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Digital Tech Workers Revolt against Lethality

A generation of digital wizards discover they are working for the military-industrial complex and don’t like the taste of it. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

Microsoft employees are the latest group of tech workers to protest the role they are being asked to play in developing weapons for the US military. They are asking the company to cancel a $480-million contract to supply augmented reality devices designed for killing. In their letter to senior management, they describe the intended goal of the project: “The contract’s stated objective is to ‘rapidly develop, test, and manufacture a single platform that Soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse, and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.'”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Adversary:

In the world of competitive games and sports, the person one is competing against. In today’s military world where wars are never officially declared, the persons one is endeavoring to kill — a synonym of “enemy,” the term used in the past when acts of war were still conducted within in a legally defined framework

Contextual note

Microsoft President Brad Smith justified the contract in the following terms, pushing hypocrisy to its limits, though his words may sound “normal” in today’s hyper-militarized world: “First, we believe that the people who defend our country need and deserve our support. And second, to withdraw from this market is to reduce our opportunity to engage in the public debate about how new technologies can best be used in a responsible way.”

The idea of “defending one’s country” evokes the notion of protecting oneself against direct assault from abroad. The idea calls forth the virtue of supporting the troops and responding to their needs. In reality, as today’s theaters of conflict clearly reveal — whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Mali or Venezuela — it no longer even remotely implies repelling those who are attacking the country.

The augmented reality equipment Microsoft is selling to the Department of Defense is clearly meant for use outside the United States, for assassinating people whose language and culture Americans won’t even try to understand. Smith would have been more accurate if he had said: We believe that our people who attack other countries need and deserve our support. But that doesn’t sound nearly as noble or convincing as his original declaration. And even if their business was to defend rather than attack, do they really “need and deserve” Microsoft’s support? It all depends on how you define “need” and “deserve.” Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop and others may be in business for that very purpose. They need the business to exist. Microsoft presumably doesn’t.

Smith reaches the summit of disingenuous rhetoric when he says it’s all about engaging in “the public debate” about technology and ethics. There is no public debate, especially in the US. On the other hand, for Microsoft it’s clearly about delivering a product, getting paid and asking no questions. It’s also about not letting competitors — i.e., adversaries — benefit from the opportunity to bank half a billion of taxpayer dollars.

The employees quote the official objective of the project, which simply repeats and reflects the military culture that dictated it to Microsoft. It capitalizes the words “Soldiers,” “Fight,” “Rehearse” and “Train,” granting them an elevated level of necessity and nobility. And the business of achieving “overmatch” echoes the new imperial military thinking, which The Daily Devil’s Dictionary glossed last week.

Historical note

Throughout history, war has been defined as an armed conflict between two or more sovereign states or governments. For the US, everything changed after 9/11. The rules of the past were superseded by a new vision of the world.

In 1992 — when most people weren’t even alive during the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — a proposal by Department of Defense neocon officials Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby for a new American military and political strategy included three key points: “The United States must remain the world’s only superpower, unchallenged by any other nation …  [it] may need to use pre-emptive force (attack an enemy first) in self-defense … [and it] will, if necessary, act unilaterally (alone) to confront and eliminate threats to American security.”

The Clinton administration, which took office in January 1993, made no effort to implement these recommendations. But with the election of George W. Bush in November 2000, Wolfowitz and Libby were back in the saddle. The events of 9/11 allowed President Bush to implement their reasoning in what then became known as the “Bush doctrine.” This essentially authorized pre-emptive war whenever and wherever the president felt it was in the interest of the United States, a policy tailored to the interests of an imperial global power.

Wired sees the revolt of tech workers as “part of a growing political awakening,” while reminding us that “Silicon Valley has a long and secretive history of building hardware and software for the military and law enforcement.” The military-industrial complex, which President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about just before leaving office in January 1960, essentially created Silicon Valley by transferring much of the value of public investment in technology developed for the military to private business without asking for anything in return. That includes the internet and GPS. It set the pattern according to which the digital technology sector is either indirectly and now directly dependent on the defense budget, producing the existential crisis that tech employees are now faced with.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.