Techno-nationalism and technological innovation

In a fascinating account of the private space programs of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, Christian Davenport explains how the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) has its origins in the geopolitics of the Cold War. From pg 59:

Eisenhower entered the room at 10: 31 a.m., and decided to get right to it, asking, “Do you have any questions for me?” The very first question he faced, from United Press International, was blunter than he was used to: “Mr. President, Russia has launched an Earth satellite. They also claim to have had a successful firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile, none of which this country has done. I ask you, sir, what are we going to do about it?” In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviets’ launches were seen as acts of aggression, expressions of military superiority. In a memo to the White House, C. D. Jackson, a former special assistant to the president who had served in the Office of Strategic Services, wrote that it was “an overwhelming important event—against our side.… This will be the first time they have achieved a big scientific jump on us, ostensibly for peaceful scientific purposes, yet with tremendous military overtones. Up to now, it has generally been the other way around.” If the Soviet Union could put a satellite into orbit, it’s hold the ultimate high ground and could, many feared, rain down missiles on American cities from space. Life magazine compared Sputnik to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and urged the country to “respond as the Minutemen had done then.” Then Texas senator Lyndon Johnson fretted that “soon they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”

This emerged from what the new agency called “traumatic experience of technological surprise” and constituted “a sort of elite special force within the Pentagon made of its best and brightest scientists and engineers” which cut across the entrenched barriers of the established services within the military. I would like to better understand the significance of DARPA in this context, as well as what it might tell us about how techno-nationalism might in future lead to the condensation of funding priorities into new agencies. As Davenport describes it on pg 128:

DARPA was tasked with looking into the future to envision what sorts of technologies the United States would need for the future of war: “To cast a javelin into the infinite spaces of the future” was its motto, a quote from Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Walled off from the rest of the giant Pentagon bureaucracy so that it could innovate freely, the agency strove for nothing short of revolutionary advancement and “engineering alchemy” that would pierce the realm of science fiction. It had been given the authority to hire as it needed, as it sought “extraordinary individuals who are at the top of their fields and are hungry for the opportunity to push the limits of their disciplines.”

It has contributed to the development of a remarkable range of technologies, as detailed by Davenport on pg 128:

During Gise’s time, DARPA, then known as ARPA, was focused on preventing nuclear war and winning the space race. It even helped develop NASA’s Saturn V rocket, which took the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Since then, its reach and influence had broadened. In the late 1960s it started work on what would become ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a network of computers in different geographic locations that became a precursor to the Internet.

Over the years, it helped develop all sorts of technological advancements that have transformed war, and, in some cases, everyday life. DARPA helped give birth to the Global Positioning System (GPS), stealth technology, cloud computing, early versions of artificial intelligence, and autonomous aerial vehicles. As early as the late 1970s, it was working on a “surrogate travel system” that created something like a Google Street View map of Aspen, Colorado. More recently, its work was focused on underwater drones, geckolike gloves designed to enable soldiers to climb walls, humanoid robots, bullets that can change direction, and a blood-cleansing “artificial spleen” to help treat sepsis.

What does this tell us about the future? Probably not very much in itself, though it is interesting to note that the DARPA budget is growing, from $2.97 billion in 2015 to a budget request of $3.44 billion for 2019. If anyone has suggestions of good places to read about developing trends in government funding of technology research, particularly in relation to national security, I’d like to read them. My point in writing this post here is not to lionise ARPA or call for the ‘disruption’ of the military but simply to observe the relationship between geopolitical concerns and technological innovation. If developments such as artificial intelligence, crypto-currency and platformization have increasingly vast geopolitical ramifications then what will this mean for the climate of state investment in emerging technologies? In many ways, the point is an obvious one but making it leaves us squarely within a terrain so mired in ideology (concerning free-markets and technology on the one hand, national security interests on the others) that the full significance of the observation will often be lost.

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