Since the earliest use of fire at least many hundred thousand years ago (if not earlier), technology has always been used for self-preservation while traversing a hostile world. For the larger part of our history, we have carried some sort of weapon, now nations hoard them on our behalf. Even today, when most people do not carry guns or knives on their person, mobile phones - necessary appendages for a very large part of the species - are used to assure ourselves and others of our safety and well-being, or to reach out for safety in moments of crisis. Many people who suddenly find themselves in unpleasant or harmful situations are able to either ward off threats or at least gather proof for law enforcement using the in-built cameras of their phones.
Providing its citizens security from violence or disaster is understood to be one of the key roles of the government. Many types of safety practices and technologies employed for this purpose have become a part of our lives to the extent that we often take them for granted unless they are causing us irritation by hindering our movements.
As an example, consider the planning of cities, where some version of these services has existed for as long as civilisation has existed. Today, there are traffic lights, street lamps, and surveillance cameras along many roads and in many public spaces in most parts of the world. These are supplemented by cameras, intruder alert systems, and smoke alarms within privately owned properties above a certain monetary value like offices, homes, and malls in posher areas. There are round-the-clock emergency helplines that people can call during or after they have been in or witnessed an act of violence or disaster like a robbery, a car crash, or a fire. Entry to closed public spaces like train stations or airports is monitored by metal detectors. To catch sophisticated miscreants and detect large-scale threats to public safety, cyber spying and phone tracking are used for covert surveillance. Warnings about imminent storms, floods, cyclones, hurricanes, and eclipses are broadcasted as a precautionary measure to minimise damage.
The technologies that make the present form of these security and safety services possible have only been around since the nineteenth century and were adapted for wider public use even more recently than that, mostly in the latter half of the twentieth century. When one argues for using technology to end violence, it is helpful to remember that complicated networks of security-oriented tools already exist. Our very notions of demanding and guaranteeing security hinge upon installing and using a network of various surveillance tools. Such networks can be improved upon and scaled up so that the resulting system would be able to detect the onset of a violent act faster than the blink of an eye, a speed that our most advanced supercomputers are already capable of. To a rudimentary extent, such detection of violence already happens. What could be different is how we possibly respond. Imagine a world where surveillance cameras actually serve a purpose when something untoward is observed instead of merely providing grainy footage in the aftermath of an event.
As with most technologies, the biggest challenge here is dealing with the fact that violence is generally not committed under laboratory conditions. In the famous University of Washington brain-to-brain interface experiment, a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coil was positioned right over the left motor cortex of the person whose hand was moved by the thoughts in his colleague’s brain. “Transcranial magnetic stimulation is a noninvasive way of delivering stimulation to the brain to elicit a response. Its effect depends on where the coil is placed; in this case, it was placed directly over the brain region that controls a person’s right hand. By activating these neurons, the stimulation convinced the brain that it needed to move the right hand.” At scale, how would this be translated into deployable tech? Would law enforcement or security personnel have to be moved in to the site of violence to be in close proximity to the perpetrator in order to stop them by using such a device? Would such technology only ever be feasible within the physical limits at which such things as tasers, tear gas, pepper spray, or sniper rifles work?
It seems to me that deploying such tech to stop violence, possibly remotely, would give the desired results fastest if the same computers that detect the violence also have the necessary training data programmed in them to target the motor neurons of the offending individual(s) and literally stop them in their tracks. Of course, such a proposition raises many technical and ethical concerns.
Should a network of supercomputers be left solely in charge of such an endeavour? Would it be better or more dangerous to have human beings interfacing at the other end of such a system so that they can control the person committing or trying to commit violence by willing them to stop? Would the best option be to have a network of human beings and machines, both in the plural, working on this together?
Universally agreeable answers to such questions would also be really crucial to developing a system that can prevent, subdue, or control large-scale violence and not just one-off events.
I couldn’t possibly be more vehemently in support of demilitarisation, deweaponisation, and de-escalation of conflict. But if we want such demands to be more than irrefutably ethical arguments with no possibility of realisation, they have to be accompanied by practical alternatives to deal with individual and group violence. Unless we do that, provisionally useful conversations like conventions on rules of war, the right to armed resistance, punitive law enforcement, a vengeance-based system of justice, or international charters on the rights of the incarcerated represent an enterprise doomed to failure - making violence humane. One understands why these ideas had to emerge in societies with no better ways to deal with violence. But we have to stop dealing with the issue like the eventuality to prepare for is the inevitability of violence.
There are of course evolutionary reasons for why violence seems inevitable. From a very young age, we intuitively start showing signs of understanding what is also taught to us by others around us - that other human beings or creatures can harm us. Internal processes like disease and ageing are not the only factors that threaten our bodily integrity. So do external threats. This has played no small part in leading us to make this world the way it is - divided into tribal nations. Human social and technological evolution has transformed the arms races of evolutionary biology into arms races in and between societies.
In such an international system, is it patently stupid to say we can create a system that will end all violence?
While here we are, speculating if information transmission technologies like the internet can be used to transmit the ability to control violent urges, remember that undeclared, incessant cyber-warfare and digital theft of knowledge and information by governments and corporations have decisively become a part of the system we live in. So much so that even among the most avowed opponents of the military-industrial complex and oligarchic corporations, you would be hard put to find people bothering to organise a movement against such a hacking-ridden digital culture.
As I do not tire of saying, the brain-machine interface technologies and supercomputers that we are discussing the beneficial uses of are under the control of the same military-industrial complex and corporate regimes that have normalised cyber warfare. This raises some questions.
How likely are these militaries and corporations to put everything they have into making an anti-violence system a reality?
Are they likely to do it anytime soon?
In a world such as this, will the governments of all nations adopt such a system?
Which is the better way of installing and running such a system - an understanding between all governments and nations to maintain such a system within their boundaries or a supra-national successor of the comity of nations that maintains it everywhere on the planet (and beyond)?
How do nations resolve conflicts if war is not possible because they just cannot send their citizens to commit violence against each other to settle the issue?
What I am trying to suggest is that the institutions capable of making an attempt at stopping violence forever may not make such an attempt because it may simultaneously end the ways they hold power over others even though while they exist their whole rationale for existing is that they are reducing the violence in society - by protecting us from enemies within and without through weapons and soldiers, and by maintaining market economies where a willingness to earn your keep always pays, eliminating the need for people to fight it out like savages over necessary resources.
So, is competition-based economics, enforced and maintained through the use or threat of physical coercion (what scholars have called the state's monopoly on violence), the best way to understand human life for all time to come in our allegedly infinite universe? Is the only way for human societies to exist one in which we seize and use for ourselves whatever we can before others can get their hands on it, ad nauseam ad infinitum?
Here, I am not using infinity as hyperbole, I mean it quite literally. As I have discussed, we have no clearly-stated mechanism to ensure that our forays into extra-terrestrial living are going to be accompanied by totally new types of social and economic organisation, vastly different and inventive modes of governance and exchange of goods and services that guarantee lives free from conflict. When people argue against the idea of colonising space by pointing out how badly colonising missions went in the past, they are not merely nitpicking the terminology used. Yes, there are those among us who stubbornly and (considering the advances in technology) counter-intuitively believe that we must perish on this very planet. But the concern that space exploration will be undertaken in ill-advised ways is not a doomsday musing. The way in which the possibilities opened up by space navigation - like deep space tourism, mining, and extra-terrestrial human settlements - are being conceptualised and greedily worked towards without sufficient consultation or ethical precautions is very much like a colonial mission.
Are we saying that war and wealth disparity are the best material models of infinity that we will ever come up with, necessary ways to harvest and create infinite wealth in an infinite universe?
This is not idle speculation.
Let us imagine that when economists nonchalantly list war as a way that has been known to expand markets and provide cheap, if not free, access to raw materials and labour, they are merely acting as economic historians, describing how this has been observed to be the case in the colonial history of the world and they are in no way suggesting that such a method to expand markets and acquire raw materials and labour could be a plausible strategy for contemporary nation-states to pursue in the future.
But neither these bathed-in-innocence economists nor the functionaries of the nation-state who are supposedly fit to decide when the use of force - even lethal force - is justified have laid out any plans on how markets will create prosperity eternally without any loss of life or any other harm being visited upon the body of any person or living creature. Some people do openly declare that the death and suffering of some other people will always be necessary for the social system to function. People with a little more shame or humility make suitable polite noises about how regrettable the suffering of other people is. But I have yet to see any concrete plan for the elimination of suffering itself.
To repeat it with phrases often used on this blog, a society that talks of settling across the solar system and navigating the galaxy but does not use the information and technologies geared towards those aims to ensure that no creature with consciousness, including human beings, ever suffers is not a civilised society.
Be realistic, toughen up, in our time there was no such thing as microaggressions, conflict will exist as long as life exists - such ill-conceived advice is freely handed out to those who try to promote the idea of a violence-free society. This is symptomatic of the larger problems of our social system that prevent us from even imagining a world free of harm, let alone demanding it. Are we interested in developing tools that go further than arming individuals with weapons and phones? And remember your privilege of not needing to arm yourself with weapons stems from the fact that you are trained from childhood that you can use your phone to summon personnel in the employ of the government who are trained in handling all manner of weapons. All the people who demand the abolition of the military-industrial complex and the police are also sooner or later to be found shaming these institutions for inaction or demanding protection from them.
We are all in an arms race with each other. This being true of our evolutionary origins cannot be helped. But this being true at this stage in the evolution of organised societies is just sad and disappointing. Which countries will develope and adopt a system that ends violence and how will such a system be installed in all countries - these questions are undeniably interlinked. Interpersonal violence cannot end if violence between large groups of people, no matter how well organised into nations and armies, remains possible. The same reasons that may prevent countries from cooperating with each other in installing such a system worldwide may also prevent people from agreeing to have such a system installed in their own respective countries.
I am not giving in to resigned pessimism by saying that. I am articulating the problem. We do not have a societal mechanism that can shift everyone to a better system together.
For thousands of years, we have been living under the threat of violence and the sceptre of war. Even when there is no violence or war, there is the possibility. Let us cut the problem down to size. War is just another form of violence. A society that does not entertain any possibility of violence among its members does not go to war. This is not to diminish the trauma of those who have had to face the horrors of war or to overstate the harm done to those who may have had some passing brush with violence. Every seemingly trivial act of violence matters. For a society that refuses to tolerate it, any violence is an act of war against its very founding principles. And in keeping with those very principles, it does not deal with the situation by waging a full-fledged war. Instead, it makes sure that from that smallest act of violence to the largest possible scale at which the horrors of war can be unleashed, violence has been summarily and effectively eliminated as a possibility.
That is, a truly civilised society does not prepare post facto responses to the possibility of violence, something out there, to be postponed daily and faced eternally. A truly civilised society refuses to suffer violence in any form.
We must end war.
But how easy it is to launch into slam-poetry-like rhetoric about ending war forever. In fact, condemnations and glorifications of war are as old as poetry itself. We have been pondering over the subject for thousands of years.
And yet, most of our safety gadgets and security services are remedial mechanisms and do little to actually prevent our bodies from getting harmed. Those who are constantly preoccupied with building, selling, and wielding weapons and secretive surveillance tools to apparently provide protection to us fail to offer any protection to millions of people facing horrible situations every second, apart from directly causing harm to many others.
By now it is a cliche to talk about how much percentage of the budget the government, especially in the militarily powerful countries of the world, spends on armed forces and weaponry and how that amount could be better invested in addressing the situations that give rise to conflict. We know that this cliched statement irks those who would rather have us all uncritically praise the military establishment and other security forces at all times. But there should be a way out of this competition of opinions.
Years ago, 2009 to be precise, neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky warned us: “Folks who know about Toxo and its affect on behavior are in the U.S. military. They’re interested in Toxo. They’re officially intrigued.” Toxo, in Sapolsky’s words, is a “parasite that makes mammals perhaps do things that everything in their fiber normally tells them not to.” While there is little in the public domain about how advanced the knowledge and capabilities of military agencies are when it comes to brain-machine interfaces, agencies like DARPA try to spin narratives about how they are interested in technologies like complicated exoskeletons being controlled seamlessly through wearable devices that read brain patterns because of the potential benefits they will have for people living with disabilities.
To be fair, let’s not forget that dual-use technology has been with us for a long time and the basic technologies behind a lot of essential fixtures in our lives were introduced to the market for free by military agencies. The laptops and internet we invariably use for critical research and protest, including this very publication, emerged from militaries and navies tinkering with technology.
So maybe we do not have to make conspiratorial guesses about how benign or sinister the aims of military research into brain-machine interfaces could be. This could prove to be one of those rare cases where the military and civilian applications of a technology totally overlap.
We must design and deploy better security tools and safety nets, not weapons. It is very much in keeping with the stated aims of the military and government agencies that control the technologies that could provide us with such tools. They must work towards finally fulfilling their duty to protect all citizens from violence and truly secure us against any physical harm.