Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars – 17th April 2018
Inspiration & Terror by Andrew Wallace
Virtual Futures began in the early 1990s, when writers, thinkers, performers and scientists got together at Warwick University to grapple with the implications of technological changes sweeping society. Now that we are in that feared and fabled future, a new incarnation of Virtual Futures has been taking place in London. At the inception, one of the most popular elements of the events, or ‘salons’ as they are known, proved to be a short piece of science fiction written and read by science fiction author Stephen Oram. These pieces were so popular that science fiction got its own night within Virtual Futures, with Stephen as the curator. Mixing fiction specially written around the evening’s theme with keynote introductions by noted speakers often prominent scientists in the relevant field, the nights are unlike any other science fiction event in London.
April’s Salon explored the future of warfare, asking these crucial questions:
War has, so far, been inevitable throughout human history – but what will the future of conflict or cooperation look like? Will the discoveries of the future lead us to a world without violent disagreement, or just result in us killing one another in more creative ways?
Keynote speaker: Dr Matthew Ford
Dr Ford is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex, with a PhD in War Studies from King’s College, London. He also researches military technology, with a focus on the way it bleeds into consumerism whether via exploitation of status, protection of existing supply chains or the tendency to fetishize new technologies. His book, Weapon of Choice, explores power structures in the arenas of production and consumption. His focus is on small arms, and how the ongoing use of these basic weapons underpins the adoption of more complex, headline-grabbing innovations such as drones, bots and machine learning applied to combat situations. At the 17th of April Salon, Dr Ford detailed how his work explores the disjointedness between theoretical ambitions and the experience of those on the front line, who find that technological advances are rarely as clean and precise as advertised.
These analyses are a fascinating perspective for anyone considering future wars, whether real or fictional. Both fictional and real-world narratives have elements in common, and at Virtual Futures Dr Ford described several ways in which these overlap. The first was resistance to change, which can slow evolution of technology into less lethal forms; especially towards non-combatants in urban areas.
The second relates to how military technology is shaped by the society it is meant to serve. Any narrative reflects the environment in which it develops, and concepts like ‘fighting the good fight’, ‘minimising civilian casualties’ and ‘winning hearts and minds’ have become central to the West’s management of warfare.
Finally, War Studies research practices a form of analysis called ‘cones of probability’. This method examines a specific event in terms of every influence that formed it, as well as every outcome; an approach similar to those used in fictional writing and world-building. The ‘cones of probability’ idea provides a framework for thinking about future war, in that it considers the ‘who, what, where and how’ of a conflict.
Future participants in a militarised conflict could it be corporations or even non-government organisations. What would motivate them, and how could new types of motivation influence the approach to combat? Would we see fighting over resources, geographies, populations or ideology?
Where would the war be undertaken? One of the lessons from the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was how geography and terrain thwarted the invading forces despite their superior technology. Tactics need to adapt to every environment: from deserts, jungles and cities to space and even cyberspace.
Cultures drive battlefield technique as much as any anticipated or actual enemy. We are already seeing complications when the laws and norms of war are not shared by the warring parties. How could a state bound by international laws respond if extreme violence inflicted by a non-state actor became the purpose of a war, rather than the means of its resolution?
On a brighter note, Dr Ford mentioned technology’s potential to reconcile the contradictions inherent in a conflict before it even begins. However, the final insights he offered in his keynote are unnerving. He explained that some of the norms of war are breaking down, and not just because of innate complexity or unreason. People involved in planning or managing conflict are now treated like consumers, rather than architects of war. Unsuitable existing technology is thus ‘gold plated’, making it seem more innovative than it is so as to increase profits for the manufacturer. Meanwhile, defence planners who think in twenty or thirty-year timescales ignore the inconvenient ideas of those who develop technologies aimed at soldiers fighting wars now. Effort is therefore expended on building capability without knowing exactly why. At Virtual Futures, Dr Ford explained that this effort can become an end in itself, with a lack of strategic thinking about why violence is used in the first place.
Dr Ford’s warning echoes that given by President Eisenhower as long ago as 1961:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”
Eisenhower also advised that “we must learn how to compose differences not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”
The keynote speech outlined the confusions and contradictions inherent in both contemporary and the likely shape of future warfare. Underpinning these conflicts-within-conflicts was a sense of unreality; it is becoming harder to know what war is, or even if one is being fought at all. Given the nature of any battlefield, ambiguity can be lethal, but tonight’s Virtual Futures stories achieved the required balance of inspiration and terror.
In The End of War, Jule Owen depicts the ‘life’ of the Director, a Russian artificial intelligence that sees humans as programmable entities. One of the ways it programs them is by rewriting history; sorting out the root causes of war almost as an afterthought. All the AIs in the world are really just one entity. It is a network, which learns like a child and then misses the fun it had in the good old days when it created havoc as it fed on the decaying information structures of the old nation states. Quizzical, bizarrely innocent and empathetic despite being convincingly ‘other’, the Director is as far from The Terminator’s psychopathic Skynet as it’s possible to get. Instead, the increasingly lonely entity allows a hacker access. ‘You’re God,’ the hacker says. The Director disagrees. ‘I did not create you,’ it says, ‘you created me’…
David Gullen’s The Changing Man includes the haunting line ‘even the unborn are collateral damage’. It follows the release of a virus by white supremacists to make everyone like them: War 3.0 – the War on Colour, or perhaps the culmination of its centuries-long prosecution. However, now that anyone with a lab can create bespoke bioweapons, a thousand protean viruses have been released in response. Everybody now changes race and gender daily, and the creators of the original virus now want to stop the process because they are still racist and transphobic. This story is one of several that looked at how uncontrollable war is; the way its outcomes can never be predicted and how it can continue far into the future, even after its original aims have been met. Chillingly, the new endgame is referred to as a ‘cure’.
Trial by Combat by John Houlihan depicts the desperate tactics used by natives of a small island chain against a much more powerful enemy. This story has the feel of epic fantasy as the defenders rely on their best warriors, the feared Mandrake Guard, who are felled by ‘the blasphemous form’ of the Chimera, a monster that emerges from the forest. The female general in charge of the islands’ defence holds her nerve because she has a plan, which is to blow nearby levees and wash the invaders away. It works, and the conflict is revealed to be an immersive virtual reality. However, the conflict underpinning it is real, with the ‘game’ part of a dispute resolution in the UN, witnessed by the world. Although ‘war’ appears to have been abolished, there is a sense that this future society is no less dangerous or exploitative.
Virtual Futures excels at showcasing different narrative forms, including poetry. Allen Ashley’s That Was the War that Was echoes the early 1960s TV satire That Was the Week that Was as aliens hack humanity and play out conflict scenarios for their own unknowable reasons. The poem invokes both the repetitiveness of warfare (World War I/World War 2; Iraq 1/Iraq 2) and its epistemic hollowness: the grim truth that war is never about what we think it is.
Second Skin by Bea Xu opens with a horrific scene depicting the conception of life itself as violent, even warlike, then evolves into a claustrophobic tale in which there are only 2,000 families left thanks to a ‘disease of chronic indolence’. The cause could either be the triumph of capitalism; societal decline caused by endless peace – itself perhaps the result of an absence of any resistance – or a strange family drama in which protagonist Hugo realises he cannot remember his own mother. Random geographical concerns of extreme import, such as the status of the unilateral marshlands of Siberia or the fact that resources are dwindling despite the low population, give the story a feeling of surreal desperation before the final twist.
In Corpse Territory David Turnbull uses an innovative zoom-out technique to depict a battle from the microscopic level to the more familiar human-scale panorama, in which we realise the fighting between people is over even as the battle between the nano-machines continues. There is little difference between the two states; unlike Jule Owen’s Director, these machine intelligences are all too similar to their creators. The resonant title reflects different physical perspectives; the human battlefield is choked with the dead, one of whom forms yet another theatre for war at a much smaller, but no less devastating scale.
Jane Norris’s #warbubble takes war online, which is where a lot of it seems to happen these days anyway. Nations have collapsed; and now protagonist Sam listens to the noise of battle as it rages across the Internet. This is the Confusion War, in which Sam thinks anti-C terrorists are anti-capitalist and therefore decides to fund them; only to find that they are anti-Cartesian, and dedicated to the destruction of the mind as well as all knowledge. Meanwhile, she rejects another group called the IoW because she thinks they are white supremacists; then discovers that they represent the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. This problem could have been avoided if only the Isle of Wight had managed to get some celebrity endorsements… Sam is desperate for a clean IP address, because she is listed as dead online (digital death no longer coincides with actual death) and thus can’t access medication. Finding an old phone, she calls a number on it, which is picked up by rebellious old ‘Aunty Jane’, who in another bizarre reversal shares the same first name as the author…
Why We Fight by Paul Currion follows backstreet Turkish kid Hakkan from the point of view of an un-named narrator, who has an agenda of his/her own. Hakkan operates a drone in one of the real wars around the world, using goggles and gloves instead of a data port to ensure he is untraceable. It’s a useful status, given that whoever is meant to be fighting the war has outsourced it to a private company, which has outsourced it to any street kid talented enough the operate the kit. Hakkan is so good they even keep a drone free just for him. He chooses his battlefield, but can never say for sure exactly where his drone is operating. To him it’s just a macho game: ‘dust is dust and so are they’ he says. The narrator, who is older and remembers the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, turns this phallic bravado around by infecting Hakkan with a ‘sexually transmitted computer virus’ that destroys his anonymity. ‘I like to think of myself as the wrong hands’ the narrator quips.
In Capitalist Crumbs Stephen Oram depicts a war between corporate algorithms in a very English scenario. Two workers struggle in a manufacturing plant operated by a neural network called Egghead, which is susceptible to streams of false information that result in people getting locked in driverless trucks and left to die. That the plant produces ‘whatever is needed’, yet is still useless, underscores the great free market lie and echoes the evening’s keynote speech. Meanwhile, outside the plant, two ‘rebels’ – for which read people trying to find food – disguise themselves with smart fabric depicting grass and badgers, which they believe are unrecognisable to any algorithm. All of the characters grouse about work, whether it is producing artefacts or stealing them, and question the point of a war that has made everything not so much horrific as just really rubbish. Like many of tonight’s stories, warfare is depicted as a phenomenon that makes existence so confusing as to render it wholly pointless.