universal soldier – pilotless planes and the future of war?

My bullet’s bigger than your bullet.

Universal Soldier was one of those 1990s cyborg nonsense movies, built on the back of the kind of  post or transhuman mythology originated by the likes of Philip K Dick and William Gibson.

Van Damme’s Luc Devereaux, the cyborg who does war – was, depending on your perspective either an optimistic or pessimistic view of the future of warfare, inhumanity meted out by unhumans.

Like many of the best sci-fi stories, there is a hint of reality in the story. War has gradually been removed from the harsh reality of hand to hand combat, armies no longer charge towards one another with axes and clubs raised – ready to stab and bludgeon one another. Unless you count football hooligans or rioters of course.

But rioters and hooligans are not deliverers of ‘legitimate violence’ – that is the prerogative of the state, and the state needs to be seen to be as humane as possible in its dispensing of death. In particular it is politically awkward for soldiers to be seen to die in foreign fields, although its less bad if those soldiers are themselves foreign.

Footage of planes ‘delivering’ their digitally targeted ‘payload’ looks much more like a computer game than something inherently ‘real’ – Baudrillard’s seminal ‘The Gulf War did not take place’ develops this theme in much more devastating analysis, pointing to the fact that the way air strikes replaced hand to hand combat effectively made the warfare unreal in terms of ‘conflict’.

What I am leading to with this is the latest iteration in this post humanised process – the removal of pilots from fighter jets. There are already a plethora of remotely operated vehicles capable of delivering bombs and sending/receiving imagery and intelligence. Now legitimate death machine merchants BAE have developed a remotely operated fighter jet which can do all that the famous 80s helicopter Airwolf could, but without the need to involve risk to a pilot. So long, Stringfellow Hawk.

Warfare is always inhumane and removing pilots from planes does not mean that fewer people will die, just that death will become less politically embarrassing to the most powerful warriors.

But without him,
how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He’s the one who gives his body
as a weapon of the war.
And without him all this killing can’t go on

He’s the universal soldier
And he really is the blame
His orders comes from
far away no more.

They come from him.
And you and me.
And brothers can’t you see.
This is not the way we put an end to war

Buffy Sainte Marie – Universal Soldier


Projecting immortality – holograms, facebook, and pyramids

What with plans for the late Michael Jackson to tour again by means of a holographic projection, you’d think he’d never been gone.

In fact to the majority of the world, Jacko was always hyper real, more projection of a persona mediated by a television screen, than actual person. So perhaps a hologram of him is just as likely to float the average punter’s boat as a real live performance.

Although he’s the first performer to come back from the dead in this way, this technology has been used to good affect for a while, Prince Charles was using it in 2008.

But what I find particularly interesting is that what such holograms appear to offer, is a genuine shot at humanistic immortality. The development of artificial intelligence over the years hasn’t quite reached Blade Runner standard yet, but programmers are now able to produce bots which can very effectively mimic human reactions, if not emotions, in conversations.

If you add this ability with the popularity of uploading hopes and dreams, memories, likes, dislikes, crushes and pet hates to cyber space via Facebook, twitter, Pinterest and other social sites, and then mix in the holographic technology, it’s no great leap to imagine that one day in the not too distant future, you’ll be able to have a deceased loved one sitting in the same room as you, talking about the old days.

In fact this kind of project has been under development for a number of years, I first researched the subject at the end of the 1990s, when BT of all strange companies were leading lights in the area. They were, and perhaps still are, looking for ways of developing the digital equivalent of a person’s consciousness, by uploading memories and opinions to a cyberspace database/mind.

That technology has become massively democratised in the last few years, as social networking has gripped the collective consciousness. Now if I want to know what people think about a subject, I can visit their page and often quickly glean enough details to form an opinion. If that same idea was subject to a systematic process, and the results fed into a sophisticated AI machine, which was then linked to a holographic projector… kerpow, I am immortal.

Immortality experiments aren’t particularly new of course, all powerful empires had them, and they were generally aligned with the sophisticated technology of the time, hence the reason we now find pyramids, mummies, and monuments of one sort or another around the world.What this appears to be is the scientific rationalist equivalent of the pyramid.

It seems like humanity is generally questing for immortality, and willing to go to great lengths to achieve it – in the Hebrew scriptures, the writer of the book ‘Ecclesiastes’ says, in the gendered language of his time: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” True dat.

Electric dreams

Ok, despite my anti-consumer credentials, I must admit that I have become a small time fan of electric vehicles.

I have become more convinced over recent months that electric cars, vans and motorcycles are an important part of a cleaner, greener future. I dont mean that we should all just jump in to electric vehicles to do the school run – there needs to be more walking and cycling generally, and better use of public transport.

One of the things I like about living where I do, is that many people dont have cars, they cant afford them. So they make better use of bikes and legs, and of buses too. I often see the kind of sights I used to only associate with trips to India and other developing nations – incongruous loads balanced precariously on push bikes. I’ve seen all kinds of things carried on handlebars and cross bars, including more than one passenger, bags of compost, vacuum cleaners and in one memorable case, a large road sign.

But reality is that we cant expect to do everything by bike or on foot, it’s simply not going to happen – and in many places we can’t always rely on public transport either.

So realistically there needs to be a ‘mixed economy’ of transport solutions – for us that involves public transport (we took the train from Grimsby to the south of France this year – great way to travel and amazingly cheap in comparison with car or train) and also some car hire (for longish car journeys where train or bus travel doesnt work for one of various reasons).

That’s why I’m basically in favour of electric  vehicles, be they motorbikes which you can charge up in your house by plugging them into to your mains supply (8p per charge, up to 30 miles range, 25mph all the way, ideal for a commute) or larger vehicles.

Certainly at the moment there are various problems with the electric vehicle industry, they are basically cost, range, speed, charging, and power generation, but I think these are on their way to being tackled.

Cost – the new cars are out for around £15,000 – £30,000 which is a lot, but as things progress prices will come down for sure. You can buy an electric scooter/motorbike for less than £1000.  Prices are bound to level out as other factors are sorted out and demand increases.

Range – the cars will go about 100 miles on a full charge, which isnt far enough for many people, although with average journeys being somewhat less than 20 miles, its surely enough for many of us. The scooters will go for about 30 miles, which is plenty for getting around town. The likelihood is that solutions will be presented before too long in the shape of places where you can simply swap out your battery, just as if you were filling up with petrol. That and better battery technology should mean range becomes less of a problem.

Speed – the electric scooters on the road are generally not getting up to 30mph, topping out about 25mph; the cars with their bigger batteries are apparently hitting 85mph+ which is pretty impressive. To be honest a push bike around town will go at about 25mph tops for a person of average fitness, wheras the scooter doesnt require any level of fitness – and will maintain its speed for the whole journey (except going up hill). So, this thing of speed is not really an issue, its simply a matter or perception and expectation.

The elephant in the room is power generation, if we’re just burning coal to power these electric vehicles then they are basically powered by fossil fuels – so what’s the difference? In the first place these vehicles are technologically advanced, and use less power than a conventional car, so in the first place they are estimate to equate in terms of emissions to the most fuel efficient of petrol/diesel cars. In the second place, the UK is rapidly developing its renewable energy sources, and before too long there should adequate to good supplies of wind power, enough to allow us to run electric vehicles at considerably less carbon cost.

The big question for me is about tax – at the moment electric scooters are tax exempt, and electric cars are considerably cheaper to tax than their petrol counterparts. But if there’s a big shift, the government are going to need to raise their vehicle tax revenue some how, and a considerable amount of the cost savings one can gain from running an electric vehicle will be cut back. There is also an issue of second hand vehicles, unless the batteries are standardised, and one is able to swap them in and out as per the above – people arent going to be keen on buying a second hand electric car as they will know the battery is likely to be pretty ropey.

So yes, I do think electric vehicles are part of the solution to our transport needs, and I think we need to invest time and money into developing them – they arent the panacea, they wont cure all ills, but they are part of the solution for sure.

Then, perhaps, we will indeed be together, forever in electric dreams.

Afraid of Frankenstein?

This is not Frankenstein, this is Frankenstein's monster.In 1818 a short novel was published by an anonymous writer. Subtitled ‘the Modern Prometheus’ the book ‘Frankenstein’ was a hit, and went on to become a defining piece of literature – often known as the first ever piece of Science Fiction.

A couple of years later, the same book was republished in France, and this time it bore the name of its author, Mary Shelley.

Shelley, the mistress turned wife of romantic poet Percy Bysse Shelley, and daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstencraft, both early feminists and political radicals, was at the forefront of the Romantic movement, an elite group of thinkers and artists who were keen to revive the perceived mystery and beauty of the times before the age of ‘Enlightenment’ and rationalism.

In some ways, with his pale callour and gothic surroundings, Victor Frankenstein was the romantic hero, but in other ways he was the embodiment of rationalism. Here was a man who harnessed science to create life – the very act which had previously been ascribed to God alone. Of course Victor’s actions are famously doomed – his attempt to ‘steal the fire of the Gods’ a la Prometheus are destined to cause great misery and heartbreak with his poor doomed creature becoming the other romantic hero of the story.

While the initial spur for the creation of this story was a ‘competition’ among friends to come up with a ghost story, there is something much deeper in the Frankenstein story, which reveals something fundamental about Human nature – and perhaps explains more than we might realise about the our collective reaction to the onward march of technology.

In 1789 there began in France a huge revolution. It lasted for ten years and saw the slaughter by mechansised Guillotines of tens of thousands of people – some estimate up to 40,000 were killed during ‘The Terror’. It was a simple device and originally conceived as an egalitarian form of punishment – as appropriate for a common man as for a king. So it indeed proved – famously used to behead the French aristocracy as France underwent the most radical political transformation of its time.

The guillotine then ushered in the modern age, its mechanisation and egalitarianism somehow perfectly symbolising the irrepresible onward march of technology. By the time Mary Shelley, a daughter of the enlightenment but a kind of devotee of the romantic movement found herself holed up in a lakeside house with Percy, Lord Byron and others to write a ghost story, the horrors of her childhood were scarcely faded from the public conciousness.

Mary’s political and philosophic leanings were complex. She was the daughter of political radicals and in Mary Wollstencraft had for a mother one of the earliest and most ardent feminists. Mary Shelley, its no suprise to learn, went on to carry the torch of feminism too – despite being part of a movement which was far from feminist. The Romantic movement yearned for a return to simpler times, when men were either gnarled or visionary and women were winsome.

She was both supported and inspired by the political and philosophical changes which had begun to occur in the years  prior to her birth, and at the same time was part of a movement which rebelled against them.

Just as Prometheus brought the fire of the gods to the earth (and paid the price for it), she saw the way that technology and modern advances were bringing power and strength to the populous, whilst also recognising in horror the way that it could cause huge pain and suffering.

Mary was situated in the mid/late modern era – if we take the elightenment as having begun in the mid seventeenth century and the industrial revolution kicking in around the end of the eighteenth, Mary was, at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the midst of the most extraordinary shake up of ideas and practical ways of life that society had ever known. It is no wonder she found in it both incredible inspiration, and dread horror.

In 1984 William Gibson published his debut novel – a sci-fi epic called Neuromancer. Unlike Shelley’s book, there was no classical subtitle – but within the name there is a whole range of meaning.

Neuro, Neu, Romance, Necromancy – which ever way you choose to look at the title there is a reference somehow to the gothic, the new,and the mind. But its the contents of the novel which were so revolutionary.

William Gibson is credited – correctly I would say – with the creation of the concept of ‘cyberspace’. His book appearing as a prophecy of the internet which began to open up scant years after the publishing of Neuromancer, but which had already been conceived as a military and scientific tool. Gibson’s dystopic vision saw again the immense potential, for good and ill, of such technology.

In the same way as Mary Shelley he was, I believe, both enraptured and repulsed by his vision. He could see the incredible advances it offered, but feared the destructive power.

Why am I writing about this, on a sunny day in 2011? Because I believe that for anyone interested in culture and development needs to take a similarly nuanced approach to Frankenstein. Before we simply swallow the advances that technology offers us, we need to recognise that much of it is built on blood. Without that blood being shed, the advances would not have been made. Without the french revolution one might suggest, feminism may never have advanced – certainly the ‘great’ war of 1914 – 1918, an almost unimaginable hell like vision of mechanised destruction was the defining moment in the realisation of women’s suffrage.

Gibsons dystopia, like Shelley’s was a prophetic imagining of a feared and desired future. We have Gibson’s future, if not in whole, certainly in part. We have Shelley’s future, if not in whole, certainly in part.

As we witness the advance of technology, with chips made from precious minerals and with the mass production of handsets and tablets and who knows what else by factory workers in far away lands, from whom we are alienated by all things except facebook and blood, we need to recapture that fear of Frankenstein.

In the pale and hanted figure of Victor Frankenstein is the face of every man or woman who pushes the technological envelope – the pioneer who thinks the unthinkable. Their results are of benefit to many of us, but are they truly worth the horror they spawn?

Afraid of Frankenstein? I am, a bit.


all quiet, but only sort of

I havent been blogging – you may have notced. However, sadly that does not mean I have been soaking up the rays of golden sunlight on my allotment, rather I have been working.

I’ve also been planning – I may have mentioned that I am back on twitter – this time by the handle of @numonastic, I’ve also been asked to set up a twitter stream for world horizons, which is up if not running as @whorizons.

In order to avoid the addictive productivity sapping interface whic ensnared and then upset me last time I used twitter, I’ve been beavering away on a suitably productive twitter plan. This involves me writing the majority of my tweets in advance, and scheduling them using twuffer, which is a very good tool. I’ve just written a dozen or so twitter haikus for a start.I will also post random ‘fresh’ tweets when I feel like it.

I’m also planning to take a more planned approach to this blog, which will mean (hopefully) better content… watch this space, but don’t hold your breath.

Today I’ve mostly been mucking around on the computer

I’ve been working on my new ‘emmaus encounters‘ project, its all been a bit multimedia-mongous today. One thing I did, was the thing I said I wouldn’t do… I  signed up for twitter again – if you want to, you can follow me at @numonastic. Don’t expect anything hugely amazing or entertaining at this stage, it’s all part of the development of a combined strategy for networking and promoting the various workshops and so on that we’ve got planned.

At the moment there are two workshops advertised on the site, one of which I mentioned here the other day, the other one is part of a UK tour that Nicholas Vesey of Norwich Meditation Centre is doing, to promote his book, which is named after the course ‘developing consciousness‘ that he runs. It looks like a good read. There are a couple more in the pipeline, including one on the Enneagram – and  I have another two larger scale things coming along too. All in all, it’s looking quite promising.

I’ve also been busy creating a new mailing list with Mail Chimp – I’ve never used it before, and have to admit to having been a bit grumpy about it before hand, but now I know how well it works, I must say I’m impressed. Takes an age to create the list though, or at least it does if you have a pre-existing list of any size.

And if that isnt enough to keep me occupied, I’ve got a school drama club ‘mime assembly’ to sort out. Yikes. Oh… and a labyrinth.

On freedom and value

So I read today about the computer application called ‘Freedom‘ , which allows you to set an amount of minutes in a day where your computer cannot access the internet. A mere 10 dollars allows you to buy the program and set it up on your pac or mac, and to get yourself some freedom from the tyranny of the internet every so often.

I quite like this idea, although personally I prefer the idea of simply turning the computer off altogether, as personally there’s not much I do on the computer now which doesn’t use some kind of internet access. Even when I am doing extended periods of writing, I still use the net to refer to in different ways, or perhaps to play music. So my own reccomendation is that you turn the computer off altogether, I do this at weekends (barring very occasional abberations) and only use the computer during the week.

As it happens I was with a friend all morning today, discussing rhythms of life. He is a guy with a very busy life, a young family and a demanding job – I was talking with him about the ideas of personal rhythms, and the freedom that it gives to reprioritise the way you live to bring in things like manual work, creativity and things which simply allow one to be ‘in the moment’ instead of working or giving of oneself.

People like my friend are inclined to give of themselves without thinking, and to keep on giving until there is literally nothing left, then they crash. To avoid that crash a personal rhythm can be really helpful, structure can be liberating.

Part of that structure is time away from computers and screens altogether. I can understand why some writers from the old school insisted on using typewriters, like a pen a typewriter has a direct interface with the finished article, wheras with a computer it is mediated, and the result can be a kind of alienation. So to reduce that alienation, get yourself away from the screens, that includes phones.

What we all need to do is recognise the value of what we have, lets not let the tyranny of the internet, the tyranny of the screen or even the tyranny of the urgent flummox us into prioritising them over other things. Lets live in the moment and find ways of reducing the alienation which we all experience from day to day.