New wars, new technology
James Woudhuysen joined a panel discussion entitled ‘New wars, new technology‘ at the Battle of Ideas in the Barbican, October 2015
The rise of drones as a new kind of weapon has led many commentators to ask whether warfare has fundamentally changed. French academic and author Gregoire Chamayou argues that drones undermine the idea of a discrete battlefield and are considered ‘precise’ even though no explosive device could ever really be so. More fundamentally, they disconnect the attacker from the possibility of death, making the reality of killing people appear like playing a video game. Similar themes are explored in the culture, for example the recent Hollywood movie Good Kill. Lead actor Ethan Hawke has remarked that the drone operators’ ‘lives aren’t on the line and yet they’re making mortal decisions’.
Other new developments create different quandaries, from ISIS manipulations of social media to North Korea’s cyber-attack on Sony. The prevailing view of Russia in Ukraine is that it has begun a new kind of ‘hybrid’ warfare – a mix of propaganda, intelligence and irregular operations. Yet war also appears closer to normal life, too. We fear ‘blowback’ from the Middle East coming to our shores, such as the 7/7 bombings in London 10 years ago, and worry about young people going off to join ISIS.
But do these developments represent a break from the past or a continuation of longstanding trends? War has never stood still, and technology has always been a driving force in changing the nature of warfare. Is the drone operator sitting in America in practical terms really more disconnected from the fight than the pilot of a fast jet fighter who bombs opponents who have no weaponry capable of attacking him? Even as far back as the first Gulf War, American pilots could describe attacking Iraqi targets as a ‘turkey shoot’. The propaganda war may have moved online, but is the use of social media to recruit supporters and demoralise the enemy just an updated version of the propaganda tactics of the past? Nor is new technology necessary to fight modern wars; many of today’s insurgencies, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, use old-fashioned and crude technologies to brutal effect.
So, in what sense is war really changing? Western powers may have force on their side but often seen to be losing the battle of hearts and minds, undermining their own societies. Will old-fashioned material superiority always prevail in the long run or can new technology tip the balance of power towards the West’s new enemies?
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Innovators I like
Robert Furchgott – discovered that nitric oxide transmits signals within the human body
Barry Marshall – showed that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is the cause of most peptic ulcers, reversing decades of medical doctrine holding that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid
N Joseph Woodland – co-inventor of the barcode
Jocelyn Bell Burnell – she discovered the first radio pulsars
John Tyndall – the man who worked out why the sky was blue
Rosalind Franklin co-discovered the structure of DNA, with Crick and Watson
Rosalyn Sussman Yallow – development of radioimmunoassay (RIA), a method of quantifying minute amounts of biological substances in the body
Jonas Salk – discovery and development of the first successful polio vaccine
John Waterlow – discovered that lack of body potassium causes altitude sickness. First experiment: on himself
Werner Forssmann – the first man to insert a catheter into a human heart: his own
Bruce Bayer – scientist with Kodak whose invention of a colour filter array enabled digital imaging sensors to capture colour
Yuri Gagarin – first man in space. My piece of fandom: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/10421
Sir Godfrey Hounsfield – inventor, with Robert Ledley, of the CAT scanner
Martin Cooper – inventor of the mobile phone
Thomas Tuohy – Windscale manager who doused the flames of the 1957 fire
Eugene Polley – TV remote controls
George Devol – 'father of robotics’ who helped to revolutionise carmaking