War in the Age of Intelligent Machines
The depth to which the history of digital technology is bound to military history is fully revealed in this dense but readable book. De Landa comes across as a very level-headed contemporary of French heavy-duties such as Foucault, Baudrillard and Deleuze, blessed with a very American desire to be accessible. Theoretical models—mostly derived from chaos science—are judiciously used to present everything from the evolution of firearms to the development of military think-tanks in a fresh light. But while de Landa is eager to recast your mental image of these processes using chaos concepts (especially the spontaneous manifestation of orderly forms out of turbulence at critical ‘singularities’, and our struggle to track and make use of these points), his eagerness to precisely delineate the intertwined histories of computers and warfare remains the book’s driving force throughout.
Indeed, it is only in the final pages that he presents any clear critique of the war machine. His views are implied throughout, but he never lets his search for cracks in the military-industrial complex obscure a clear, focused portrait.
Naturally, one of the main themes cutting through this book is the gradual emergence of ‘machine intelligence’. Its prehistory is seen in the way that armies began to turn humans into automata that functioned as part of a larger, mechanical engine of destruction. Its present and near-future is seen in the militaristic desire to remove humans from the command-and-control loop entirely, with the development of intelligent weapons that—potentially—will be able to independently track down and kill humans without human intervention.
If all this makes you think of The Terminator and The Matrix, you’d be on the right track. These are glamourous, dummed-down visions dealing with a very critical issue. De Landa’s proposed opposition to the trend towards destructive machine-domination involves exploiting crucial contradictions within this trend (such as the need for decentralised control in the technologies that centralised control systems are developing) and the fostering of more intelligent human-machine interfaces to create a higher symbiosis between us and computers, instead of a blind transfer of power.
Again, these judgements are not passed until the final pages, where you’ll also find what now seems like an archaic reference:
In late 1988 a hacker released the first full-scale “virus” into the INTERNET, a national computer network . . . [p.227]
Written at the beginning of the nineties, around the time of the tech-laden Gulf War, and just before the rise of the World Wide Web, this is both a fascinating snapshot of a turning point in modern culture, and a still-relevant chronicle of the often dark forces that brought us to it.
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