Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Why Isn't Robotic Killing Taboo?

Raft of the Medusa (detail)
When we think about practices that our society surrounds with taboos -- cannibalism, incest -- we tend to assume that those practices are extreme, and difficult to engage in.

But that is the point of taboos: that is what taboos are intended to make us think.

Because the reality is that the practices that taboos protect us against are the easiest things in the world.

In a society that eats meat, there is nothing easier than grabbing the neighbor's children and cooking them. To sexually active people, the most convenient sex partners are those who live in close proximity.

We have taboos against these practices despite the fact that they are convenient. The taboos reflect a recognition of social disruptiveness that outweighs the benefits of some limited subset of circumstances in which the practices happen -- and, more importantly, even the possible desires of the most powerful people in the society.

Géricault, Raft of the Medusa (detail)
For instance, we seem to encounter cannibalism mainly in hypothetical lifeboats where someone has already hypothetically died, and others can hypothetically survive by sustaining themselves on the flesh of the deceased. But the cannibalism taboo was established to prevent not this far-fetched situation, but the kind of flesh-eating that could be expected to take place every day without it.

Today, drones are set loose by the United States government day after day to kill people in country after country, and in the limited number of cases in which justifications are even proffered, they are extremely tenuous: "Well, we had reason to believe . . . on good authority . . . that the victim was engaged in preparing to plot . . . or was otherwise associate with . . . . " Drone victims in remote regions 6,000 miles away have about as much chance of defending themselves as hypothetical lifeboat passengers.

The problem with drones is that their computerized, high-tech, robotic, automated killing long ago came to outrun -- by a long shot -- any semblance of human agency in controlling them. And it's only getting worse every hour.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa

"An over-life-size painting that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the
wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast
of today's Mauritania on July 5, 1816. At least 147 people were set adrift
on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their
rescue, and those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and
practiced cannibalism." (Source: Wikipedia)

An exaggeration? Hardly. This is exactly the kind of activity that our society governs with taboo. We are indulging a fantasy that "reasonable" use of drones can be determined by logic and policy and jurisprudence, and all the while more and more people are being killed, and the technology is reaching the point of being uncontrollable.

The day will come when we would no more elect to office a person who believes in setting robotic drones loose to kill other people than we would someone who eats the flesh of their next door neighbor or has sex with their sister. Instead, we will cast such people outside of social bounds.

Related posts

I've suggested that it's time for a serious debate on drones, and that a good place to start is with Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics."  Here are 10 questions that come straight out of the writings of Asimov and that can help spur the debate.

(See 10 Questions to Spur the Drone Debate )

In my opinion, the reason to focus on drones is this: when we focus on drones, the general public is able to "get," to an unusual extent, the degree to which popular consent has been banished from the process of carrying out state violence. (Sure, it was banished long ago, but the absence of a human in the cockpit of a drone suddenly makes a light bulb go off in people's heads.) It takes some prodding, but people can sense that drone use somehow crosses a line. And that opens up the discussion about how our consent has been eliminated from the vast range of US militarism.

(See "Why focus on drone attacks?")

Beyond recognizing the inherent contradictions of "pre-emptive violence," we must confront an urgent problem related to technology: the automation of "pre-emptive violence" -- e.g. via drone technology -- is leading to a spiral (or "loop" or "recursive process") that we may not be able to get out of.

(See When "Pre-emptive Violence" Is Automated ....