placement of infrastructure such as seats and benches, gates, fences, wire and even spikes. Many of these are directed at the homeless who inconvenience us by their presence and their need for places to rest and sleep. So the response, yet again, is to address the socially constituted problem by constructing the environment defensively against these groups in what is now called ‘hostile architecture’. In addition, the ‘broken windows’ strategy adopted by Giuliani in New York, and elsewhere, saw a massive upswing in police numbers and the implementation of much closer community-level policing than was common at the time. In this context, crime is represented as a distinct ontological entity, completely separate to social context, politics and economy. This justifies not only work for criminologists, psychologists, social workers and the like but it is the preferred authoritarian moral response of politicians to social concerns.

Psycho-Social and Cultural Strategies

Another dimension to this process is the contribution of the media to the familiarisation and even desensitisation of the public to military actions and their consequences. The normalisation of military deaths and also atrocities (by military or civilian personnel) against civilian populations is now an established part of the modern news cycle. The televised horrors of mass killings of civilians were both a commonplace and even integral aspect of the war in Vietnam (running totals of death counts of the ‘enemy’ as though war is a sports event with scores and ‘wins’) and the many wars associated with the decolonisation of African, Middle-Eastern and Asian countries by European powers in the 1960’s and 1970’s and their often equally awful consequences. Even today we see in the extended post-colonial (yet hardly ‘post’) conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, that televise killing of combatants and non-combatants alike, is considered legitimate news material with some additional hand-wringing on the side about the ethics of it all.

This can also be interpreted as being extended through the arming of civilian populations in countries such as the United States, which appears the have one of the worst levels of armed violence against its own citizens by other citizens. This includes attacks on generally unarmed civilians in schools, shopping centres and the like as well as more structured or directed attacks on military bases and government offices. Hinton’s new book discusses how mass incarceration in America was directly linked to so-called ‘progressive’ social polices from the Kennedy era onwards and long preceded its escalation under Regan’s ‘war on drugs’. That the physical and social cost to the population is now accepted as part of an ideology of ‘rights’, ‘security’ and ‘self-protection’ illustrates just how deeply entrenched this particular notion of the militarization of civilian life has become.

Dissociative Violence

One of the features of the contemporary neoliberal state is that it likes to offer its citizens an emotional disconnect between political decisions and their human consequences. Similar to the ‘deniability’ common in American politics, our governments now like to implement violent and inhumane policies at the expense of particular groups while offering citizens a form of deniability – ignorance of the facts being the main strategy. Thus ‘illegal’ immigrants can be placed in quasi-legal incarceration for extended periods or, as is being done in Australia, ‘off-shored’ for political convenience. This removes such people from the public gaze and the strategy is usually implemented with the collusion of the media and other supports who effectively operationalise the language of the state and its accomplices. The term ‘illegals’ being an obvious attempt to criminalise people not proven to actually be criminals by a court of law but who are instead defined by a political entity with increasingly limited accountability and the power to change the rules at its own convenience. This pattern is hardly unique in history but the dissonance between the values our governments claim to support and the ones they actually implement seems to be growing.

An expanding feature of this surveillance and dissociative violence can be seen in the implementation of military drone strategies. This technology, like so many, has both military and non-military uses but the military ones tend to combine surveillance and force along with the seemingly inevitable ‘collateral damage’. Now even some drone operators have spoken out about the strategic and individual psychological effects of the United States’ drone strategy in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The logic is that as intelligence systems fail to prevent major terror attacks yet more technology represents a solution to these and various other problems. Drones are another product of the huge development in spatial technologies spurred on by the Cold War and the innovations that occurred in satellites, navigation, diversification (GPS etc.), which have increasingly merged with computer technologies to include miniaturisation and now automation. They too are a direct consequence of our militarizing world.


We can see here that science and technology support and enable, intentionally or not, the kinds of dissociative violence favoured in the emergent neoliberal state. Technology is seen as both compensatory, it adds functionality to systems that often fail, and as extensible, it helps expand surveillance types and parameters. Satellite imagery that enables and supports UAV/drone deployment by remotely located operators has all the appearance of clinical efficiency and detachment that a government PR or communications director could possibly hope for. There is no violence so suitable for the media as violence viewed from several thousand metres. Here, the high definition view, while militarily beneficial, runs the potential risk of making the collateral victims of such strategies a little too real for media consumption. And that is most definitely not a desired aspect of the dissociative strategies discussed here.

Categories: Rethinking The World

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *