June 13, 2012

GPS and Technological Autonomy

DARPA is looking to alter the military's reliance on global positioning systems (GPS) lest it be felled by enemy jamming and denial capabilities. The solution? The All Source Positioning and Navigation System (ASPN), an all-in-one system that will incorporate a host of GPS alternatives ranging from radio beacons to stellar navigation systems. W.J. Rue, howerver, tweeted an alternative solution: a map and compass. While this should be contextualized within the perspective of the writer (Rue served with the Marines, a service that places less stock in complex technology than the other services), the GPS to ASPN issue deserves wider comment.

Why is the idea of a map and compass such an radical idea, as opposed to another set of sensors? The answer lies in technological autonomy, a well-known concept in science and technology studies. No, I'm not talking about autonomous killer robots. Rather, the idea, as popularized by Langdon Winner, is that technology is not solely a neutral tool. As the good folks at Cyborgology noted, Winner argues that technology creates networks of dependency:

Technological autonomy is a shorthand way of expressing the idea that our technologies and technological systems have become so ubiquitous, so intertwined, and so powerful that they are no longer in our control. This autonomy is due to the accumulated force of the technologies themselves and also to our utter dependence on them.  …Advanced technologies require vast networks of supportive technologies in order to properly function. Our cars wouldn’t go far without roads, gasoline, traffic control systems, and the like. Electricity needs power lines, generators, distributors, light bulbs, and lamps, together with production, distribution, and administrative systems to put all those elements (profitably) into place. A “chain of reciprocal dependency” is established, Winner says, that requires “not only the means but also the entire set of means to the means.”

Each successive layer of technology creates another layer that locks an actor, organization, or nation to further dependence on mutually interlocking technological assemblages. Each new technological innovation (especially complex military platforms!) rest on a supportive network that is simply difficult to uproot. GPS and other similar systems for mapping, targeting, communication, and coordination are the root of present American military advantage. As previously noted, even new technologies that seem fairly simple when compared to capital-intensive platforms, such as drones and cyber, are underpinned by complex technological and organizational networks. From counter-IED efforts to high-end conventional warfare, we are wedded to network-enabled C4ISR.

But this isn't any different from the variety of ways we experience technological autonomy and implicit trust in complex systems in everyday life. Let's  take a more mundane point of reference--the car. Very few people understand all of the inner workings of their automobile, but find themselves placing a great deal of implicit trust in its operation when they take to the highway. We commit to trusting various complex systems in life, basing our activities around the assumption that they will work the way they are designed. When trouble occurs, we ask experts (the Apple "Genius Bar," for one) to fix them. Technological autonomy and the reality of dependence gradually crowd out alternatives. Netflix, for example, has along with Hulu so dominated the rental market that it displaced brick-and-mortar stores. The remaining physical rental services, like Redbox, have incredibly limited selections.

When facing less technologically advanced enemies, complex technological systems can limit freedom of maneuver. In the Millennium Challenge wargame, Red Team commander Lt. Gen Van Riper reacted to electronic warfare platforms frying his comms by relying on motorcycle messengers and coded messages broadcast from mosque minarets. Van Riper was not rejecting technology, but relying on technologies less vulnerable to adversary disruption. But complex technology also has its benefits against less advanced foes: both manned aircraft and drones entered into American service the same way: intelligence, surveillance, and reconaissance against violent non-state actors. The way Airland Battle-era technologies demolished Iraqi ground and and anti-air forces in 1991 may be exaggerated but still deserves some credit.

We can't undo the set of technological networks our precision-strike and network-centric operations are based on, nor would it be wholly advisable to forgo the advantages such systems bring us. However, one future factor to consider when investing in military technologies is whether increased complexity (and thus layers of dependence) is worth the qualitative edge provided. The suite of technologies we utilized to build the Offset Strategy yielded ample military benefits from 1991-2003. It is less clear, as Bernard Finel observes, whether we can gain similarly disruptive qualitative advantages with new platforms today. Moreover, increased complexity, particularly in tightly coupled systems, brings increased operational risk.