The military and the use of technology

By fortuitous coincidence, an article that appeared in ArsTechnica today has great import to the scenarios of Strong Angel III which I am presently participating in. It’s a well written piece, though it ends on a controversial note:

Like so many tech stories, the equipment here is morally neutral—it’s the way its used that makes the difference.

This of course is true. But I think we need to examine, with equal rigour, the assumptions that go into the design of equipment and content used by consumers such as soldiers. I would hazard a guess that not a single US Marine in Iraq is interested in playing, or has played A Force More Powerful. Blowing steam is certainly a useful result of using games that helps one do so, but the nature of the games played are also important. For instance, it may be the case that the frustration in the real life battlefield is vented virtually in games that are graphically violent and visceral in their depiction of blood and gore. It is catharsis for the unlived experiences promised by war and a great channel for any unused adrenalin.

However, the same technology also delivers content like language learning tools, cultural modelling that can help understand reactions on the street and games such as Darfur is Dying that help bring a different set of realities to the fore – ones that are diminished on the battlefield but centre and forward in winning the hearts of minds of those an army is trying to ostensibly liberate.

Why those in the military opt for the former and are ignorant of the latter is perhaps no surprise, but it is imperative that the technology that, for instance, the US military commands is used to create and disseminate content that helps those deployed in foreign lands better understand the cultural context they operate in, and that not all problems can be solved with brute / blunt force – a lesson learnt every single day in Iraq. Such a process of education and sensitisation to multiculturalism, respect, humility and a willingness to listen through technologies already in use by the military, I submit, will in the long term help save more American lives than militaristic means that are ultimately pyrrhic. A kind word in a strange culture is a stronger guard against a sniper than the strongest kevlar vest.

In what is another well written and deeply provocative piece referenced by the ArsTechnica article, David Sears argues against the overt display of crass American capitalism that jars with the harsh realities of life for locals:

If we are waging a struggle for ideas and ideals (if democracy is indeed ‘on the march’) then we may well lose — if the developing world sees (as it may in this photo) our ideas and ideals reduced to digital, wireless and high definition. While many Iraqis can find no oases of safety, and no reliable electricity, water or fuel, the “American Stuff” in their midst hums on.

This applies with equal, if not more emphasis, to peacebuilding and humanitarian support operations. Many IDPs and refugees live for under a $1 a day, when our support operations cost millions in administrative and overhead costs. Systems that help agencies collaborate and cut waste and overlap, help get aid to where it is needed most, as quickly as possible, in a low key and deeply sensitive and responsible manner are all aspects that can be strengthened by the use of technology. It is important to recall, I believe, as we embark upon Strong Angel III – being surrounded by millions of dollars worth of equipment, and millions more invested in the R&D of these technologies attenuates an urgent imperative to make a real difference in the lives of those worst affected by disasters and conflict.

Both the ArsTechnica and articles are thought provoking and well worth a read, if only as a touchstone for what we do in Strong Angel in the week ahead.

Related posts:
Writing in pacifism to technology – An impossible vision?

Serious games and peacebuilding
Social change and digital games

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