“The scent, the scent alone is enough for our beasts.”
There's that old saying that goes “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”. Certainly, weird times such as these demand weird explanations. Old explanatory frameworks that have been dying long, slow deaths continue to have nails pounded into their coffins. Consider how the post-Cold War triumph of neoliberalism, as promoted by Francis Fukuyama's The End Of History, has had the crap beaten out of it first by 9/11, then by the global financial meltdown, and now by Brexit (the best tweet I saw concerning Brexit was all of three words: “Francis Fukuyama lol”).
And no one, least of all Fukuyama, could have predicted the circus slated to begin in Cleveland, with the most unlikely candidate in recent political history about to receive the nomination of the Republican Party for President. Actually, I should amend that: perhaps Upton Sinclair did, 80 years ago. But Sinclair had the dubious benefit of witnessing firsthand the rise of fascism; few people are alive today who remember how wide the Overton Window actually used to be. We need to get much, much weirder.
But it's not just that things are getting weirder. Even more germane is that things are getting weirder, faster. This is nowhere more evident than in the ways in which technologies are insinuating themselves into the social fabric. As I've argued before, each technological development creates the substrate upon which a further, faster and even more unpredictable set of technologies and their circumstances manifests. Perhaps I'm biased, since I've been observing these phenomena for a while, but consider a few recent developments.
Exhibit A: Racially inflected police brutality is an old story. But awareness of it has skyrocketed in the past few years with the prevalence of video cameras. However, this prevalence was only made possible when video recording was bundled into the larger rubric of the smart phone. If video cameras as objects were sufficient unto themselves, we would have seen a very different trajectory following the 1991 Holliday videotape of the Rodney King beating. But it took nearly a full generation for the creation of not only the means of cheap and easy recording, but also its equally cheap and easy distribution. And until recently, even this latter infrastructure was fairly staid: YouTube and perhaps a few other platforms.
More recently we've seen the rise of live streaming of video. First popularized by LiveStream and Ustream (both founded in 2007), these services were still missing what turned out to be a key component: integration into social media. This was remedied in 2015, when Periscope was bought by Twitter before the service had even launched. Not one to let a competitive threat go unadressed, Facebook developed Facebook Live, its own native videostreaming service. It was in fact Facebook Live that was used by Diamond Reynolds ten days ago to document the remainder of Philando Castile's life as he lay in the back of a police cruiser, bleeding to death. And thanks to the tight integration with social media, we can go back to Reynolds' page, not just to relive the footage, but also to bear witness to the comments as they started rolling in: “Don't stop recording” and “We are watching you cop. What's your name?”.
It hasn't escaped notice that Reynolds had remarkable presence of mind to livestream this “event”, as opposed to merely videotape it, which itself would have been noteworthy (and one can only imagine that this preparedness was inculcated by the constant threat of police harassment, which is itself such a thoroughly damning thought). But consider the risks of simple videotaping: the possibility that the police would find a reason to confiscate the footage, or the phone's memory card, or the phone itself, which might then meet with an “unfortunate accident”, therefore eliminating a pesky piece of evidence that would run contrary to police testimony. This is why the ACLU has been rolling out its Mobile Justice app – once installed on a smart phone, it is essentially a one-touch recording device that sends video directly to ACLU servers. It's not the only app for this, either, which is a good thing, since this kind of recording must be able to withstand multiple points of failure: just a few hours after it was streamed on Facebook, the Castile video was temporarily removed, due to a “technical glitch“, whatever that might mean. No doubt a helpful algorithm was trying to shield Facbook's users from something awfully violent.
However, things get weirder.
Exhibit B: As a direct result of the above, massive nation-wide demonstrations were mobilized against police brutality. And as we know, the demonstrations in Dallas ended with five police being shot by a sniper. Compounding this unprecedented escalation was how the shooter, once cornered, was brought to heel. A robot, usually used for bomb disposal, was guided via remote control to the part of the parking garage where the suspect was cornered. Jury-rigged with a pound of C4 plastic explosive, it was detonated, decisively ending the standoff.
It was the first known instance that a robot was used by police to kill a suspect. And yet it conforms with the larger trend of the militarization of police, itself a consequence of the demobilization of vast amounts of matériel freshly returned from our most recent Middle Eastern adventures and in need of a good home. But what has mystified me about this incident is the fact that the police went straight to the use of lethal force. In the ensuing coverage, no one has thought to raise the possibility of a non-lethal option, for example strapping a tear gas canister to the robot. Peter Singer, who has written extensively about the use of drones and similar machines within a military context, notedthat “the closest parallel I am aware of was a case in 2011, when police in Tennessee strapped tear gas grenades to a robot that then accidentally started a fire in a mobile home. This doesn't seem a great parallel, as it does not reflect a decision deliberately to use the robot to kill.” Indeed.
Unsurprisingly, the things that we thought we should most fear turn out to still be mirages that may or may not manifest themselves in the future. That is, the prospect of the evocatively named LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems) is still hazy and indistinct. But it's much easier to focus one's anxiety on a hypothetical machine gun-wielding robot that independently identifies and then executes its prey. There is something sufficiently self-contained about such an object. It's by virtue of its succinctness that thinking about it seems even possible, whereas the systems that are currently in place are more vague and distributed. As reprehensible as the overuse of drone strikes may be, there is still the lukewarm comfort that there is a human being – or a chain of command that consists of human beings – who ultimately identifies the target and pulls the trigger. Except that a closer look at target selection demonstrates that we are even less in control of that than we thought. So the future reaches into the present, playfully pawing at us in the form of a jury-rigged robot arm and ‘machine-suggested' militant targets.
(This is not the first time that we have committed such a cognitive fallacy. We spend far too much time worrying about the sudden appearance of a malevolent or inscrutable super-intelligent AI that we forego the much greater – and already present – concerns of whether artificial intelligence and algorithmic judgment are being used to gather and act on information that is beyond our power to even notice, let alone seek redress).
The precedent that is set by the actions of the Dallas police is troubling for exactly this reason: it is a precedent. When technology (and its ad hoc deployment) moves as quickly as this, there is no hope for policy, let alone legislation, to keep up. For heaven's sake, we still can't properly legislate copyright law in the digital age, and this has been a fairly clearly delimited issue for the last 20 years. If the courts extend the well-established principle that a police officer may use lethal force if he or she feels threatened to include the idea that a kamikaze version of WALL*E can be used to alleviate such a threat, then we can expect to see a normalization of the use of such force vectors. In turn, manufacturers will all too gladly step up so that the police don't have to go through the ordeal of duct-taping a packet of C4 to a retractable arm. And in short order an industry springs up, with interests and lobbysits to represent those interests: good luck legislating anything in the face of that. I just wonder if a camera livestreaming the proceedings will be part of the basic package, or if that will cost extra.
So we have a situation here where the convergence of video streaming and social media platforms led to protests that in turn led to the targeting of police officers by a shooter who was killed by a robot carrying an improvised explosive device. Can things get any weirder? Let's try.
Exhibit C: With all the weirdness going around, it was almost a relief that the week's news ended on something that people of my generation can understand: a good old-fashioned coup d'état. Except that the attempt in Turkey fell into chaos within a matter of hours; it seems that in the current news cycle not even a mutiny by the military has that much time to prove itself. Furthermore, one would certainly expect the Turkish army, which has been staging coups with some regularity since 1960, to have acquired solid experience in the matter.
All flippancy aside, though, there is still much that is unknown about why the military made its move when it did. One generally waits for the Prime Minister to be out of the country, whereas Erdogan was vacationing in Marmaris, a Turkish coastal town. Be that as it may, the coup began with the requisite deference for tradition: the declaration of martial law, the imposition of curfew and the rapid appearance of tanks on the streets, military jets buzzing Ankara and Istanbul, and all that. In addition, one of the immediate targets of any coup is the TV station, and indeed the plotters fulfilled their mission of getting the national TV to sign off.
But things also began to go very wrong, very quickly. Here is something we do know: very soon after it became clear that a coup was underway, Erdogan phoned into CNN's Turkey bureau, still on-air, and conducted an interview via FaceTime, on the news anchor's iPhone. You can see a bit of the astonishing video here, complete with the moment when the anchor, who is interviewing him by holding up the phone to the camera, has to decline an incoming call from someone else (a treasonous army general, perhaps? Wouldn't that have been the most fantastic use of three-way calling?). Now, Erdogan is savvy enough when it comes to technology – in fact I think it's a reasonable to state that populist tendencies positively correlate with mastery of social media such as Twitter, as well as an equivalent distaste for anyone using the same platform to proffer a different message. So he used his time to appeal to his supporters, that they take to the streets and “protect our democracy”.
To its credit, the army planned well enough in advance to block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which was likely not difficult, since Turkey has always been keen on regulating its citizens' access to the Internet. However, smaller platforms such as Instagram and Vimeo were still functioning at the time of the coup. More crucially, it seems like Facebook Live and Periscope – the same applications involved in documenting police brutality I cited above – were also functioning. So the plotters found themselves in a position where protestors against the coup hit the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, “swarming tanks and soldiers…and even reportedly performing citizen's arrests. Many of the protests were streamed on Periscope and Facebook Live.” To watch a bunch of guys in street clothes swarm a tank like carpenter ants, stripping the soldiers of their weapons and throwing them bodily out of their vehicles, all in defense of an authoritarian regime, has to be one of the more surreal things I have seen recently.
This attitude towards technology as an organizing force is quite an ironic reversal, considering that, during a 2014 meeting with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Erdogan actually said, “I am increasingly against the Internet every day”. And it is still premature to maintain that the organizing power of social media played a decisive role, as we are still considering its effects on the Arab Spring of 2011. But one thing that is certain is that the AKP emerges from the coup stronger than ever. As it rounds up its enemies and rivals – at last count already more than 6,000 have been detained – it's reasonable to assume that press and internet freedoms will re-join those ranks, having served their purpose in the “protection of our democracy.”
There are no easy patterns to be drawn from the above three cases. If anything, we may have to fall back on the cliché that people will take whatever tools they have at their disposal and bend them to the circumstances. I don't find this satisfying as an explanation, but in a world where total surveillance is being used to hunt terrorists who nevertheless cause tremendous damage by simply driving a truck into a crowd, I'm not sure if any theory can make sense for long enough before the next event comes along and proceeds to make a hash of everything. But this is the nature of an ever-accelerating weirdness. And apologies to anyone who thought this post would be about Pokémon Go. There's only so much weirdness anyone can take.