Thinking with Meetings: On the theme of EASST 2018

Lucy Suchman is Professor of the Anthropology of Science and Technology at the Centre for Science Studies at Lancaster University, and was the President of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), 2016-17. 

‘The politics of meetings is not a choice between doing or not doing relations, but rather to think about which actors meet and how.’  With this statement, the organisers of EASST 2018 invite us to think together with the figure of meetings.  Citing the tradition of non-violent resistance established by George Fox and the 17th century movement known as the Society of Friends or Quakers, the conference theme locates us as well within the particular social and cultural landscapes of Lancashire and Northern England.

The theme’s resonances with my own work are multiple, as for many years I’ve been thinking about the interface as a meeting place that enacts difference and connection between bodies and machines. This holds both for the interface as a site of human-machine intra-actions, and as a medium for encounters among humans, for better and for worse.  Among the myriad of forms that these encounters take, my current preoccupation is with those configured within the matrix of armed conflict, and more specifically the architectures of enmity[1] that structure the differences of us and them, friend and enemy that underwrite militarism and violence.  In the company of STS colleagues at Lancaster and more widely, I’m working to understand the sociotechnical relations that hold these formations together, and how they might be disassembled.  One result of this ongoing project, on which I hope to build in the context of the meeting of EASST next year, is a special issue of Science, Technology & Human Values titled ‘Tracking and Targeting: Sociotechnologies of (In)Security,’ co-edited by myself, Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber (Vol 42, No. 6, November 2017).

My work at the moment is centred in two different but related sites.  The first is research and development in immersive simulations for military training, and specifically the archive of a project named FlatWorld, developed at the Institute for Creative Technologies from 2001-2008.  Imagined as an interface for encounters between US soldiers in training and the ‘theaters of operation’ into which they would be deployed, the project promised easily reconfigurable, ‘mixed reality’ environments (including large flat screen digital displays and tangible props), offering ‘realistic’ renderings of Iraqi villages peopled by artificially-intelligent, interactive characters. The successes and failures of the project’s prototypes are symptomatic of the aspirations and limits of associated military and technoscientific imaginaries (see Suchman 2016).

The second site is an international assembly through which a growing body of non-governmental actors engage state representatives around questions of the future of automation in military weapon systems.  More specifically, a coalition headed by Human Rights Watch (and including the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, of which I’m a member) is urging the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to adopt a ban on what have been named lethal autonomous weapon systems.  The next logical step in automation, these weapons would be programmed to identify and attack targets without direct human control.  (My initial writings on this topic can be found here and here.)  Encouraged by the recent success of the International Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and their recognition with the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, the campaign works to advance debate on the illegalities and threats to human rights of these systems, with the goal of a multilateral ban on their development and use.

The interfaces of immersive training simulations, complex weapon systems, and multi-lateral forums are assemblages in which the politics of affiliation and difference are vital. Lancaster’s history of revolutionary commitment to non-violence and social justice comprises an apt legacy for discussions at next summer’s meeting of STS friends.

[1] In The Colonial Present military geographer Derek Gregory observes (2004: 24): ‘The architecture of enmity – like all architectures – is produced and set to work through a repertoire of practices that have performative force. To blunt that force and deflect its violence requires, among other things, an analysis of the dispersed construction sites where the architecture of enmity is put in place and put into practice.’