The Babble out of Buffalo

Tero Karppi, Assistant Professor of Media Studies, SUNY Buffalo

I don’t know why “Killer Robots as cultural techniques,” a recent paper in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, got so much attention, other than that the University put out a press release and it was picked up by Phys.org, the Daily Mail, NewsMax and other outlets, generally with the spin put on it by the press release, that “it’s too late” to stop killer robots, according to “researchers.” I have now seen the paper, and I’m not impressed.

The authors engage in a series of trifling, superficial, pseudo-intellectual observations dressed up in babble and references to the works of other academics you’ve never heard of, plus Marx and Foucault. They affect the superior stance of observers uninvolved in political struggle and indifferent to its outcome, but very concerned that the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is making “epistemological assumptions or claims” about “distinctions between human and machine” that the enlightened authors can see right through:

The campaign’s distinction between human and machine constructs and utilizes historical imaginaries brought to us by the increase of representations of autonomous automation and the cultural techniques that precede these representations . In this way, the human–machine distinction becomes a step in a recursive process through the embeddedness of cultural imaginaries and representations that form the epistemological foundation of the campaign’s category distinction.

I might be old-fashioned, but I still believe distinguishing between humans and machines is useful and meaningful. And what I really care about is not epistemological correctness but stopping this crazy arms race before it leads to nuclear war.The authors have nothing to say about that, of course. They are just keen to criticize the Campaign and position themselves as more cutting-edge, knowing and hipsterish.

In fact, the article frames itself at the outset as a critique of the Campaign, which is cited no less than 25 times in the text. This highlights Mary Wareham’s question in ZDnet: “We’re not sure why the authors of this report chose not contact the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots as they prepared it, but rather draw from our website.” Maybe because they’d found what they needed to dash off a Culture Studies paper and didn’t want anything to complicate their straw-man arguments.

The authors summarize in the last line of the paper:

Thus, while Killer Robots are an obvious manifestation of a historical imaginary of the 21st century, where automation has the potential to become universally destructive for humanity, they are also products of particular cultural techniques which ‘participate in the formation of subjects, as well as constitute ways of knowing and organizing social reality’ (Parikka, 2015: 30).

What I want to shout at them is, YEAH? SO WHAT? DO YOU SUPPORT THE BAN OR NOT? One might infer (weakly) that they do, unless they prefer universal destruction of humanity. However, it seems that this is of at best secondary concern to them. In the real world, the way they posture and the way it has been reflected in media reports serves only to undermine and weaken the call for meaningful and effective arms control.