This essay employs necropolitical theory to investigate the imperative of late stage techno-imperialism to prevent its own collapse through establishing prototype warfare as a new model for military production. Research projects to develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) capabilities which have marked the initiation of prototype warfare will be examined to address the necropolitical notions of sovereignty embedded in the operational function of autonomous weapons as an extension of neoliberal state power. The central thesis of this essay aims to articulate the importance of positioning the critical role that IBM punch card technology played in automating the nazi holocaust as a core historical precedent for the production of autonomous weapons systems.
Prototype Warfare, Techno-Imperialism, Autonomous Weapons, Automation Technology, Necropolitics, Sovereignty, Execution
This essay will explore the emergent necro political terrain of late stage techno-imperialism, placing focus on aims set by the defense industry to apply rapid developments in automated weapons technologies to live combat scenarios on an experimental basis for the sake of optimizing capital accumulation in a practice known as prototype warfare. Techno-imperialism is conceptualized as the successor to techno-colonialism, which has dilated the scope of its extractive technologies to globally expand its reach of power. As techno-colonialism is predicated on the capitalist state having a severely asymmetrical concentration of control over technological production with which to exert hegemonic political dominance, it evolves into techno-imperialism as the profit gained from its extractive forces begins to stagnate or decline and thus requires new territories and modes of extraction to maintain the relevance and authority of this parasitic system. (McElroy, 2019) Technological research and development has historically been funded and directed by the military, with its operational functions driven towards the mandates of wartime production. (Edwards, 1997) Prototype warfare presents a novel phenomenon in this economic paradigm as it signifies a new era of warfare where the pursuit of capital to be gained through technological production has entirely superseded the political agendas underlying military invasion. Historically, preconceived ideological motivations, geopolitical conflicts and struggles for command over foreign resources preceded the development of new military technologies to be used as thoroughly considered strategic aids for the advancement of the neoliberal political program. The prototype paradigm evolves this dynamic as it centers technological innovation as the primary ideological motive propelling wartime operations as the profits to be gained from catalyzing advancements in the automation industry have become the next frontier of capitalist conquest. Through examining the ideological objectives and historical conditions that led to prototype warfare, I postulate that its onset indicates the decline of late stage techno-imperialism into crisis. This essay will commence by first examining the historical background of capitalism’s reliance on military technological development and the imperialist war industry for economic stability. The weaponization of IBM punch card technology by the Nazi regime will then be located as an important historical example of automation technology being made into a massively lucrative industry through its usage for mechanizing serialized execution. The essay then proceeds to further delineate the concept of prototype warfare and how it is currently being implemented by the U.S. Department of Defense(DoD). To conclude, I invoke Achille Mbembe’s theorization of necropolitics to consider whether the automation technologies historically used for exercising absolute power over the mortality of the population are evolving into new sovereign entities under the direction of prototype warfare. This provocation unfolds into a historical comparison between the necropolitical function of automation technology in the context of Nazi Germany and late stage techno-imperialism to argue that prototype warfare signals the inevitable decline of the capitalist system.
Capitalism routinely relies on technological and scientific advancement to further develop its productive forces. It is noted by Marx that when the advancing forces of science, technology and economic growth stagnate, revolutions occur as a means to remove the barriers inhibiting social progress. (Engels and Marx, 1932) World War II incited the introduction of new production techniques geared for purposes of war. Many technological innovations in aircraft manufacture, medicine, nuclear energy and telecommunications were born out of the realization of their value as a means of advancing wartime industry and military power. The military industrial complex continues to play a massive role in the development of global productive forces due to the state control leveraged towards funneling innovative research into projects focused on military initiatives (Gottheil, 1986). Global military spending totaled 1.981 trillion dollars in 2020 (Silva, Tian and Marksteiner 2021). Reich and Finkelhor (1970) posit that without militarism, the entire capitalist economy would return to the state of collapse it experienced prior to its rehabilitation by the second world war. Military production sustains the modern capitalist economy because its produced commodities are designed to fulfill the insatiable demands of war, which is waged relentlessly with no apparent end (1986).
Of the array of corporations that emerged from World War II having accrued billions in profit and expanded into global monopolies, IBM stands out due to the impact of an extensive business partnership held with the Nazi state. (Black, 2001) The Nazi's employment of automated information technology demonstrates its susceptibility to both adapt to and propagate a genocidal authoritarian agenda. Directives for advancing the functionality, processing power and data storage faculties of IBM’s calculation machinery were driven by the Third Reich's homicidal aim of identifying and destroying the lives of the Jewish people and those deemed undesirable to the fascist regime’s construction of an Aryan society. The programs curated by IBM personnel had to be designed to not only tabulate the personal information and assets of every individual in Germany, but to systematically map and sort citizen identities according to Nazi approximations of Jewishness, ethnicity, disability, neurodivergence, homosexuality and political disobedience. Data tabulations geared to extend the Nazi regime's war effort were orchestrated in a multi-tiered procedural apparatus in surveillant pursuit of tracking and coordinating the movement and location of every person, resource, livestock, artillery, ammunition, tank, vehicle, train and piece of currency in occupied German territory. (Black, 2001) The severity of the abuses inflicted by the regime's warmongering practices was accelerated by their fixation on optimizing the efficiency, order and systematization of the fascist political project through mechanization. Every stage of the Nazi’s operation was reliant on the equipment and technical expertise of IBM and the alarming expediency with which the holocaust was executed was due to the multi-territorial statistical analysis applied to the regimentation of the genocidal campaign through computation. Though guilty of profiteering off of the Nazi holocaust, IBM evaded culpability by way of the political protections offered to such a powerful corporation by the U.S. government. The spectrum of political and military advantages to be gained through IBM information technology lead to its adoption by the U.S. military for planning and conducting war strategies. (Black 2001)
The onset of the fourth industrial revolution, characterized as the next stage of the digital/information age has prompted a new revolution in military production dubbed “Prototype Warfare.” The concept of prototype warfare was developed in the 1990s and appropriates language found in complexity and information theory to articulate how the military can strategically yield technological advantage in the information age (Hoijtink 2022). Prototype warfare seeks to neglect the methodical mass production of well tested and refined ammunition, weaponry, and vehicles that reflected military industries of the past. Instead, prototype warfare proposes to use active battlegrounds and real-time operations as testing sites for the myriad of experimental, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) enabled, military technologies being manufactured at small scales with unproven capabilities and functions. On par with the adoption of terminology from information theory, the military envisages a ‘decentralization’ of mass coordinated operations to effectively integrate the proliferation of A.I. enabled devices into a network that lacks a central point of weakness. Prototype warfare implies that battlefields are being situated as techno-scientific laboratories, platforms for the experimental interaction of A.I. assisted sensors, satellites, weapons systems, autonomous robots, unmanned vehicles and human life (Hoijtink 2022). Each of these actors will be poised as variables in risk intensive research practices that will necessitate an increased tolerance for failure by ground operation personnel. The impetus to forgo former standards of battlefield readiness and try out premature technologies on active battlefronts is largely driven by the mounting pressure that the international A.I. arms race has placed on the U.S. to outcompete political rivals China and Russia in its struggle to uphold technological supremacy and thus, political dominance on the global stage. (Sandels 2020)
The concept of utilizing prototyping and experimentation practices within the domain of war was first declared as a central aim of the Department of Defense as part of the Third Offset Strategy initiated in 2014. The primary objectives of the Third Offset Strategy are to preserve U.S. military dominance within the field of A.I. and to further hone in on the research and development of robotics and system autonomy, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing through strengthening collaborative relationships between the U.S. military and innovative private sector enterprises. (Fiott 2016) Closely following the announcement of the Third Offset Strategy came the establishment of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in 2015 which seeks to accelerate the military's adoption of commercial technology and to rapidly prototype and field advanced commercial products that address national security challenges. The DIU was designed to evade rules and regulations customary of the defense acquisition process by leveraging the Other Transactions Authority in order to contract out prototypes in as few as 60 to 90 days. (Kuykendall, 2017) The launching of Project Maven in 2017, funded by the Algorithmic Warfare Cross Functional Team, was referred to by director Lieutenant General John Shanahan as the beginning of prototype warfare. In accord with the Third Offset Strategy’s goal to foster new and deeper relationships with the private sector, Project Maven sought the expertise and resources of Google in its quest to use A.I., deep learning, and computer vision algorithms to detect, classify and track objects within Full Motion Video Images. Though Google has ceased work on Project Maven since its contract with the Department of Defense (DoD) expired in 2019 due to mass resistance and backlash from employees, the project remains in operation under the control of the National-Geospatial Intelligence Agency. (Strout 2022) Project Maven embodies a robust vision for the use of A.I. in warfare, with further aims to extend the application of A.I. directed surveillance across many forms of data exploitation including Enemy Captured Material, Acoustical Intelligence, Overhead Persistent Infrared program and Public available information. The ultimate outcome of the project will be to outfit tactical UAVs with Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) capabilities, an effort which boasts the ability to reduce the kill chain decision making process from 20 minutes to 20 seconds by replacing human cognition with A.I. (Office of the Secretary Of Defense 2019). The overarching purpose of relegating the kill chain to A.I. enabled machine processes is to increase the efficiency of wartime operations by reducing the cost and time necessary for target identification and execution, and subsequently to increase lethality. Advances in automated weapons systems which are designed to maximize the death rates of those designated to be enemy combatants, simultaneously propel an increase in profit margins accrued by the arms industry, as defense contractors profit directly off of every bullet and missile fired.
In a paper titled Necropolitics, author Achille Mbembe lays a theoretical foundation for necropolitics/necropower as an expansion of Foucault’s conception of biopolitics/biopower which seeks to account for the contemporary methods of execution through which political bodies exercise sovereignty as a practice that is ideologically veiled in the operation of war. Mbembe’s construction of sovereignty disposes of its typical connotations with struggles for autonomy to focus on figures of sovereignty whose primary objective is the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations. (Mbembe, 2003) This construction works to effectively define the sovereign figure as one who maintains the right to kill. When scaled to the level of state power, the right to kill is inflated into the authority to exercise control over the mortality of a population at large. The Nazi state is widely recognized as the epitome of biopolitical sovereignty due to a core function of its political operation being to organize the mass execution of the Jewish population.
Mbembe notes that it is argued by a number of analysts that the material premises of Nazi extermination are to be found in colonial imperialism on the one hand and in the serialization of the technical mechanisms for putting people to death on the other. Mbembe proceeds to reference how the gas chambers and ovens were the result of ongoing processes to dehumanize and industrialize death. He explains how through mechanization, serialized execution was transformed into a purely technical, impersonal, silent and rapid procedure. However, Mbembe does not discuss the tantamount role that the data tabulations performed by IBM punch card technology played in turning genocide into a mechanized process. (Mbembe 2003) The industrialization and mechanization of this genocide can only be explained by the methods through which punch card technology sorted through billions of bits of data representing the demographics of the entire population and systematically marked millions of individuals for death based on the Nazi’s classifications of who should live and who should die. Without punch card technology, the Nazi genocidal project would have arguably been of nominal scale if bound to the limitations of manual data processing. The Nazi regime’s historical positioning as the ultimate example of biopower is largely due to the efficacy with which they utilized automation technology as a hyperextension of sovereignty. I would further contend that the use of punch card machines to orchestrate genocide marks the earliest example of biopolitical sovereignty being outsourced to technology.
The production of UAVs equipped with A.I. enabled Automatic Target Recognition capabilities as a means of determining who is an adversary that will be killed by the state and who will be allowed to live distinctly echoes the employment of punch card technology as a tool for automating genocide. Autonomous weapons systems possess a historical parallel to the punch card machines designed for the Nazi state that is unmatched by other forms of technology engineered for war because they were both developed with the explicit goal of applying automation technology to the process of mapping a population into politically contrived classifications of who will live and who will die. Automatic Target Recognition acts as a contemporary reformulation of biopolitical sovereignty being hyperextended by and outsourced to technology. The development of A.I. programs designed for the purpose of determining who the state will kill provokes one to question if A.I. is being endowed with a novel form of biopolitical sovereignty and what this implies about the nature of the state it is being produced by. The introduction of prototype warfare as a method for revitalizing the military industry as a profitable extractive force signals that the viability of late-stage techno imperialism has reached a place of uncertainty. Late-stage techno imperialism now exists amidst a backdrop of burgeoning ecological catastrophe, growing social crises and heightening international political tensions. (Foster, 2019) The urgent need to accelerate military technological development through the reterritorialization of the battlefield as a laboratory for unstable autonomous weapons systems points to the global conditions which are pushing the dominance of an exploitation based socio-economic system to a place of greater instability. Positioning technological innovation as the driving motivation for military invasion serves as a prognosis for the threats that circumstances such as dwindling natural resources and the economic and military advancement of rival political powers pose to the dominance of western imperialism. In Marxist literature, Fascism is theorized as the transformation of a collapsing capitalist state into an authoritarian regime that aims to preserve the prevailing economic order by exacerbating the exploitation and persecution of marginalized groups and vastly expanding imperialist conquest as a source of financial gain. (Kawashima 2021) The conversion of Germany into the Nazi state exemplifies a liberal democracy that resorted to fascism as a means of fortifying the capitalist system when confronted with economic ruin. The Nazi state re-stabilized the failing German economy through dehumanizing the Jewish population into an extractive resource and establishing a military industry that was fueled by the destruction of human life. Contemporary Marxists speculate that late-stage imperialism will turn to neo-fascist tendencies in response to the decline of its extractive forces. (Foster, 2019) Prototype warfare seeks to create a profitable framework for autonomous weapon production by reconfiguring military invasion into a perpetual technological experiment which renders human life into an extractive resource.
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