Editorial | Does Geek Culture Hold the Answers to National Security?

For this post, I collaborated with Hannah Givens, from Things Matter (which you should totally check out).  Our mutual love of international relations shines through everything we do, apparently.

Technological innovation raises some obvious questions. What kind of technology will humans use in the future? How will it work and what will it do for us? How will it change the way we do things? Those questions are, perhaps, at their most controversial in the realm of national security, where technology can kill (or protect) ever-greater numbers of people. Fortunately, geek culture is an oracle of war. Science fiction has been imagining the future for a long time now, and was already providing possible answers before national security experts even understood the questions.

The basic trend in warfare and national security is that humans are moving farther and farther from the front lines. This means fewer deaths, which is good for public relations, general welfare, and mission success. When soldiers are not being injured or suffering from PTSD, then a) soldiers are protected from harm, and b) militaries are more efficient. The necessary ingredient is technology. A military can only get as far away from battle as its longest range weapon.

As it happens, the necessary ingredient for the science fiction genre to exist is also technology. Science fiction is a vast and difficult-to-define genre, but at its core, it’s basically about hypothetical science. Writers imagine the technological and social changes that might happen in the future, and design hypothetical ramifications for those changes. Sci-fi is usually right on the cusp of scientific innovation, incorporating ideas that are only just being talked about by researchers, because even though it’s based in science, it’s not limited to what is literally possible at any given time. So, it comes as no surprise that science fiction was thinking about military technology long before the military.

Computers are now a staple of life in every field, and represent the foundational technological change of modern times. Science fiction, while not entirely predicting the scale at which we now use computers, has expressed concern over their power from the beginning. For instance, “A Taste of Armageddon,” a classic 1967 Star Trek episode, shows the Enterprise crew finding a planet engaged in computer-based warfare. The computers are running an advanced war simulation, and citizens voluntarily disintegrate themselves (based on their presence in simulated attack locations) to prevent real weapons from destroying their buildings and culture. This encompasses a host of computer-based concerns, from worries about letting computers rule our lives in general to the possibility of computers making bad wartime decisions.

Still, the problem is presented as an outgrowth of traditional methods and concerns. The people want to keep away from battlefields, but computers are running a simulation of a traditional war conducted with bombs and rockets launched against cities. Instead, the real world is choosing to move battlefields away from humans — onto (or into) the oceans, and perhaps eventually into space, the traditional realm of science fiction.

While the idea of a virtual battlefield was not new to Orson Scott Card, his book Ender's Game was groundbreaking in many ways.

While the idea of a virtual battlefield was not new to Orson Scott Card, his book Ender’s Game was groundbreaking in many ways.

The nature of space travel and the nature of humans mean such travel requires a closed-in ship. Closed-in ships combined with futuristic weapons and a 3D environment create a whole new set of strategic considerations in which the combatants may never see each other at all. (This can be seen in much military sci-fi and really anything involving spaceships, although with varying degrees of imaginative success). Space-travel considerations extend directly into modern warfare. Ships no longer line up to fire cannons at each others’ broadsides; they launch weapons from miles away, never making visual contact with the enemy. Submarines, closed-in ships moving in three dimensions through hostile environments, directly inspired conceptions of space ships. As submarines become more advanced, they begin to imitate the space ships they inspired: taking action at greater speeds, from further distances, with more advanced weaponry than ever before.

The ultimate way to remove humans from battlefields is to use remote-controlled drones, which are famously operated like video games. Of course, it’s not always army vs. army or nation vs. nation, and humans can’t always be removed. Science fiction has an answer for that too: powered armor. The idea of encasing oneself in armor — currently most prominent in the form of Iron Man — appeals to humans who feel vulnerable. In contrast to medieval-style plate armor or unwieldy tanks, futuristic technology allows personal armor to become comfortable, livable, and useful in more situations.

Three of the most recent inventions that seem to be pulled directly from the pages of popular science fiction and comic books are really fascinating.

First, the era of the force field may be nearly upon us.  Military tacticians have reached the maximum capacity for tank armor.  The prototype Ground Combat Vehicle, slated to begin production in 2019 to eventually replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle for the United States Army weighs in at an unprecedented 84 tons.  The tank is designed to be nearly “IED proof,” an important issue that has come to the fore since the Afghanistan and Iraq offensives.  Unfortunately, this type of tank is nearly useless for fighting in terrain with poor infrastructure, since it is too heavy to be supported by most bridges.

Vehicle design engineers are now working on ways to increase the safety of armored vehicles without increasing their weight.  One proposal is for “electric armor.”  This armor is designed specifically to interrupt IEDs.  “This consists of two electrically charged metal plates separated by an insulating layer. The idea is that when hit, the metal in a projectile shorts the two charged plates together, forming a circuit and releasing a surge of electricity which can break the warhead up.”


Would you eat food whose principle ingredient was meal worms?

One of the greatest concerns to any security strategist is climate change.  As much of the world is developing and industrializing at the same time as the human population continues to grow exponentially, environmental degradation has become a real problem.  Among the greatest concerns for human survival are the lack of sufficient fresh water, and the lack of food.  Scientists may have solved one of these problems with the creation of 3D printed food.  While the research is still in the early stages, and most of the demonstrated food is simply to show off the technology, there is the real possibility that 3D printed protein bars, much like the nutrient bars in Firefly and other space-age media, will be the best way to sustain human life.  The primary ingredient for these bars is actually derived from insects.  Researchers are currently using meal worms to create a unique type of “insect-based flour.”  While they haven’t worked out all the kinks yet (the inability to fully de-fat the flour still prevents long-term preservation), this may be the answer to sustainability for people on Earth, and possibly for future manned space travel.

Another deeply disturbing security issue arising from the increasing human population and the massive urbanization associated with developing states is the idea of super cities, with police no-go zones in their centers.  Not only do these super cities in countries with low infrastructure lend themselves to drug trafficking, terrorism, and mob activity, but they are also areas of heavy pollution—so much so that police and military cannot even penetrate them.  A possible solution presents itself in the form of an exoskeleton, similar to the Marvel villain Ivan Vanko, “Whiplash,” or an Iron Man suit.  The additional strength and skeletal support from the exoskeleton can allow a single operator to do the work of two or three soldiers.  “When I’m in the suit I feel like me, only a faster, stronger version of me,” says test engineer Rex Jameson.  While the “Iron Man” suits do not come equipped with J.A.R.V.I.S., they do provide the wearer with a safe, climate-controlled environment that will allow them to penetrate badly polluted areas that would otherwise be impassable.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actor Clark Gregg in the Raytheon Sarcos XOS 2 exoskeleton

Of course, science fiction and comic book writers are able to invent technology as diverse and innovative as their universes require, unhampered by the laws of physics.  However, while there is no way to tell whether scientist are actually taking their cues directly from the pages of those creations, it does seem as though life is imitating art, especially where technology advancements are concerned.  Will we see even crazier sci-fi technology in the real world?  Only time will tell.


Filed under Editorial, Guest, Tracy Gronewold

26 responses to “Editorial | Does Geek Culture Hold the Answers to National Security?

  1. Reblogged this on Things Matter and commented:
    A collaborative article that Tracy and I wrote on the topic of geek culture intersecting with real life, specifically with international relations. It’s the first time either of us have written a collaborative article and I think it turned out great! It’s fair to say that if you like Things Matter, you’ll almost definitely like Therefore I Geek, so give them a follow and leave us your thoughts in the comments. 😉

  2. Great post! Definitely my kind of stuff, looking at how science fiction can tell us about our future, or show better solutions!

    The space based warfare reminded me of a couple of lesser known books by well-known author Scott Westerfeld: The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds. Just about his only books that don’t end up shelved as YA, they are very science-based science fiction. The space battles in particular: ships racing together at massive speeds, and unable to slow down on a dime. That leaves mere minutes for a space battle, the time the weapons are in range. A combination of lasers, nano and cyber warfare, if I recall.

    Anyway, point is that there are people out there thinking of all sorts of implications of different things we might do in the future, and it’s a good thing there are!

    • Fascinating way to avoid the “dogfights in space” unlikelihood! The only thing I’ve read along those lines is the classic The Forever War. Ships travel at relativistic speeds, and basically the whole government and social structure of Earth is eventually dedicated to administration for a war effort on that scale. (They have to ensure enough soldiers for ships hundreds of years in the future, plan assignments that far ahead, etc.)

      • I plan to see Interstellar tomorrow, but it does sound like that movie keeps those relativistic ideas in mind, much like Haldeman’s classic.

        One thing aliens could do for us is give us an enemy to fight that’s not ourselves! That’s the way things always seem to shake out, anyway.

    • You had me at “combination of lasers, nano, and cyber warfare.” Just thinking what a madhouse that bridge would be, with the gunners targeting the lasers and the hackers trying to find a way to lower the enemy’s shields and the capsules full of nanobots being fired into space like torpedoes.

  3. You two know this is getting shared all over the Internet by me in the next week or so 😉

    This is a good rundown of the technological issues, and OMG “Fortunately, geek culture is an oracle of war.” Wish I’d written that one 🙂

    So my question for you as a fellow IR junkie is this. Take it a step further and assume for a moment that you have the general trend and some of the technology right. What does that mean for the world order?

    I ask because I’ve been thinking for awhile that the world order is devlolving (?? re-evolving??) into something that looks a lot more like a balance of power system than the post-1945 multilateralism-enforced-by-nuclear weapons system that we (and our parents, for that matter) are accustomed to. I started a conversation with Utopia or Dystopia on that very subject months ago, but sadly, got busy and lost the thread.

    And if this return to a balance of power is in the offing in the next few decades, what happens when the high technology proliferates to the point that non-state actors have access to the good stuff? Blackwater v. ISIS on the moon? Who enforces the balance and holds the anarchy at bay long enough for us to either get off the planet in a big way or solve the environmental puzzle?

    • An interesting discussion that I had just today brought up the point that the international system did not reach the pre-WWI globalization levels (in regard to the easy exchange of information and money) until the late 1990s. I think that although you COULD make an argument for balance-of-power, depending on whether India, Korea, and Japan can create a strong enough alliance to balance China’s ascendancy, it is just as interesting to argue that globalization and the blending of cultures will bring about a single, more unified global culture. In a world like the latter scenario, there is much less need to hold anarchy at bay, because a social norm umbrella that covers most of the world will do it for us. Just thoughts, but fascinating ones! -t

      • Yes, fascinating. I am not sure I believe the blending scenario is possible at this point, but willing to think hard about it and be persuaded. The reason I’m not so sure about the blending scenario is that globalization isn’t just about the integration. It also creates (?) or at least enables all sorts of weird social and political fragmentation.

        The question, really, is whether the integration of the information and the economic stuff is sufficient to create a culture that can overcome the conflict generated by the fragmentation. (Egad, the abstractions! I hope I am making some sense).

        I am so glad to be talking about this stuff. It’s just about my favorite thing to talk about, even when I am wrong. It’s a pity it doesn’t sell better on the Internet.

    • All interesting thoughts… I only have brief comments.

      1) Non-state actors seem to be empowered by technology, but governments have no idea how to handle them. I don’t know much about this.

      2) I totally like the idea of a social norm umbrella, and I think that’s possible, especially if one accepts The Better Angels of Our Nature as accurate. At the same time, technology and searching are increasingly tailored to individuals. i.e. it’s easier and easier to live in a little bubble where everyone seems to agree with you. That’s a problem for widespread social norm changes.

      • For the social norm umbrella and cultural blend theory, I am extrapolating (heavily) from Moise Naim’s article from 2009

      • I probably should use more categories when I talk about “non state actors.” Seems a bit of dirty pool in a conversation like this to use a category that encompasses big media, NGOs, and paramilitaries, even if I AM doing that for the laudable purpose of stimulating thought and such. That’s never occurred to me before, so yay! self-criticism.

        I like the idea of the social norm umbrella, too, but haven’t looked into the Pinker, so don’t really have much insight on that, nor a strong position on it that I can actually defend. I will say, though, that my default position is to be skeptical of that sort of argument. If I am completely honest, I’m a realist when it comes to the descriptive and explanatory stuff. I view altruism as an individual phenomenon. I don’t believe nations and governments can be altruistic. At least not in any long-term sense of the word.

      • My adviser would throw a fit about how of course nations can’t be altruistic, because nations don’t have motivations. 😉 Apparently senior papers are extremely prone to anthropomorphizing countries.

        But no, I don’t believe nations can really be altruistic. They can be governed based on prevailing social norms, though.

      • LOL. I can’t stop. Of course they don’t have motivations, and your advisor is right about senior papers. However, nations can and do have interests, which they define for themselves for better or worse.

        Nations may not have feelings (and that is why they cannot be altruistic, I think), but they can certainly engage in profit-seeking behavior. And now, it seems, we have arrived at rational choice theory. Which I recognize but otherwise know very little about. #Mischief.

      • Heh, I happen to think that anthropomorphizing countries can be quite useful… Especially since, as you say, they do have interests.

        Regarding rational choice theory, it seems to be useful under certain circumstances, but people do not behave rationally under MOST circumstances…

      • My favorite part of rational choice theory is the security dilemma. Here is where it becomes increasingly prudent to remove war from the battlefield and/or resort to proxy wars. If you don’t know for sure what another state plans to do, best to lower the stakes as far as possible.

  4. Thanks, @T, for the link. That helps 🙂

    • Fully agree with the skepticism. I don’t fully embrace that model for future political structure, but I find it a very interesting academic discussion point!

      • Well, no. Not for future political structure. That would be very depressing. I am absolutely sympathetic to finding a better way. That view is just what seems to work for making the motivations of states comprehensible as the world exists today, and I believe in starting with things as they are, even though I am all about mouthing off about how things ought to be.

        (Tapping out for the evening, but I will certainly come back to this).

  5. Pingback: Randy Newman, Collaboration Among Bloggers, International Relations Geekery, and other things. | Sourcerer

  6. I am trying to figure out what to say next. I think the thing to do is to agree with this and keep sharing the link to this post (my sharing is not annoying people yet. I can always tell when it gets to be too much, and we aren’t there yet):

    “If you don’t know for sure what another state plans to do, best to lower the stakes as far as possible.”

    That is true in all but a couple of very specific circumstances.

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  8. Reblogged this on Sourcerer and commented:
    I shared this early in the week and promoted it a bit. Saved the reblog for those of you who come around on the weekend. Read this. Please. Reasons:
    1. If you identify yourself as a geek or nerd, claims are being made about your culture which you might want to sound off on.
    2. if you like science fiction, you will love this!
    3. Are you a technophile? This post discusses the 3-D printing of food, Iron Man armor, and shield technology.
    4. Are you an international relations geek? If so take a look a the thread. You’ll find three IR geeks talking about world order models and we would love to meet three more.
    5. Inclined to do me a personal favor? This post is a collaborative effort produced by two of my favorite bloggers in the whole world. I will totally take you leaving a comment on the thread as a personal favor.

  9. Pingback: A Follow Friday for My Friend Hannah | Just Gene'O

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