Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Doubt as a free good; or, ‘Product defence’ as an externality

January 28, 2013

The previous post considered advice, courtesy of Joe Biden, that videogame firms should try to ‘improve their public image’, presently mottled by various ‘kinds of evidence linking video games to aggression.’

Impressions, it seems, are everything: videogames firms don’t ‘necessarily need to change anything they’re doing,’ but must instead focus on ‘how they’re perceived by the public’.

This need for decorative gestures comes ‘irrespective of the “truth” of the violence/media debates’, says a vociferous pro-games participant in the latter. Not action but legitimation is called for.

Such PR needs do arise from time to time.

The owners and managers of a business enterprise naturally want to preserve their full dominion over its assets, and the prerogatives (and cash flow) that follow from it.

Thus firms regularly are obliged to undertake defence of a product or activity that, while profitable, also poses a risk or hazard to consumers, employees, the environment, the assets of other firms, etc.

Restrictions on the prerogatives of ownership include many types of government regulation: quality standards, labelling laws, health and sanitation laws, zoning ordinances or land-use restrictions that limit where commercial and industrial structures may be built, commercial licences that control who and where people may operate businesses, minimum-wage laws, anti-discrimination laws, pollution control and monitoring by environmental protection agencies, occupational safety and health regulations, taxation or eminent domain, and establishment of civil remedies.

In ordinary circumstances, it must be said, any hazardous byproducts (negative externalities or ‘market failures’) arising from economic activity, while of course regrettable, are hardly prohibitive.

Both tort law and government regulation aspire to an ‘efficiency standard’, balancing the costs arising from some commercial activity or product against its benefits.

Broadly speaking, if the increment in profits outweighs the decrement in human lives or environmental amenity, according to some arithmetic, the tradeoff is deemed ‘worth it’.

But, in rare circumstances, official opinion may decide that the troublesome product or activity imposes excessive or intolerable burdens upon the state (e.g. medical costs, political instability), upon other special interests (e.g. insurance providers) or upon a powerful and broad social constituency (e.g. the propertied classes as a whole, through higher wage bills or loss of legitimacy for existing social institutions).

In such cases, particular business interests may be sacrificed for the ‘greater good.’ The state may impose regulations limiting the full exercise of property rights, restricting what the offending owners may do with their assets or how their enterprises operate.

Thus the need for corporate ‘product defence’ campaigns.

These are deployed, permanently in some industries, to dispel alarm and forestall the threat of damaged business interests from lower sales revenue, product liability claims, government regulation or outright prohibition.

Cigarette manufacturers, oil corporations, etc. have notoriously employed, or engaged as independent contractors, teams of professional Panglossians.

These ‘merchants of doubt’, co-opted or career, were set up in well-apportioned Potemkin institutions for phony research. Their task was ‘establishing a controversy at the public level’, where no such equivocation existed at the level of peer-reviewed science.

Meanwhile economists like Kip Viscusi provided ad hoc intellectual warrants and boosterism.

Viscusi argued that the addictiveness of cigarettes, as measured by smokers’ responses to rising prices, was comparable to ‘consumer products that people generally do not consider addictive, such as theater and opera, legal services, and barber shops and beauty parlors.’

And anyway, he added, premature deaths caused by smoking save the government the cost of pensions and nursing homes.

Videogame firms face a similar need to defend their product against the risk of regulation, damaging criticism, penalty or suppression.

Duke University economist James T. Hamilton has asserted that, ‘at its core’, media violence ‘is a problem of pollution.’

This is because ‘programmers and advertisers may not take into account the full costs to society of the show they schedule or support.’ Such costs include the desensitization, increased aggression and fear experienced by audiences, particularly children.

So defined, and according to the conventional prescription of ‘public policy’ experts, this means that the remedies for media violence must be similar to the solutions for environmental pollution: zoning (e.g. for broadcast TV, ‘shifting violent programs to times when children are less likely to be in the audience’) or taxation.

Thus several jurisdictions, including the state of California, have attempted to prohibit the sale of violent video games to minors.

Entertainment Software Association - lobbying spending Q3 2012

But the response by videogames firms has been different from that followed by cigarette manufacturers and oil corporations.

Certain features of the product itself and the market for video games, as described below, make it less necessary for firms to directly fund ‘product defence’ by bought-and-paid-for researchers and centrally directed think tanks (which these firms nonetheless do finance).

For several reasons, which are outlined below, the advocacy service is already provided at close to zero expense  by ideologists, consumers, other segments of the mass-communications media and academics.

The latter constitute, I will argue, a decentralized ‘epistemic community’ of like-minded people and linked institutions. Shared incentives (and self-conscious group identity) motivate them to adopt similar beliefs about the harmlessness of violent video games, ignoring (for both psychological and commercial reasons) available information that disconfirms such beliefs.

But the first reason can be dealt with briefly, since it is least relevant to my point in this post.

Any statement regarding the harmfulness of video games products can simply be trumped (in the US) by brandishing the First Amendment, thereby activating the professional guild values of journalists and academics.

A seemingly dispositive argument can be made that commercial videogames are constitutionally-protected speech, including when addressed to minors and involving extreme violence. Thus their sale is immune from restriction or impediment, ‘even where protection of children is the object’ (Antonin Scalia).

This line has been advanced by the Cato Institute, the corporate mega-lobby ALEC, the industry-funded think tank The Media Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Progress and Freedom Organization.

In 2011 it was supported 7-2 by the Supreme Court in Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association, striking down the Californian statute.

Since ‘there is no exception for violence’, voluntary ‘self-regulation’ by the industry and ‘parental empowerment’ are the only responses available to ‘what some people think is offensive’ (legal counsel for Michael Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association).

If so desired, the syllogism may be extended to a broader claim: any critical scrutiny of a ‘creative’ product violates the First Amendment rights of its maker.

A recent example appears in the breathtakingly disingenuous statement issued by a Sony Entertainment spokeswoman, in response to criticism from within Hollywood of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty: ‘The film should be judged free of partisanship. To punish an artist’s right of expression is abhorrent. This community, more than any other, should know how reprehensible that is.’

A second feature of video games is much more important in explaining why the industry’s PR defence occurs, in large part, without the involvement of centrally organized or directly paid agents.

Like with many media, information and entertainment products, the market for video games exhibits what economists call ‘network externalities’.

When this feature is present, the value or benefit of a product is increasing in its popularity or number of users. Additional users make the product more valuable or appealing (i.e. increase the willingness of buyers to purchase it at the going price).

Sellers duly profit from this cascade or bandwagon effect.

adopters to a network

With videogame consoles and other platforms, an increase in the number of one type of user (customers or game players) increases the number of another type of user (content providers or game developers).

A pair of mainstream economists explain how this works:

Buyers of videogame consoles want games to play on; game developers pick platforms that are or will be popular among gamers…

Videogame platforms, such as Nintendo, Sega, Sony Play Station, and Microsoft X-Box, need to attract gamers in order to convince game developers to design or port games to their platform, and need games in order to induce gamers to buy and use their videogame console. Software producers court both users and application developers, client and server sides, or readers and writers. Portals, TV networks and newspapers compete for advertisers as well as “eyeballs”. And payment card systems need to attract both merchants and cardholders.

The console firms design and manufacture hardware, then contract out to independent game developers to provide games for the platform (as well as producing their own in-house titles). They may finance the developer’s large fixed costs.

The independent developer pays a fixed fee to the console maker for use of proprietary software development tools (the ‘devkit’), then also pays a per-unit licensing royalty on sales. These IP royalties, a form of rent, are the principle source of profit for the console producers and ‘publishers’.

Two-sided markets with network externalities

More crucially, like many segments of the media industry, video games exhibit indirect and ‘cross-market’ network externalities.

This means that the value of other products is increasing in the popularity of video games. These complementary products find their usefulness to buyers is enhanced as video games themselves have more buyers.

For example, growth in the number of users of particular software increases the attactiveness of a complementary component, console or other hardware  such as an HD TV, a speedy Internet connection or PC, a new handheld device and so on.

There are spillovers across markets: the more buyers a game has, the more attractive becomes brand or merchandise tie-ins, the more advertising and games journalism can occur, the more likely becomes permission to use proprietary material (music and film) in return for per-unit royalty fees, and so on.

Sony famously tried to increase demand for its Blu-ray discs, and its revenues as a movie studio, by bundling a Blu-ray player into its Playstation 3 console.

Entertainment Software Association president Mike Gallagher described this feature of video games in a speech to the Institute for Policy Innovation, a right-wing think tank:

[As] gamers know – and economists have confirmed — the demand for great video and computer game experiences also drives sales of complementary products and services, such as for broadband and high-definition TVs. Our industry stimulates complementary product purchases of roughly $6.1 billion a year in the U.S. alone. These purchases are also spread around to businesses large and small.

Network externalities mean that the greater the number of consumers purchasing and using video games, the larger is demand in several other distinct markets.

This includes others not mentioned by Gallagher, among them the mass communications media, advertising, journalism and other opinion-making fields. All may experience mutually increasing demand for their product as the number of people adopting and playing video games grows.

This translates into material rewards and personal advantage: higher profits (or rents) for owners and higher earnings (or other labour-market success) for employees in these complementary markets.

Along with games consumers themselves, these providers of complementary products (whose returns increase with the usage of video games) therefore have incentives to provide the games industry with ‘product defence’, flattery and boosterism. Thus they can be found disseminating cheerful claims that violent video games are neither a public-health threat nor morally objectionable.

Success really does provide its own justification. Self-conscious individual corruption is not necessary. Motivated belief formation (‘wishful thinking’, dissonance reduction or effort justification) is sufficient to persuade most people that whatever brings them rewards and a livelihood can’t be altogether bad.

The familiar dynamics of belief transmission in tightly clustered social networks then apply, with epistemic contagion ensuring that all members share credence in the safety of violent video games.

As explained by two rapt economic theorists  among the chief academic ideologues of our postmodern infoculture  the dynamics of network effects (which also support so-called consumer ‘subcultures’) are also those of conformity and herd behaviour.

Increasing returns in the market for video games (and thence for related products) provide a scaffold for the propagation of beliefs about the soundness of the product.

In other words, there is no need for video-games firms to follow the example of tobacco firms. The latter had to seek out Reader’s Digest and persuade Edward R. Murrow to cease the damaging coverage of their product. In the presence of strategic complementarity, however, good press and favourable PR take care of themselves.

Ultimately the video games industry is tied to other sections of the media, information and entertainment industry  by direct threads of ownership, credit, cross-subsidy, and labour-market adjacency  in ways that did not apply for Philip Morris or Exxon.

Thanks to this relationship, there is a standing army of journalists, bloggers and opinion-makers who will reliably leap to the defence of games without needing to be bamboozled or force-fed talking points.

(See the scornful online article in Condé Nast publication Vanity Fair about Biden’s meeting: ‘Didn’t Tipper Gore resolve the “violent video games” issue shortly after she heard Prince for the first time, in 1985, and insisted on warning labels on CDs and game packaging? Apparently not.’)

Of course, it is true that tabloid TV programs, newspapers and talk-radio presenters do periodically suggest  usually following some mass shooting  that violent video games may have deleterious effects on their users or on society.

But so do they regularly rail against the greed of banks and the venality and corruption of politicians.

This never seriously threatens the continued existence or positions of the latter, any more than the commercial survival of a profitable branch of the entertainment industry is endangered by the feeble, short-lived denunciations of ‘old media’ commentators.  (Such critical beliefs about e.g. banks, which find no outlet in the electoral system or within reach of any available levers of popular influence, are allowed only inchoate and limited expression. They may thereby be channelled into such useful directions as racism, scapegoating, etc., or  leveraged for authoritarian or reactionary purposes, or deliberately stoked by one powerful group to win bargaining power over another.)

Most ‘anti-games’ media commentators, of course, are employed or paid  by a firm that itself is a subsidiary of some conglomerate or holding company (Vivendi, Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, etc.) that also owns firms publishing, developing, marketing or distributing video games.

Traders in the language of ‘old media’ and ‘new media’ take their generational framework quite literally, as though novel industries within the consumer-entertainment sector must inevitably compete with and displace traditional and existing ones, much as each human generation must physically supplant that which it succeeds.

Thus the argument from ‘moral panic’, or ‘technopanic’ as Cato’s Adam Thierer would have it. (Thierer is former president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a ‘market-oriented think tank that studies the impact of the digital revolution’, funded by the Entertainment Software Association and the world’s largest media corporations. He now is at George Mason’s Mercatus Center.)

As I’ve shown, remonstrating against ‘moral panic’ has been deployed to great effect by Christopher Ferguson and others to deter all criticism of violent video games.

The claim presented here (packaged in the language of 1970s ‘left-wing’ sociology) is that ‘old media’ entities are fogeyish cultural ‘authorities’ seeking to preserve their privileges. They are resistant to novelty, such as is found in ‘new media’ products like video games.

This argument is calculated to push all sorts of buttons and win a broad, ramified constituency.

The ‘knowledge economy’ rhetoric is chosen to win the allegiance of a self-identified ‘creative class’, which looks favourably upon new forms of entertainment, information and communications technology. Borrowing from the sociology of deviance, meanwhile, aims to attract ‘progressives’ who sympathize with the marginalized.

Onto this is grafted the the intellectually fashionable idea of ‘belief contagion’, fear cascades and popular risk hysteria, developed by Cass Sunstein.

The result is a neat contrarian package, unassailable by anyone who considers themselves to be ‘sophisticated.’


But there is no reason games can’t merely supplement existing media, and became part of the asset portfolio of existing media giants (Activision, for example, is now a subsidiary of Vivendi, having been started during the 1970s as an independent company by disgruntled Atari games developers).

Indeed, due to the high fixed costs and low marginal costs involved in digital production and distribution, it seems inevitable that the sector should exhibit economies of scale and thus create barriers to entry. Its surviving firms are destined to become subsidiaries of (or to go on licensing intellectual property from) some conglomerate or holding company.

development costs

Few avowedly ‘progressive’ people have sympathy for such corporate media behemoths as Sony, Microsoft, etc. They may however be induced, by what Thomas Frank called ‘market populism’, to express enthusiasm for the venture-capital driven world of games.

In this sector, small and scrappy developers and start-up companies (and later small- and medium-sized enterprises) have few assets and thus are credit constrained.

These firms therefore rely on private equity finance from Silicon Valley. As shown above, they also feed money into the pockets of those large companies (oligonomies, to use Steve Hannaford’s term) that own the platform for independent content producers and the distribution system for customers (Apple’s iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Rhapsody, etc., and the three big games-console makers, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft), as well as to those that aggregate and allow mining of massive data sets to build fortunes from advertising brokerage (Google, Facebook).

This leads on to the third reason why the video games industry has not needed to rely upon centrally organized ‘merchants of doubt’, nor ‘astroturf’ through paid agents, to defend their products.

The network externalities of the videogames industry reach all the way to academia, thanks especially to the contemporary commercialization of the university.

Consider the remark made by Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost in The Atlantic about the visit by games industry CEOs to the White House for Biden’s meeting:

[Public] opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education… Truly, we cannot win.

‘We’, says the faculty member of a state university about ‘my colleagues in the games industry’.

There now are many humanities and social science scholars, faced with shrinking faculty budgets, stingy hiring policies and poor tenure prospects, who in desperation have hitched their wagon to a rapidly growing segment of the entertainment industry.

These academics have perceived a confluence of fortunes: as the games industry goes, so do they. As Bogost says, they naturally seek to acquire ‘cultural legitimacy’ for their medium.

An acknowledgement of video games’ good standing  as a respectable non-hazardous part of the culture, a ‘diverse and robust mass medium’, worthy of journal articles and monographs  is needed if these ambitious academics are to succeed in capturing a permanent seat at the table (perhaps fusing with cinema studies or even sitting alongside it as rough equals).

Therefore many of these scholars are obliged to defend violent games and to furnish the desired ‘no proof of harm’ arguments, come what may.

(Consider Texas A&M psychologist Chrisopher’s Ferguson’s comical attempt to argue against the well-supported hypothesis that violent games desensitize users to violence. The recently published study involved his student participants watching an episode of the programs Law and Order: SVU, Bones or Once Upon a Time, then failing to self-report reduced empathy when subsequently shown violent footage. Here we can add a corollary to the argument about the unique situation faced by defenders of video games in the academy. On average, peer review forms less of a barrier to publishing worthless or spurious results in social science or humanities journals than in the natural sciences.)

Many videogames scholars are precariously ensconced in academia: lowly adjuncts who receive no White House invitations. They are obliged to supplement their teaching income through paid work linked to the games industry (e.g. promotion, development, journalism).

Others, with stabler positions and savings to play with, can risk starting up their own firms (Bogost is one, though it seems unlikely to me that his above use of the collective first-person pronoun referred to this).

Such varieties of dependence and forms of extramural interaction create a commonality of both personnel and interests, tying the commercial success of a product to the scholarly work based on it. This increases feelings of affiliation. This sense of shared fate is not mistaken, and leads to unabashed scholarly apologetics for video games.

Amid the laudation, scope exists for some academics to engage in ‘criticism’ of certain aspects of the videogames industry and its products. But such reproaches are only of the nourishing, tough-love type that ultimately has the industry’s welfare at heart. Bogost’s encomium captures the general tone.

For all these reasons, there seems little requirement for videogames firms to orchestrate a subterranean ‘product defence’ by funding dedicated merchants of doubt. There are plenty of respectable and motivated people who perform the cheerleading task already as a sideline to their day job.

Now comes the final and perhaps most crucial reason why videogames firms have not had to spend more on paid agents and front groups to undertake a political defence of violent games (though expenditure on ‘government relations’ professionals is indeed enormous: the ESA typically spends more than $1 million per quarter on K Street lobbyists).

The US state leadership is committed to the promotion of militarism and violence.

Therefore the fact that members of the country’s population are presented with large doses of realistically depicted violence as ‘entertainment’  thereby being brutalized from early childhood  must prompt little concern, and provoke some pleasure, in ruling circles.

In a submission to a US Senate committee investigating violent media products, Thierer wrote:

Many people — including many children — clearly have a desire to see depictions of violence… Could it be the case, then, that violent entertainment — including violent video games — actually might have some beneficial effects? From the Bible to Beowulf to Batman, depictions of violence have been used not only to teach lessons, but also to allow people — including children — to engage in sort of escapism that can have a therapeutic effect on the human psyche. It was probably Aristotle who first suggested that violently themed entertainment might have such a cathartic effect on humans…

One might just as easily apply this thinking to many of the most popular video games children play today, including those with violent overtones…

This echoes Judge Posner’s opinion in the Kendrick case that: ‘To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.’

In what Thierer called a ‘blistering tour-de-force’, Posner ‘[explained] how exposure to violently-themed media helps to gradually assimilate us into the realities of the world around us.’

But what did the eminent Posner mean by the ‘world as we know it’?

His 2001 judgement (on an Indianapolis ordinance banning ‘gratuitously violent’ games in arcades) had gone on curiously:

Now that eighteen-year-olds have the right to vote, it is obvious that they must be allowed the freedom to form their political views on the basis of uncensored speech before they turn eighteen, so that their minds are not a blank when they first exercise the franchise… People are unlikely to become well-functioning, independent-minded adults and responsible citizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble.

So Posner’s defence of hyper-violent video games was that they mould the political views of children, making of them responsibile citizens ready to exercise political judgement. Lacking such inputs they would, apparently, make unreliable voters.

What callowness did games erase: what reality were children being prepared for?

Some idea may come from another submission to the same Senate commitee hearing on violent games, this one  by David Horowitz, director of the industry lobby group the Media Coalition.

Horowitz put it thus:

The impossibility of distinguishing “acceptable” from “unacceptable” violence is a fundamental problem with government regulation in this area. The evening news is filled with images of real violence in Iraq and Afghanistan routinely perpetrated by the “bad” guys. Often this horrific violence goes unpunished. It would be virtually impossible for the government to create a definition that would allow “acceptable” violence but would restrict “unacceptable” violence.


Muddying the waters

January 23, 2013

A fortnight ago, in what the US vice president billed as a commensal experience, Joe Biden, Eric Holder and Katherine Sebelius hosted senior executives from Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and other videogames firms at the White House.

The chief of the Entertainment Software Association, the industry lobby group for firms such as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, also attended along with several ‘independent researchers’.

This event was part of the Obama administration’s ‘gun violence task force’, a work of lustration designed to provide uplift after the Connecticut elementary school massacre.

Biden had previously mingled with representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Broadcasters, Comcast, Wal-Mart Stores and the NRA.

Texas A&M associate professor Christopher Ferguson, whose work on video games I’ve discussed here and here, was apparently one of the ‘independent researchers’ to attend Biden’s meeting with videogames industry CEOs.

Ferguson later described Biden’s remarks to his assembled visitors:

His message, to a large degree, was, ‘Whether or not there are any kinds of evidence linking video games to aggression, what are things the industry could do to improve its image?’…

As much as anything, he seemed to be encouraging them to think about their public image, irrespective of the ‘truth’ of the violence/media debates. I don’t know if they were quite there yet, I think they were trying to emphasize that they are not part of the problem, which is understandable, whereas VP Biden was trying to emphasize that even if they are not part of the problem they could be part of the solution…

I think he was inviting the industry to consider basically ways that it could improve its image among non-gamers.

Ferguson said that ‘Biden encouraged the video game industry to consider ways of better educating the public.’ Biden was quoted as saying: ‘I come to this meeting with no judgment. You all know the judgment other people have made.’

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Ferguson said that today’s conference showed him that the game industry doesn’t ‘necessarily need to change anything they’re doing,’ but instead focus on ‘how they’re perceived by the public.’

‘What the industry needs to do is take the Vice President’s advice and really think about: what are some positive things that the industry can do? Public education campaigns about the ERSB [the self-regulatory Entertainment Software Rating Board] rating systems, trying to avoid some blatant missteps like having a gun manufacturer as part of their website, that kind of stuff,’ Ferguson said, referring to a controversial campaign in which Electronic Arts embedded links to weapons manufacturers’ products in the promotional website for its military shooter “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.”

The key participants in this charade, one can surmise, would rather the public have been spared details of everything but Biden’s puffy platitudes (‘An incident that I think we can all agree sort of shocked the conscience of the American people’, ‘There are no silver bullets’, etc.).

A senior elected official advising corporate executives on how better to manipulate the populace to advance the commercial interests of their privately-owned firms – while no doubt a common occurrence – is not a spectacle intended for transmission to a mass audience via media outlets.

So we have reason to be grateful for the candid post-meeting deposition by the media-friendly Ferguson. (He also was given a platform in Time magazine to defend violent games following last December’s mass shooting. Unsurprisingly, he emitted the conventional wisdom on the topic: Gun control + mental health services! His earlier analysis of the Batman cinema massacre in Colorado: ‘[If] it wasn’t Batman it would be something else… Trying to make sense of it is pointless.’)

Not for Ferguson, it seems, the giddy engouement usually inspired in intellectuals by proximity to wealth and power. Could such intimacies with Top People, of a lesser sort, have become familiar?

Ferguson observed that visiting Biden at the White House had made videogames firms appear ‘helpful’, and declared he was ‘cautiously optimistic’.

Indeed, received welcomingly or not, the advice given by the politician and the academic – that the industry should ‘improve its image’ by ‘educating the public’, ‘irrespective of the truth’ – was astute.

How might such a strategy be implemented?

The recent history of corporate PR campaigns – marshalled in defence of a maligned or hazardous product, and deployed to forestall the threat of lower sales revenue, product liability claims, government regulation or outright prohibition – provides the videogames industry with a successful template for muddying the waters.

There exist dedicated consulting firms that specialize in ‘product defence’ and ‘litigation support’, including the Weinberg GroupChemRisk and Exponent.

The work of these firms is nowadays studied under the name of agnotology. It usually involves suggesting that ‘debate’ or ‘controversy’  exists within a scholarly discipline or research community when in fact there is little or none.

‘Manufacturing uncertainty’ may be done by funding or promoting masses of research (legitimate as well as illegitimate, peer-reviewed alongside hackwork), at dedicated think tanks as well as independent academic institutions. Then it is pumped it into the mass media to create an apparent diversity of ‘expert’ opinion.

Cacophony leads to doubt among the lay populace over the true state of scientific knowledge, and thus reduces credence regarding their own inferences: ‘results are inconclusive’, ‘the jury is still out’, ‘the science is unsettled’, etc.

The locus classicus of these ‘epistemic filibuster’ techniques is from December 1953. Then, the CEOs of Philip Morris, Benson and Hedges, American Tobacco and US Tobacco met at the Plaza Hotel in New York, following the publication of research on the carninogenic effects of cigarettes.

There the tobacco executives contracted the PR firm Hill and Knowlton. Hill and Knowlton quickly recommended a strategy:

The underlying purpose of any activity at this stage should be reassurance of the public through wider communication of facts to the public. It is important that the public recognize the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of cancer.

The PR firm advised the cigarette manufacturing firms to establish a Tobacco Industry Committee for Public Information. It would promote ‘general awareness of the big IF issues involved’ with the aim of ‘establishing a controversy at the public level.’

Equivocation and doubt about the validity of scientific evidence was created by recruiting well-credentialled scholars.

Since at this time ‘the case against tobacco was far from proven’, these consulting scholars would minutely examine the conduct of epidemiological and animal studies, question the precise shape of the dose-response curve relating exposure to ill effects, highlight ignorance or uncertainty about the specific causal mechanism involved, point to latency in response patterns, and sift through meta-analyses searching for gaps, errors or possible confounds.

The resulting ‘strong body of scientific data or opinion in defense of the product’ helped cigarette manufacturing firms to successfully defend themselves against tort claims for many decades (note, however, that this was not due to a duped public: many ‘landmark’ jury findings that awarded damages for product liability were overturned by appellate judges).

doubt is our product

These same obfuscatory procedures were subsequently used to delay recognition of the existence or harmful effects of toxic waste, the role of CFCs in ozone layer depletion, global warming caused by GHG emissions, asbestos, the nuclear-winter scenario and DDT.

The doubt-mongering agnotological template is followed expertly by the following article on the videogames website Kotaku, a Gawker Media blog.

The article purports to inform readers of the up-to-the-minute scholarly state of play (‘everything we know today’) concerning the psychological effects of violent video games:

‘[The] question of whether violent video games lead to aggression has been hotly debated’; ‘Some scientists have concluded that…’; ‘Others argue that…’; ‘It’s a debate that has been going on for over 25 years. And it shows no signs of stopping’; ‘video game violence has been criticized and scrutinized for decades now. You’ve probably heard the theories, maybe even voiced them… For gamers, this is all tired ground’; ‘On one side of the argument are…’; ‘Then there’s the other side of the argument, supported by… The evidence, this camp says, just isn’t conclusive’; ‘So scientists are divided, to say the least’; ‘Can we really link verbal or physical abuse to a test that seems so strange? It’s measures like this—and really, the ambiguity of “aggression” as a psychological concept—that have made professors like Chris Ferguson skeptical of today’s research, even when the evidence seems conclusive; ‘You don’t need a doctorate to know that the human brain is a complex machine, and that nothing about our behavior is predictable. There’s nothing exact about social science’; ‘Whether you believe that the link between violent video games and aggression is clear or you think the science is too faulty to mean anything—and there are strong cases on both sides…’; ‘So maybe the data speaks for itself: maybe there is a clear link between video games and aggression’; ‘Or maybe Chris Ferguson is right, and today’s research is too inconclusive to determine any causal links. It certainly can’t hurt to be more skeptical about what you see in the media.’

Thus, with perfect symmetry, does a lay audience encounter both sides of the story.

Readers learn of Ferguson’s queries about the relevance of standard psychological experimental techniques, such as word-completion tasks and Stroop tasks. They read his scepticism about the usefulness of such methods for detecting the priming effects of exposure to a presented stimulus (e.g. aggressive thoughts and feelings provoked by playing a violent video game).

They are told about possible confounds and other methodological qualms. They witness Ferguson shuttling between accusations that no media-violence effect exists, and admissions that any effect must, at any rate, be of negligible magnitude or, at least, ‘rather weak’.

Is the average reader of Kotaku equipped to judge this for what it is? Or does he or she instead perceive it as an arcane intra-disciplinary ‘debate’ between colleagues, unresolved and still in progress, with ‘both sides’ worthy of a hearing?

All of this is familiar to the historian of agnotology and ‘product defence’.

But today’s videogame firms have several advantages that their predecessors in other industries lacked.

Due to these advantages, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony may not find it necessary or expedient to build Potemkin research institutions or fund bogus research by dedicated ‘merchants of doubt’.

In particular, due to the presence of what economists call ‘network externalities’, consumers of video games and providers of complementary products (including firms producing other entertainment and media goods, as well as journalists and even academics) already find it worthwhile to provide the videogames industry with ‘product defence’.

The latter comes free of charge and without needing to be organized directly.

While the market (and the commercialized university) provides a PR service in this costless and decentralized fashion, there is no pressing reason to set up, fund and oversee centralized think tanks or intramural collectives. Why add noise to a communication channel that already is sufficiently contaminated?

I’ll explain and develop this idea in the next post.

Rewarding and pleasurable

March 4, 2012

Where ‘moral panic’ is invoked to deter criticism of some aspect of the existing state of affairs, deeply apologetic attitudes can often be found lurking.

Behind the critical pose — reproachful of popular risk perceptions, derisive of the quackery and hysteria promoted by commercial TV, talk radio and tabloid press — lies a Panglossianism based on special-group interests or career ambition.

Three of the figures quoted in a previous post — Steven Pinker, Christopher J. Ferguson and Robert Corn-Revere — lent their credentials as amici curiae on the side of the Entertainment Merchants Association during the US Supreme Court case which decided the fate of a Californian law restricting sale of violent video games to minors.

Ferguson’s generally complacent, uncritical attitude towards the providers of media entertainment goods is evident throughout his many publications. Most attack the supposed ‘exaggerations’ of psychologists and pediatricians who use media-effects theory and social-learning theory to suggest that watching TV or playing video games may lead to behaviour modification.

This includes taking the shallowest industry PR at face value.

In an article that considers whether depiction of violence or sex in TV advertisements ‘may produce deleterious effects on adult and child viewers’, Ferguson and his co-authors offer the following:

A theoretical framework for understanding the effectiveness of television advertised [sic] is worth discussion. This paper endorses a model of understanding advertising and marketing in which their influence is more informative than behavior changing per se. In other words, advertising’s power is not in making people buy things they do not already have an inclination to buy, but rather in  directing people toward  specific brands. The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines marketing as

‘‘Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large’’ (AMA, 2007).

For example, a person is unlikely to buy cola unless they have tasted it or something similar in the past and enjoyed it. Advertising makes that cola enjoying person more inclined to choose a brand they identify with such as Coke or Pepsi, and eschew lesser known, potentially cheaper brands. Advertising, then, does not create massive behavior change, or shape people’s core personality or beliefs. It does nudge people in the direction of particular product brands the result of which can be windfall profits for those brands (see Kotler & Keller, 2009). Even relatively new products must appeal largely to existing consumer needs or wants.

Elsewhere he has sought to absolve media images of extremely thin women of their hypothesized causal role, via the internalization of impossible ideals and promotion of body dissatisfaction, in the etiology of eating disorders. Instead he has pointed the finger at sexual selection and between-peer female competition for mates: ‘body dissatisfaction is conceived as an often functional response to a woman’s perceived bodily shortcomings.’

Ferguson also has used evolution of the Pleistocene brain in the ancestral environment, etc. to explain the popularity of hyper-violent video games.

This leads him, like Pinker, to pronounce on the violent proclivities of people living before (or without) the domestication of plants and animals, and to sneer at the lily-livered weaklings who have renounced their ancestral birthright:

Much of the discussion of aggression in the social sciences began with an assumption that aggression is an inherently bad thing, both for the individual as well as for society as large… However, aggressiveness may also have positive benefits and indeed be evolutionarily adaptive, particularly in moderate amounts. Moderate aggressiveness may aid us in defending ourselves and our family, standing up for our beliefs, seeking high-status positions in society, developing leadership, excelling in sports and many careers, enduring hardships, etc. These are behaviors that increase social status and reproductive success. Indeed, some scholars have recognized that aggressiveness, particularly when allowed to be defined broadly, may have more positive qualities than negative…

The observation that aggression is an evolutionary adaptation which provides a selective advantage to those individuals who possess a moderate level of the trait is at odds with much of the lingo and dogma of social science across the latter 20th century. Historically it had been assumed that aggression and violence were learned behaviors, shaped largely by environmental influences including family and peers, but also media effects. Increasingly, evidence has demonstrated that this tabula rasa (i.e. blank slate) view of aggression has been mistaken and that there are strong genetic roots to aggressive and violent behaviour…

Humans, perhaps like many other creatures, find violent acts to be intrinsically rewarding and pleasurable. There are exceptions to this, of course (and perhaps those exceptions go on to become social scientists wedded to tabula rasa views of aggression), however there is little argument that violent media, and violent video games are overwhelmingly popular.

With this, the mocking of anti-violence thinkers as moral-panicking girlie men, we have something a little worse than mere business advocacy or industry shilling. Ferguson is helping, advertently or not, to encourage a contemporary shift in social norms. In the new equilibrium, a taste for extreme violence (and its enjoyment for entertainment purposes) isn’t to be met (as it was in the old) with ostracism, sanction, shunning or disapproval. It isn’t maladaptive: we are ‘natural born killers.’

Increasingly, individuals with a preference for violence are to be tolerated and lauded.

It’s unclear whether this shift in norms is an accident or a project. Perhaps, as the economist James T. Hamilton has suggested, the oversupply of media violence is a ‘blind’ aggregate effect of individual firms acting singly in pursuit of their own ends. Or maybe there is coordinated collective action under way, with some people acting jointly in pursuit of definite political goals (deliberately fostering a remaking of preferences to support greater tolerance for violence).

If this sounds implausible or absurd, we should consider the motives behind what Australian historian Marilyn Lake recently described as the ‘relentless militarisation of Australian history’, with federal and state governments ‘actively fostering’ pro-war attitudes. As Lake describes, this effort includes a ‘mass education program’ including the ‘systematic distribution’ of curriculum materials to all primary and secondary school students.

What, me worry?

February 25, 2012

Terms such as ‘moral panic’ and ‘folk devil’ – taken from the sociology of deviance and ‘labelling theory’ – are increasingly being deployed as catchphrases in debates about risk assessment, product liability and consumer regulation.

Who is this rhetoric aimed at and how does it work?

It’s rare enough for a phrase, having originated in one narrow corner of the academy, to make the leap across disciplinary boundaries and enter into broader scholarly usage.

It’s even less common for such a phrase to wander unchecked from the pages of scholarly journals, pass clean through the porter’s lodge and emerge, blinking like a mole, as an everyday watchword or rallying cry, borrowed regularly for legal advocacy and general journalistic usage.

To do so, such a favoured trope must possess (as both ‘moral panic’ and ‘folk devil’ do in spades) an uncommon sort of vividness and memorability. It must convey the speaker’s specialized knowledge while being intelligible to all. If it comes from the humanities or social sciences, it will lack the ready-made authority and easy glamour commanded by technical terms from the natural sciences. Its hopes for lexical survival rest on its figurative qualities, used for persuasive or rhetorical purposes.

But it can’t be functional for just any old end. To thrive in the world of opinion columns and other centralized, commercially-owned, advertising-driven communication platforms, it must serve the purposes of the powerful (whose conscious contrivance is not necessarily involved – though it can’t be ruled out).

And when such a term originates, as in this case, from putatively ‘left-wing’ scholarship, its suitability for use in mainstream outlets of political and cultural debate requires the fulfillment of one final condition.

The loanword must appeal to native speakers of the donor language from which it is borrowed.

Thus ‘moral panic’ and related terms are used, quite cynically, by the sort of people who blog for the Volokh Conspiracy, work at George Mason University, sideline at Cato or the Manhattan Institute, and who favour a jurisprudential doctrine placing property rights ahead of labour regulations and consumer-protection torts.

They seek, by employing such terms, to persuade a particular audience.

The latter is made up mostly of left-liberal people, who may have studied a bit of criminology, sociology or cultural studies, or who otherwise have acquired a stock of half-remembered phrases (e.g. ‘moral panic’) from reading group-appropriate opinion columns, bien-pensant editorials, reportage from approved periodicals, think-tank publications, and Serious and Responsible blogs.

These familiar phrases are supposed, when heard, to function as cues prompting such audience members to apply the appropriate mental response. Even if he knows nothing else, the ideal listener knows this: A person like me – progressive, tolerant and urbane – doesn’t go in for moral panics! In responding thus to the speaker’s appeal, the listener preserves his in-group identity, and signals tribal membership to his peers (an important goal in this milieu). The speaker meanwhile gains an ally.

In its original formulation, a ‘moral panic’ was said to occur when some behaviour common to (usually) juvenile ‘deviants’ was ‘presented in a stylized or stereotypical fashion by the mass media’, the latter driven by an ‘institutionalized need to create news’, then defined as a threat to the adult social order by ‘editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people… agents of social control, or law enforcement, lawmakers and politicians, and action groups’.

The objects of moral panics, in the concept’s initial guise, included the behaviour of Mods and Rockers, hippies, Hells Angels, paedophiles and Teddy Boys. The latter were then labelled (so the theory went) as folk devils.

Since these categories were not especially analytically rigorous to begin with, they were easily transferable and soon applied, often in absurd fashion, to various types of people and behaviour.

But in the latest twist, moral panic and related terms have been applied to an entirely different class of phenomena. Previously the term was used to describe hysteria surrounding a ‘condition, episode, person or group of persons’.

But moral panic, in its new sense, may now refer to ‘excessively’ critical treatment (by members of the public, concerned scholars or some figures in the mass media) of a saleable good or service, or to ‘disproportionately’ negative discussion of an industry or sector. It may describe a wave of litigation, criminal proceedings or government-imposed regulations. And, rather than the object of a moral panic being (as in the term’s original guise) a threat to a society’s prevailing norms, these new objects may simply be considered hazardous to the health, safety or environment of a population.

(This new usage, as I’ll explain below, originated with Stuart Hall, Martin Jacques and the other ‘Gramscian’ Eurocommunists at the CPGB’s Marxism Today. During the 1980s this Stalinist group brokered the British Labour Party’s final accommodation with the market economy. To achieve this reconciliation its academic ideologues came up with a less critical, more ‘nuanced’ analysis of market consumption).

Here is Norm Keith, a Canadian OHS lawyer:

It is suggested that corporations, especially large, publicly traded corporations, are easy targets of moral panic, leading to a more stringent punishment. When organisations are blamed for unsafe drinking water, workplace deaths and loss of one’s life savings, strong legislative and enforcement are demanded by the media and the public. Since a corporation, apart from directors and officers, cannot be incarcerated for crimes, the public and media may mischaracterise the corporation as above or beyond the law. This leads to a general distain [sic] for the entity itself, even though the corporation as a separate legal entity has tremendous economic, social and public importance and benefit to modern society. The process of labelling a corporation as powerful, unaccountable and socially irresponsible fuels media, public and political outrage and action to prosecute corporations. When the rhetoric of social panic threatens perceived order in modern society, strong political action often follows.

This is an extreme example of an obviously silly argument unlikely to persuade anyone who doesn’t already possess strong pro-corporate leanings.

But what about when similar arguments are employed to deter criticism of an industry, company or cultural product that itself dons the mantle of rebellion and plucky anti-corporatism? In that case, they may successfully persuade some well-intentioned people with vaguely anti-establishment agendas and ‘progressive’ political leanings.

The following example comes from Robert Corn-Revere, adjunct at the Cato Institute and counsel for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Here he describes a Californian law (struck down on First Amendment grounds by the US Supreme Court) which restricted sales of violent video games to minors:

The California law represents a long tradition of suppressing media popular among the young. These recurring campaigns are typified by exaggerated claims of adverse effects of popular culture on youth based on pseudoscientific assertions of harm that are little more than thinly veiled moral or editorial preferences. Such censorship crusades have been mounted against dime novels, ragtime music, cinema, comic books, television, and, now, video games.

This phenomenon even has a name among social scientists; it is called a “moral panic”…

Here is Steven Pinker, writing in defence of violent video games and other ‘new media’ in a New York Times op-ed piece:

New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.

So too with electronic technologies. PowerPoint, we’re told, is reducing discourse to bullet points. Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrinking our attention spans.

But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously.

And here is another prominent defender of violent video games, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M, Christopher J. Ferguson:

We know that new media experience cycles of moral panic during which they are blamed for all manner of social ills. In the 19th century dime novels were imagined harmful for young women who, it was believed, could not distinguish reality from fiction. In the mid-20th century a psychiatrist testified before the US Congress that Batman and Robin were secretly homosexual and would lead youth not only into delinquency but the homosexual lifestyle.

Further panics have surfaced over everything from waltzes, jazz music, Elvis Presley and comic books to Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, rap and now video games. In retrospect those panics appear absurd, but people can always think of reasons why new media is “different”. Movies were visual, television was available every day, Harry Potter made witchcraft fun, Dungeons and Dragons was interactive (in fact more interactive than video games). Nothing came of those panics and nothing is coming of video games. Our kids today are the least violent, most civically involved, least likely to use drugs, least likely to get pregnant, most likely to graduate from secondary education compared to the past several generations. The VVG [violent video game] issue is a crusade in desperate search of a crisis.

There are countless other examples from similarly dubious sources.

Frank Furedi is academic guru for a nest of corporate-sponsored contrarians, and erstwhile ‘Marxists’, at Spiked Online. He and his epigones are preocupied by, and relentlessly denounce, the ‘culture of fear’ and ‘moral panics’ incited by mass media outlets and paternalistic authorities. Such panics, they claim, cause unnecessary popular agitation about global warming, obesity, tobacco consumption, video games and the individual’s right to express his lifestyle preferences and consumption tastes in the manner he judges best.

Spiked’s message – mysteriously given a platform in the mass-media outlets it constantly bemoans –  is obviously crafted with attention to the needs of its corporate donors, then given a libertarian sheen.

As with many deleterious fashions in contemporary thought, this usage of ‘moral panic’ originated with Stuart Hall and the British Stalinists at Marxism Today.

During the late 1970s, Hall’s Policing the Crisis had denounced what he described as a conservative ‘moral panic’ around street mugging. This was incorporated, during the 1980s, into Hall’s analysis of the ‘New Times’ that had dawned under Thatcherism.

In the new ‘authoritarian populist’ regime, Hall saw moral panic elevated into a permanent state of affairs, in which new avenues for consumer choice coexisted with ‘law and order’ scares. Hall and the other ‘Gramscian’ Eurocommunists encouraged the Labour Party, with its proletarian base having supposedly been eroded, to ‘modernize’ and ‘learn from Thatcherism’.

Labour should acknowledge the forms of individual expression granted to individuals by the ‘post-Fordist’ market economy, and focus on identity politics and ‘new movements’ (several of these CPGB figures were close to party leader Neil Kinnock and helped to lay the ground for Tony Blair’s New Labour project).

Marxism Today thus provided its readers with guides to ‘post-Fordist shopping outlets’ like Toys ‘R’ Us, and Hall indulged in fascinated apologias for ‘consumer culture’:

Commodified consumption? Trivial pursuits? Yes, much of the time. But underlying that, have we missed the opening up of the individual to the transforming rhythms and forces of modern material life? Have we become bewitched by who, in the short run, reaps the profits from these transactions, and missed the deep democratisation of culture which is also part of their hidden agenda? Can a socialism of the 21st century revive, or even survive, which is wholly cut off from the landscapes of popular pleasures, however contradictory a terrain they are? Are we thinking dialectically enough?

(Of course, the postmodern Stalinists’ opposition to ‘moral panics’ didn’t stop Beatrix Campbell from joining, together with psychologists and feminist social workers, in a crusade against ‘satanic ritual child abuse’ in Nottingham.)

Several generations of humanities and social-science students have been taught these Eurocommunist-cum-New-Labour precepts as the sophisticated ‘left-wing’ view of culture, shorn of elitism and attuned to popular sensibility. A ‘progressive’ attitude towards ‘modernity’ thus excuses the renunciation of all critical faculties.

The tern ‘moral panic’ tars its object with the brush of fogeyish wowserism associated with the likes of Allan Bloom (or Fredric Wertham). And it reserves for the defender of ‘new media’ a levelheaded sophistication, a cool immunity to the conservative hysteria and unreason which swirl around him.

It is calculated to appeal to a particular bien-pensant middle-class milieu: a sizeable bulk of the academic world, the liberal professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants and architects), and the chattering classes (social workers, journalists, artists, etc).

The ideological dimension on which this group defines itself politically is given by the terms of the Culture Wars. Mention of ‘moral panics’, and to conservative strictures against rock music. etc., refers unmistakably to the New Criterion of Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, and to Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Presumably, for many who dwell in such circles, talk of the perniciousness of this or that cultural product automatically evokes memories of old battles, and prompts them to apply a familiar schema by which the speaker is mentally coded as a hidebound conservative (and habitual basher of academics) to whom no attention should be paid.

This is why none of them needs to go and read the scholarly research on the effects of violent video games, for example. The possibility that entertainment media (Hall’s ‘landscape of popular pleasures’) relentlessly brutalizes its audience is simply ruled out as appallingly unsophisticated.

The answers are thus known in advance for they are determined by one’s tastes, which in turn are a way of signalling group membership. Professional training has taught some the habit of ‘reading ahead’, whereby a piece of evidence or line of argument is immediately searched for the conclusion it is supposed to support. If the latter is deemed uncongenial (or alternatively pleasing) then the premises, and any supporting evidence, are rejected (accepted) accordingly. Prior probabilities and very general, foundational beliefs are arranged such that contradictory evidence is not allowed to impinge.

This is understandable, and might in other circumstances be forgiveable: nobody is a perfect Bayesian, and few of us are without character-defining commitments that lead occasionally to intransigence. Except that the purpose behind this resistance to evidence and reason is the signalling of correct thoughts, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

More on this to follow.

The right stuff

December 30, 2011

In a Washington Post feature article (‘Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing’), Greg Miller writes that ‘no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.’

I’ve discussed this fact before and considered what the drastic expansion of executive power reveals about the policy objectives of the US elite and its allies. There’s more to think about, though.

Use of remotely-piloted aircraft (as well as cruise missiles and manned gunships) for weapons delivery requires the presence, midway along the ‘kill chain‘ between sensor and shooter, of human operators and analysts.

These people must watch, with sustained attention, live video feeds or surveillance imagery of death and destruction as human targets are found, tracked and exterminated with high-explosive anti-armour (blast and fragment) munitions.

In other words, Washington’s global death program entails the existence of an extraordinary sort of workforce.

Members must be able to withstand both prolonged and acute exposure to horribly unpleasant stimuli while maintaining vigilance and task-specific focus and without experiencing the kind of negative emotional states or overwhelming affective responses that lead to performance degradation (e.g. failure to determine whether a target has been successfully ‘neutralized’ or merely incapacitated, inability to discriminate between the remains of targets and those of bystanders or non-humans, unwillingness to detect subsequent targets, etc.).

One method people use ordinarily to cope with distress is avoidance: diverting attention from the source of aversion as a way to alleviate anxiety. This is impossible for the drone operator, whose job description requires him never to look away.

Wayne Chappelle and Kent McDonald at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Ohio have undertaken studies, using surveys, tests and peer reports, into the personality traits and behavioural dispositions, as well as the cognitive and psychomotor skills, needed by successful operators of unmanned weapons-deploying aircraft and their sensors.

Among other things, this has involved rating participants along the Big Five personality dimensions (openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and comparing results to those from the civilian population and the aircrew of manned gunships. (Other recent papers can be found here, here and here).

UAV crew members unsurprisingly must possess all the usual traits: self-confidence, assertiveness, excitement-seeking, internal locus of control, a high degree of intrinsic motivation, etc.

But given their specific combat role, the final attribute in the Big Five domains – emotional stability or composure in the face of induced transient stress – becomes especially important if personnel are to perform successfully and avoid burnout or impaired performance. (Predator/Reaper and AC-130 gunship operators both score lowest, relative to the general population, on neuroticism.)

According to McDonald and Chappelle, those who adapted to the ‘operational environment’ displayed ’emotional stamina’, lack of vulnerability to negative mood states, were ‘tough-minded’ and not prone to distress. They found that ‘higher than average levels of  resilience to stress (or other negative emotional states), need for excitement-seeking, and compartmentalization of emotions are required to adapt to the operational demands’:

According to SOs [sensor operators], the deployment of weapons also requires well-developed skills for compartmentalizing their emotions.

The rigors of training and operational demands of the RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] platform (e.g., targeting and destruction of enemy assets, taking the lives of enemy combatants, as well as surveillance of battle damage) can be emotionally taxing.

SMEs [subject-matter experts, i.e. superiors] reported the ability to compartmentalize the emotional rigors of one’s job in order to conserve emotional reserves when returning home from work or interacting with others outside the military installation can be an important trait for long term stability.

It is well-known that resilience to stress and emotional difficulties (often known has psychological hardiness) is considered a core attribute of those within high risk military occupations.

Furthermore, some airmen may emotionally struggle with their role in the killing of enemy combatants.

Interviews with SMEs reported a small number of incidences (i.e., four to five) of SOs voicing their discomfort with their duties and/or requesting to leave the career field after their role in the deployment of weapons. They reported such SOs performed their surveillance and reconnaissance duties well, but emotionally struggled with their role in taking the lives of others, regardless of the threat enemy combatants posed to U.S. and allied forces.

SMEs reported such SOs experienced significant internal conflict with their role, and that such a conflict did not become apparent until the SO was faced with a real-life situation or fully educated about the nature of their combat-related duties.

It is important to ensure that airmen selected for RPA SO duties are fully aware of, and understand, their role in the targeting and destruction of enemy combatants and assets prior to entry into training. It is likely that some SO candidates will decline the opportunity to pursue such duties once they fully understand their role in precision strike operations.

In other words, remote operators of weapons-deploying aircraft must be unusual people, many of them several standard deviations from the population mean on various personality dimensions.

The most important of these dimensions is neuroticism and its components: susceptibility to sadness, regret and depressed mood. If they feel at all queasy, guilt-ridden or troubled when observing burnt and mangled corpses, they must manage to suppress such feelings and get on with the job without any noticeable decrement in performance or distraction from task engagement.

In seeking to retain incumbents and find suitable recruits to work as happy killers, Washington’s expanding assassination program thus must fish in shallow waters for rare species (certainly including sociopaths) displaying the desired personality traits.

One way of achieving sufficient numbers at the extremes (i.e. tails) of a distribution is to shift the population mean for the trait in question. If the average person becomes less prone to a negative affective response upon witnessing scenes of extreme violence and destruction, then the ‘less neurotic’ types will be more stoic still, and their numbers more plentiful than otherwise.

Similarly, such a population-wide shift would raise the stress threshold beyond which task demands (such as remote killing) were experienced by operators as unfamiliar, unbearable and exceeding the operator’s capacity to cope.

Finally, an increase in the median voter’s ability to withstand the sights and sounds of extreme violence, without lapsing into appalled paralysis or low moods, would presumably increase public tolerance for large-scale killing, by those at the extremes, in pursuit of elite objectives.

How might this be achieved?

Applicants with the desirable traits and states obviously self-select for the job. But the above quotation shows that candidate recruitment isn’t perfectly reliable.

In such cases, and generally, affective response and emotional disposition can also be modified and reinforced by training. People from the University of Central Florida psychology department (Mustapha Mouloua, Peter HancockEduardo SalasDeborah Billings, James Szalma, etc.) have explored how stress-exposure or stress-resiliency training can “harden” personnel who must use UAVs in combat, so that their ability to acquire and engage targets is not overwhelmed by emotional and physiological response.

The basic technique works via graduated-intensity exposure to battlefield stressors and realistic perceptual cues, including through high-fidelity simulation and games. The trainee is habituated to environmental cues that initially were aversive and debilitating, thus becoming ‘inoculated’ against combat stress.

Similarly, by exposing the general population to an unceasing barrage of (imagery of) extreme violence (e.g. by allowing it to saturate popular entertainment), one may presumably shift in a convenient direction the population distribution of relevant dispositions and attitudes, bestowing an everyday familiarity (sanitized, to be sure) and tolerability on what is pursued in secret.

This, too, I’ve discussed in greater detail in another post.

Becoming stress hardened through training and through entertainment

August 24, 2011

Christopher J. Ferguson is a young associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M. For the most part, his published work has been devoted to defence of violent video games and other visual media.

He contests the research findings of disciplinary colleagues that such games desensitize users to violence, attach rewards to aggression and increase their players’ propensity for violent behaviour.

The disparity in the balance of scholarly opinion has demanded from him great feats of argumentative and publishing energy.

Eleven of his papers were cited, and his signature attached to the list of amici curiae (who also included figures like Todd Gitlin and Steven Pinker), in the pro-games-association brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court before its recent decision on a Californian law restricting sales to minors (Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association).

I have no great taste for comment on Ferguson’s work; to each his chosen niche.

But the following astonishing remark, which he delivered earlier this year, was a little too much to ignore:

Another common urban legend is that the US military uses video games to desensitize soldiers so that they will kill more reliably…

Never mind that the US Army has denied these claims (video games are used for vehicle and team training and decision making and even recruitment, but not desensitization) or that police organizations use similar simulations to reduce impulsive “bad” shootings.

Nor does it seem to matter that today’s youth, consuming far greater amounts of violent games than any past generation possibly could, are the least violent youth in 40 years.

The sound byte is repeated often, presumably because of its emotional appeal.

Elsewhere he has scorned what he calls ‘the false notion that the military uses video games to desensitize soldiers to killing (they do use simulators for visual scanning and reaction time and vehicle training, but they seem more effective in reducing accidental shootings than anything else).’

Ferguson teaches a subject called Psychology of War at a military college, so his remarks (games as the path to purity of arms!) cannot plausibly be explained by ignorance.

More importantly, Ferguson undertook his doctoral research at the University of Central Florida, a member of the Team Orlando collaborative alliance of defence contractors, branches of the armed forces, DoD agencies, and scholars in the fields of simulation, training and human performace.

The motto of Team Orlando is improving human performance through simulation. The psychology department at UCF, with its Institute for Simulation and Training, is heavily involved in this project. A departmental laboratory is sponsored by the Office for Naval Research (ONR).

Ferguson surely is familiar with the work of faculty members such as Eduardo Salas, Peter Hancock, Clint A. Bowers and Janis Cannon-Bowers, and perhaps that of their regular co-author James Driskell, researcher from the Florida Maxima Corporation.

These scholars and their grad students  Ferguson must know this, too  have devoted themselves to exploring how the operational training of combat soldiers can best ‘moderate the performance effects of stressors’.

In other words, they investigate how training can reduce the decrement in proficiency (of e.g. shoot/no-shoot decisions and marksmanship) caused by the acute stress of the ‘battlefield environment’.

And this goal, their advice runs, is best achieved through ‘arousal habituation’, i.e. desensitization to the violence that troops are expected to undertake.

Training delivered via simulation, games and virtual environments is a big part of this.

Clarke Lethin from the ONR, technical manager of the Future Immersive Training Environment, has described the purpose of his simulator. It involves delivery of  ‘sensory overload’, to inoculate the instructee against combat stress, then to ‘determine if Marines have a diminished stress reaction… during follow-up exposures.’

The newfound ‘resilience’ acquired during pre-deployment training helps to increase the lethality of personnel in operational situations, preventing them from freezing in combat.

The UCF psychologists have described how stress reactions (trembling, feelings of anxiety, increased heart rate, sweating, laboured breathing, decreased fine motor skills and other physiological symptoms of extreme arousal), especially novel and unfamiliar ones, present ‘off-task stimuli’. These distract the soldier or marine from task-relevant details, and increase demands on his or her attentional resources.

Assuming that attentional resources are finite and must be allocated between competing uses, they explain, a higher ‘cognitive load’ can impair task performance. The symptoms of acute stress (auditory blocking, tunnel vision, rigidity, nausea, etc.) can entirely prevent execution of the task.

They describe, finally, how stress can cause loss of both motivation and ‘team perspective.’ A U.S. Army field manual (22-51, 1994) and an ADF research paper each detail a range of symptoms by which combat stress renders soldiers ‘ineffective as members of combat units’, from failure to engage the enemy (‘combat refusal’) to shirking, panic running and malingering.

Numerous contemporary studies (as well as the work of Zahava Solomon with IDF veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and earlier wars) have shown that the best predictor of suffering ‘combat stress reactions’, PTSD or other mental-health problems is a soldier’s having witnessed persons being wounded or killed, along with having engaged in direct combat during which they discharged their weapon; killing an enemy combatant or civilian; seeing, smelling or handling dead or decomposing bodies; and seeing fellow soldiers or friends dead or maimed.

(As is well known, Himmler discovered that the killing efficiency of his Einsatzgruppen was limited by the debilitating stress reactions suffered by those troops who performed mass executions by shooting. This fact apparently motivated the switch to using gas vans and later gas chambers to undertake the Vernichtungskrieg).

Yet current US military combat operations are highly dependent on kill/capture missions, remotely-directed assassinations and ‘irregular warfare’ (so-called stability operations, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency).

These programs have recently been described approvingly by John Nagl, a West Point alumnus with close ties to the Obama administration and a hand in writing the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, as an ‘almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.’

See also the recent warning in The Australian newspaper of ‘the enormous personal price’ paid by special forces soldiers and their families as they faced repeated deployment and ‘a much more aggressive and assertive role.’ According to one former special forces officer: ‘Some 600 guys have done most of the killing in the past 10 years. That’s a terrible burden to place on a small number of soldiers and they keep getting rotated back.’

If this killing machine is to operate effectively, it must overcome the emotional and physiological barriers erected by the human nervous system and the wider culture against the killing of conspecifics.

Therefore the pre-eminent training objective, pace Ferguson, is to ensure that troops ‘will kill more reliably’, that lethal behaviour can be elicited and executed properly even when, for most people, this would produce overwhelming and debilitating stress reactions.

The relationship between arousal and combat performance is commonly modelled as an inverted U-shaped function. Peak performance is reached and maintained when the soldier is neither too inhibited (hypostress) nor too excited (hyperstress), and falls away either side of this middle ground.

‘Positive stress’ helps to ‘motivate’ the warfighter, and this may be elicited by stoking a sense of gamesmanship or eliteness. But UCF’s Peter Hancock warns that stress increments above a ‘tolerance threshold’ lead to catastrophic performance breakdown (he cites as an example Marshall’s WW2 report of many soldiers’ failure to fire weapons in combat).

Training should therefore aim to raise the maximal stress load that an individual can bear before he is overwhelmed. This is known as stress hardening or resilience training; both terms are semantically indistinct from desensitization.

The UCF psychology team, and many other researchers into military psychology, have stated that the degree of hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation, during exposure to stressful environments and activities, depends on the soldier’s prior experience of relevant procedures and familiarity with the perceptions involved.

Habitual and graduated exposure to novel and aversive stimuli during repeated skills-acquisition drills, before deployment to combat theatres, allows ‘inoculation’ against stress. (There is evidence that special-forces personnel can tolerate higher levels of acute and chronic stress than can general infantry troops.)

They have therefore recommended ‘overlearning’, allowing acquisition and retention of sensorimotor skills (e.g. shooting), and their maintenance in high-stress environments, so they can be executed ‘automatically’ without the warfighter’s needing to explicitly devote attentional resources.

Rehearsal, they have explained, in training settings that closely approximate the operational situation, builds a repertoire of ‘routinised’, familiar actions that are rapidly accessible, with the desired response triggered when driven by the relevant environmental cues or patterns.

For this purpose, they have explained that games and battlefield simulations can replace time spent on live firing and gunnery ranges. Bowers, in an address at this year’s GameTech conference in Florida, explained how games allowed increase in the ‘fidelity of traumatic cues’ that are ‘likely to be encountered in the operational setting.’

The Pentagon’s main provider of video target walls for simulating dismounted-infantry operations and special-operations close combat (e.g. target acquisition and house clearing), explains the innovative worth of its ‘realistic virtual targets’. The latter open up ‘a whole new realm of training by replacing antiquated static targetry, as traditionally found in a CQB [close-quarters battle] training environment, with large, immersive target walls displaying projected images of life-size, full-motion moving targets’ which ‘mimic the life-like movements and reactions to that of real humans.’ Its publicity brochure notes that ‘skeleton and organs can be viewed to show severity of wound.’

Such a system is used to project targets and the avatars of participants in mixed-reality close-combat exercises at USMC Camp Pendleton. The Director of the Battle Simulations Centre there, Tom Buscemi, has explained that the Infantry Immersion Trainer is ‘designed to inoculate deploying Marines with the sights, sounds, and smells of a gun battle… We’ve had people go into shock. We’ve had people completely stunned.’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, marvelled that the trainer used simulation to help ‘all of our conventional forces…to have more special forces attributes.’

The latter has been a key objective since a December 2008 Pentagon directive recognised irregular operations to be ‘as strategically important as traditional warfare.’ The training of general-purpose infantry was henceforth to assume a new focus on the ‘grim skills’ of ‘close combat, where intimate killing is the norm’, according to CENTCOM Commander James Mattis.

How this instruction was to proceed was the topic of an Irregular Warfare Training Symposium, hosted by the University of Central Florida during September 2009, its tagline being The Future of Small Unit Excellence in Immersive Cognitive Training. Participants agreed on the need to develop ‘supporting technology: an immersive, high-stress, near-real decision-making capability that is scalable, infinitely repeatable and unique.’

In games, simulations and virtual environments, UCF and other military-training researchers have found, aversive and novel stressors (unpleasant noises such as screaming or engine sounds, the visual and olfactory stimuli of death and destruction, heat, haptic feedback of fired weaponry, etc.) can be replicated with high fidelity, at low cost and allowing high-frequency repetition.

Trainees can be attached to real-time sensors, and undergo post-drill tests, to measure their eye-blink duration, respiration rate, palmar sweating, salivary alpha-amylase (a proxy for noradrenaline), cortisol and blood-glucose levels (to measure activation of endocrine response), body temperature, heart rate and skin conductance.

Monitoring these indicators of autonomic nervous-system activity allows instructors to check their key concern: the ‘ability to induce and modulate high stress.’

A 2002 report into ‘cognitive readiness’ undertaken for the DoD noted:

[One] would predict that performance under emotionally arousing combat conditions would be improved by training under identical, or at least similar, arousing conditions…

In the past, technology and ethical constraints have acted to limit the degree to which training evokes the strong emotions associated with combat. Some have claimed that immersive simulation technology (i.e., simulations that involve multiple sensory modes — sounds and smells as well as visual stimuli) has the ability to evoke strong emotions…

It remains to be seen, however, whether the emotions evoked in immersive simulation are similar in quality and intensity to those experienced in combat.

This 2005 report, prepared for DARPA following a three-year study, compared the subsequent performance in live combat exercises of subjects who had previously trained, using laptops or head-mounted displays, in ‘virtual shoot houses’ and simulated Iraqi villages, with that of a control group who had not used the virtual-world trainers before entering the real shoot house or village.

Along with other improved performance metrics, the first group was found to have exhibited superior stress management, ‘combat breathing’ and arousal-control techniques. The control group, on the other hand, exhibited some behaviour characteristic of confusion and panic, e.g. taking cover behind propane tanks when under fire.

The report concluded regarding the three-wall CAVE projection: ‘The life-size dimensions and projection must be impacting the synthesis of information. Furthermore, participants of the [immersive virtual trainer] group commented that once in the real shoothouse, they felt as though they had “already been there.”’

The authors concluded that training delivery by these means would allow associative learning (i.e. use of cues to elicit the desired behaviour) and help instructors ‘automate a response through repetition.’

The authors of that report  Mark and Brenda Wiederhold, whose Virtual Reality Medical Centre is a recipient of ONR project funding  expanded elsewhere on the worth of simulated environment in desensitizing and ‘stress hardening’ trainees:

Deployed personnel must often perform in extremely stressful environments, and optimum performance under such conditions requires effective management of physiological, psychological and emotional responses to stimuli. An acute stress reaction (ASR) or combat and operational stress reaction (COSR) can occur during exposure to exceptionally stressful events like those encountered in combat, resulting in extreme sympathetic nervous system arousal and impaired performance…

During VR-enhanced preventative SIT [stress-inoculation training], military personnel “experience” highly stressful situations in a virtual environment while being physiologically monitored. Repeated exposure enables personnel to gradually become desensitized to stimuli that may initially elicit such strong physiological arousal that performance is impeded (i.e., “freezing in the line of fire”) …

Naval research has also concluded that stress-exposure training in ‘virtual environments’ decreases the trainee’s physiological response to stress and thus mitigates the adverse performance effects of stress on aviators.

UCF faculty member Peter Hancock, on the other hand, argued in a paper for the journal Military Psychology that high-fidelity simulations were not necessary for effective combat training.

When the elements of a game are present, part of the physical fidelity or reproduced realness of a simulated environment may be sacrificed while immersion itself still remains at an optimal level for training effectiveness. Thus, personal computer (PC)-based gaming tools can be highly effective training tools.

Experiments were conducted ‘supplementing an OTS [off-the-shelf, i.e. commercial entertainment] infantry game training session with an intense and vivid video depiction of a front-line infantry battle’ (15 minutes of realistic and ‘graphically intense war scenes from the beach invasion portion of the movie Saving Private Ryan‘).

Instructors were able to induce in their subjects ‘increased arousal via movie-like special effects’. Compared to a control group who watched a ‘non-stimulating’ black-and-white clip of actual documentary footage from the Normandy landing, individuals whose ‘were exposed to realistic warlike stress images and reacted with positive arousal… effectively retained training and had higher performance scores overall.’

Writing in 2004, he concluded: ‘With recent world events, it is evident that PC-based game training combined with effective supplementary stress might be used to assist rapid-deployment troops who will face immediate immersion in real-world conditions.’

And what of the visual-attention proficiency that Ferguson mentions?

Such skills (which underlie e.g. shooting accuracy, friend-or-foe discrimination) are known to degrade with stress. The US Army Research Laboratory suggests the capacity of video games to improve visual focus, enhancing the ability of troops to filter out distracting information and attend selectively to task-relevant stimuli (i.e. enemy targets) in combat environments, is explained by stress habituation.

Experiments reveal participants trained to play first-person shooter video games featuring ‘intense battlefield violence’ perform better at subsequent attentional-focus and object-tracking exercises than those trained to play similar games with the combat violence removed.

The same physiological measures of arousal and autonomic nervous system activation (skin conductivity, heart rate, etc.) show that violent video games played for entertainment purposes have a similar effect. Their users become habituated and gradually develop tolerance for stimuli (e.g. footage of real-life stabbings) and activities that initially provoke a stress response.

This fact suggests that violent visual-entertainment products (some computer and console-based games, as well as films and TV programmes) may inadvertently function like stress-exposure training for their audience and users.

For combat and marksmanship training, the goal of imparting ‘resilience’ is to increase the survival and lethality of troops. This is of course not the point of entertainment products, where the only concern besides the commercial one is the usual pride of producers in their work.

But these products seem nonetheless to involve a similar brutalization or ‘hardening’. They arouse their audiences and users and then gradually lower the latter’s affective and physiological responses to extreme violence. Violence thereafter can be appreciated on higher cognitive planes: as satiric, intriguing, comic, food for thought, artfully presented, exhilirating, etc.

This will be an unpalatable conclusion for anyone fond of such products or with a professional interest in their continued good standing, production, sale and use. But it simply isn’t honest to deny the antecedent proposition (i.e. that combat training uses games/simulation to desensitize instructees) in order safely to reject the consequent.

Green can be gold

June 15, 2011

Behind GetUp! stand creepy figures like Evan Thornley, who among other things is a co-founder and board member of Per Capita, a ‘progressive’ think tank modelled jointly on Peter Mandelson’s Policy Network and Will Marshall’s Progressive Policy Institute.

As with its British and North American cousins, the Australian body (Per Capita) secretes an unappealing centrist brew, combining economic liberalism with the authoritarian paternalism put forward by people like Cass Sunstein (designing ‘choice architectures’, etc.).

Thornley is CEO of Better Place Australia, a company that produces battery-charging stations for electric cars.

Better Place is a key source of funding for the Climate Institute, which together with GetUp! has been the chief organizer of the public campaign ‘Say Yes to a Price on Pollution’.

In this latter enterprise, Better Place stands alongside firms including energy retailer AGL, Jemena (a privatized wing of the WA State Energy Commission), Pacific Hydro, General Electric (the world’s largest producer of gas turbines), and OgilvyEarth, a PR company specializing in greenwashing; or as its website puts it, ‘sustainability communications’ that demonstrate ‘green can be gold’:

We help brands harness the power of sustainability. Sustainability is not an abstract concept, it’s about identifying smarter ways to do more with less. OgilvyEarth partners with brands to use sustainability to drive brand value, achieve long-term growth and increase profits.

We help global brands become category leaders and change agents. We work with visionary companies that want to make sustainability a growth driver for both their business and the communities they serve. We believe that sustainability is the new path to prosperity, and in the power of communications to change everything.

To date, we’ve helped the world’s biggest organizations, including Coca-Cola, Unilever, DuPont, the Environmental Defense Fund, Kraft, IBM, the WWF and the United Nations.

Together with groups such as the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, GetUp! and the Climate Institute organised Price on Pollution rallies held in March, to build public support for the federal government’s proposed ‘carbon tax’ (promotional leaflets and videos for the events sneakily described them as supporting ‘climate action’, a purpose which organisers then described in decidedly narrower terms after the fact).

A second wave of public demonstrations took place ten days ago across major Australian cities.

It attests, among other things, to the political desperation that many people feel, and the seriousness with which they take the problem of global warming, that many thousands of people turned up to each set of events. Few are convinced by glib promises from the political right that human societies will readily adapt to climate change.

In a paper published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (‘An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress’), the authors suggested that, under increased local temperatures projected in the more pessimistic scenarios of some global-warming models, humans would find themselves unable to thermoregulate. Were wet-bulb temperatures to stay above 35 °C for extended periods, the thermal gradient allowing bodies to dissipate heat via sweating or vasodilation would be lacking, with lethal results. Under such conditions, imaginable in some currently habitable regions, continued human settlement would be impossible.

Research like this, when it reaches public ears, rightly terrifies many. So, for example, does the risk of regional inundation for various ranges of sea-level rise.

But the presence of thousands of unaligned people at the Price on Pollution rally (which was not clearly publicized as such) and Say Yes demonstration also reveals political confusion, and the effect of intense propaganda efforts. The result is that most people can’t distinguish friends from enemies.

This is by design: a feature rather than a bug. It is how popular criticism of inaction by the political class, and business-as-usual for conventional electricity generators and other commercial and industrial users of coal, gas and oil, is absorbed and diverted into partisan backing for Labor and the Greens, and lobbying for that competing sector of capitalist firms which produces wind turbines and photovoltaics.

Ordinary people are bombarded, by those such as GetUp’s Simon Sheikh, with sales talk about the renewable-energy sector as a ‘new engine of prosperity’, and exhorted to help ‘kick start investment in clean energy’ and ‘unlock clean energy’. They are informed that ‘a price on pollution’ will swiftly bring on the ‘opportunities’, ‘thriving economy, ‘green jobs’ and ‘abundance’ of a ‘clean-energy economy’.

And they are placated, told to put away the pitchforks: according to the co-founder and Chair of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (who also works in advertising/PR), ‘[the] good news is that all the technological solutions we need to solve climate change exist today. They are already being implemented globally; from China to California, Germany to Brazil.’

The only problems are ‘old, out-of-touch men’ and ‘fear of change.’

The political character of these people is demonstrated by the national director of AYCC’s ghastly description of ‘a full-blown generational war…between young and old, past and future’:

Firstly, this debate is pitting the voices of the past against the views and perspectives of younger generations. Secondly, it’s a fight between staying locked into ancient 19th century energy technology versus unlocking the clean, renewable energy resources that will power Australia into tomorrow…

When you know that you will be directly affected by decisions made by those in  power, you think about things in a new light. It’s an entirely different  world-view to those who are only a decade or two away from leaving this world  behind…

Of course, it’s obvious why our generation supports putting a price on pollution. We need this legislation to pass to give business a reason to clean up their act and switch to more efficient ways of doing things. Unless this happens, we can wave goodbye to our futures as they drift away in carbon-filled smoke plumes emitted by polluting industry.

The other reason that young Australians  and any Australians who support the idea of progress  support a carbon price is that we want to see Australia move forward into the 21st century with a modern clean energy economy.

When I was at school, most people owned landlines! Now, few young people can fill out the “home phone” section on a form. Instead, we’ve seen the evolution from computers to mobile phones to smart phones and beyond within just a few years.

We know the same kind of progress can happen in our energy systems if only the vested interests of the past would let go. Once a carbon price and some solid renewable energy investment levels the playing field, we’ll unlock new technologies, industries and jobs that have been waiting for years to come on-stream.

This inane, polyannish pose has not been adopted to win over a newspaper readership. It is repeated on the AYCC’s webpage (as is the divisive attempt to promote an age-based identity politics, a flimsy vehicle indeed on which to carry the weighty ambitions of the body’s leaders).

Nor does it spring merely from some naive youthful optimism. Identical sentiments are expressed by representatives of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Climate Institute, etc.

The Climate Institute, which expects a ‘thriving economy’ as Australia ‘cuts pollution and modernises industry’, nonetheless cites with approval a meta-report commissioned by the CFMEU, showing the Australian coal industry also continuing to ‘thrive’ under the Labor Government’s proposed emissions-abatement policies.

And it is not merely for reasons of political salesmanship that climate change is presented as an exciting opportunity to be seized.

Indeed, the ‘level playing field’ incessantly called for by advocates of ‘renewables’ would begin via a stream of transfer payments from the state bureaucracy to the non-fossil energy sector.

This is to be expected. Like many costly public goods (railways, road tunnels etc.) and utilities, energy infrastructure is an uninviting prospect for private investors. A conventional coal-fired power station requires large fixed-capital outlays; the stock is long-lived and depreciates slowly over many decades. Stacks, cooling towers, turbine rotors, boiler tubes, coal conveyors etc. can remain functional for 40-50 years, during which period capital is immobile, even while technological innovations may occur elsewhere. The depreciation allowance then sets a limit on the rate at which costs can be recovered, capital withdrawn and transferred to new facilities or to more profitable lines of production.

Firms in this sector derive more benefits from limiting installed capacity, so that it falls short of demand, prices are bid up and profits are higher. (This is why each Australian state except Tasmania is expected to fall short of its reserve reliability margin, a safety benchmark of available excess capacity over and above peak electricity demand, within the next few years. South Australia and Victoria have already had inadequate supplies during recent summers).

For this reason, such capital-intensive projects have historically been undertaken by the public authority. More recently, government subsidies have been required to induce private involvement: these may take the form of guaranteed cash flows, as with PFI/PPPs, or tax breaks, or sale of costly assets at very favourable terms (e.g. NSW electricity).

This is also and especially the case with ‘renewable energy’, expansion of which would require huge levels of investment at comparatively high capital costs (according to all estimates from the US, UK, Australia and the International Energy Agency).

A concentrating-solar thermal installation, like those being constructed (including on US Army land) in the Mojave Desert, requires a steam turbine and power block, fields of heliostats or parabolic mirrors, as well as high-voltage transmission lines to send power to low-insolation regions. In Australia, connection to the grid is estimated to cost up to $15 per megawatt hour in remote areas.

In general, the lower energy density of renewables (energy per unit of volume or mass) compared to oil, coal and gas, plus problems with intermittency, transport and storage, mean that productivity will be lower, and cost per mW hour higher.

If ‘renewable’ operating capacity is ever to be installed, uncompetitive high-cost producers must be made confident of somehow recouping the investment of vast sums of capital. Thus the Australian government’s Mandated Renewable Energy Target provides guaranteed wholesale demand for wind, geothermal and hydro-electric electricity generators at premium long-term prices (generating units are issued with tradable certificates, the price of which is set at the marginal production cost of the least-efficient producer, allowing more efficient producers to earn differential rent).

The ‘price is set in such a way that the marginal plant coming into the market earns enough from electricity market and certificate transactions to recover the long run marginal cost of generation.’ This is to encourage a desired $11 billion investment in new renewable capacity by 2020. Feed-in tariffs, meanwhile, offer a state-level subsidy.

These public funds grant part of the ‘opportunity’ to be ‘seized’.

Of course, few people will be concerned that a maker of wind turbines is primarily concerned with his own enrichment, if his work leads to emissions abatement or the mitigation of climate change. After all, as the saying goes, it’s not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our nightly dinner.

Sadly, in this case, the invisible hand is not nearly so dextrous. For there are solid physical and economic reasons to suppose that growth of ’emissions-free’ electricity-generating capacity will not cause a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions at all.

Given the Ivanpah project that US firm BrightSource Energy, together with Bechtel, is currently developing in the desert of California’s Inland Empire, and the still-more-impressive efforts of various German firms around the Mediterranean coast, it does seem that ‘renewable’ plants will be installed up to a utility scale, that some of these plants could be commercially successful, and that ‘clean energy’ may become a ’new engine’ of profitability for some.

But, if so, this will occur even as carbon dioxide emissions increase, (thaw-assisted) drilling for gas and oil goes ahead in the Yamal Peninsula, the South Kara Sea and Alaska’s North Slope, research is explored on how to liberate methane clathrates from beneath permafrost, and fossil fuels continue to provide most of the primary energy supply for the countless conversions, reconfigurations of matter and entropy reductions that make up the productive processes of a capitalist world economy. (Thus Chevron has contracted BrightSource to build a field of solar thermal collectors to generate steam injection for enhanced oil recovery.)

Too see why, we need only look at the structural materials  steel, aluminium, plastics, cement, fibreglass  that are used in producing ’renewable’ energy.

This allows us roughly to calculate what is called embodied energy, a life-cycle assessment of the direct and indirect energy needed to produce some output, summed over each step from raw-material extraction to transport, assembly, installation and final decommissioning. Ferrochrome, the main feedstock for stainless steel, is usually held to require over 50mJ/kg; aluminium costs around 200mJ/kg.

Though domestically most Australian coal (~80%) is used for electricity generation, once exports are taken into account the majority of bituminous coal mined is used as an input in steel production. Steelmaking requires the smelting of iron in giant blast furnaces, into which coke (derived from black coal) is introduced as a reducing agent. The ThyssenKrupp steel mill at Schwelgern in Duisberg goes through 2.5 million tonnes of coke each year. Its 140 huge coke ovens, each with a 93 cubic-metre capacity, are fed with 79 tonnes of coal at a time, a cycle repeated 135 times per day.

It is almost impossible to imagine a capitalist economy without a steel industry. Not only is steel a key constituent of everything from kitchen cutlery to the reinforced concrete of buildings, but almost every production process uses machines or tools containing the material.

In concentrating-solar thermal stations, two-thirds of the material making up a heliostat is steel, as with the pylons, thermal storage tanks and pipes. And, just as in coal-fired plants, the steam-generating boilers and turbogenerators that produce electricity are usually composed of a high-chromium steel alloy. Finally, the transmission towers that support lines connecting to the power grid are built mostly of steel.

Thus one of the chief investors in the Andasol 3 plant in Spain is MAN Ferrostaal. The DESERTEC Foundation that wants to dot concentrating-solar plants across North Africa and the Middle East, then lace high-voltage direct-current transmission lines to Europe, is made up of the cream of German industrial, power-supply and engineering firms, including some of the world’s biggest companies: E.ON, RWE, MAN and Siemens as well as Deutsche Bank, Swiss-Swedish firm ABB (the world’s biggest builder of transmission and distribution grids, including substations, cables, transformers, circuit breakers, etc.) and several of their Italian counterparts.

Wind turbines, parabolic-trough collectors and electricity transmission lines themselves, on the other hand, are composed mostly of aluminium (the cables are reinforced with steel), the light, highly malleable and ductile material that is used widely in construction, transportation (jet airliners have aluminium-alloy airframes, and carry freight in aluminium ULD containers and pallets), packaging, household items, and as a heat sink in electronic goods.

As we have seen, smelting of aluminium from bauxite ore requires huge amounts of energy (more than three times as much as steel production) and water. The Alcoa plants in Victoria accordingly have their own lignite-fired power station, along with government-subsidised electricity, and other remarkable concessions, provided for in a deal signed by the ALP state premier John Cain in 1984.

To be ‘clean’, the construction of ‘renewable’ electricity-generating infrastructure would thus imply an impossible kind of bootstrapping: requiring a huge expansion in aluminium production, with the latter powered by the non-fossil energy for which it is itself the key material input. This, more or less, is the problem of energy cannibalism.

Many of the remaining industrial components of the ‘clean-energy sector’ are derived from crude oil.

Some are made from plastics (besides their more well-known use in clothes and women’s stockings, polymers of propylene and ethylene make piping and electrical-wire insulation) or use hydrocarbon feedstocks for solvents (xylene and benzene), epoxy resins and adhesives (polyurethane), insulation and lubricants.

Meanwhile, given the nature of the energy conversions involved, solar thermal plants, wind farms and geothermal are usually located far from high-load urban areas (farther, the residents of Silesia and northern Bohemia may regret, than lignite-fuelled power stations sometimes are).

The low transport costs that underlie their supply logistics are made possible by internal-combustion engines using petroleum-derived liquid fuels.

The two key prime movers of the post-1950 world economy are diesel engines and gas turbines.

All cargo ships  container ships, tankers and dry-bulk carriers  merchant fleets, and military vessels, except the largest submarines, are propelled by diesel engines. So too are the cranes that deposit and offload cargo and the trucks and trains that transship it.

The world economy of distinct production units interacting via commodity trade  tracing freight routes between terminals, entrepôts and ports in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Hamburg, and Long Beach  is unthinkable without these enormous engines. The largest specimens from Wärtsilä and MAN can weigh up to 2300 tonnes.

Meanwhile the widebody commercial jet aircraft that carry passengers and cargo between continents depend on massive turbofan engines that burn fuel derived from kerosene. The largest of these turbofans, installed on Boeing 777s, is produced by General Electric, the Climate Institute’s supporter.

The single-minded and convenient focus of activists, lobbyists, administrators and legislators on electricity generation has thus obscured some of the deeper problems posed by climate change.

The problem of fossil-fuel-based economy is not limited to coal’s use for heating and electricity, nor even that of oil for private passenger transport. The economic ‘miracle of compound growth’ has always been based on the provision of apparently free natural inputs, whose only costs are due to the labour and other commodities used in extracting them.

Indeed, under a conventional input-output analysis the economy’s productive process seems to make matter appear from nowhere, as it does not include entries for energy reserves or unused natural resources (i.e. ‘oil remaining in the ground’), depleted resources or waste produced as either inputs or outputs of the petroleum/energy industry. But, despite appearances, such a production process is conservative.

Historically, productivity growth has depended on finding fuels with successively higher ratios of energy delivered to energy costs (EROI).

A capitalist economy built on increasing labour productivity (output per unit of labour) depends on constantly raising energy intensity (energy per unit of labour) or energy productivity (output per unit of energy).

This is why, in the potted history of IG Farben that Thomas Pynchon includes in Gravity’s Rainbow, he describes industrial capitalism using the imagery of Kekulé’s famous dream about benzene’s molecular structure, in which it resembled a snake eating its own tail:

Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity – most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the system is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide…

Of course, socialists do not get off as easy as many like to think. Any society that wants to provide its members with a decent material standard of living must consider (for it is constrained by) the technical conditions of production: the material relations between product types indicating how much of an industry’s product is needed as input for each other industry.

At any given time, the existing technical coefficients constrain the available material transformations that economic actors may perform, e.g. the particular way in which a specific good may be made. This appears to those actors as a dependence on certain material inputs.

This dependence will not disappear with capitalism.

But it is this in-kind (i.e. non-monetary) technology matrix (of which the price list for all goods is just a one-dimensional projection, with much information lost) that must form the basis of dealing with the problems of climate change and carbon dioxide emissions.

The prevailing wisdom says that a ‘price on pollution’ will allow cost-minimizing firms to incorporate ecological information into their decisions: as individual firms maximize profit by minimizing costs, and as pollution becomes a cost expressible in monetary units, the (properly regulated) market will coordinate an environmentally rational outcome.

Similarly, in 1920 the Austrian liberal Ludwig von Mises wrote that, given the choice ‘whether we shall use a waterfall to produce electricity or extend coalmining and better utilize the energy contained in coal’, calculation must occur in terms of a single common unit.

‘Technology and the considerations derived from it would be of little use’, he wrote, ‘if it were impossible to introduce into their schemes the money prices of goods and services. The projects and designs of engineers would be purely academic if they could not compare input and output on a common basis:

The practical man, eager to improve human conditions by removing uneasiness as far as possible, must know whether, under given conditions, what he is planning is the best method, or even a method, to make people less uneasy…Such comparisons can only be made by the use of money prices.

On this view, there can be no rational decision between alternatives (say between building a new coal-fired power plant or investing in a hydroelectric turbine), without the presence of a single scalar unit by which the two alternatives can somehow be made commensurable.

To this Mises’s great opponent, Otto Neurath, replied that such a comparison took place across multiple dimensions. And for such problems ‘no longer sums of money, but things themselves [should be] taken as the basis for our decisions’:

The question might arise, should one protect coal mines or put greater strain on men? The answer depends for example on whether one thinks that hydraulic power may be sufficiently developed or that solar heat might come to be better used, etc. If one believes the latter, one may ‘spend’ more coal more freely and will hardly waste human effort where coal can be used. If however one is afraid that when one generation uses too much coal thousands will freeze to death in the future, one might use more human power and save coal. Such and many other non-technical matters determine the choice of a technically calculable plan.

We can see no possibility of reducing the production plan to some kind of unit and then to compare the various plans in terms of such units…

How can one numerically compare, beyond the amounts, things like the protection of man power with the protection of coal deposits? In spite of the most careful assessment of all qualities, with due regard to numerically estimated coal deposits yet unexploited, one can still not mark each plan by a number obtained through additions and subtractions, etc., and then take the plan which gives the biggest number.

Economic plans can be compared only in the way one compares pears and books; one can prefer one plan to another only on the basis of a total estimate.

This shouldn’t be read too hastily, as it might be, as a rejection of quantification, numerical calculation or formal decision procedures. It is rather a demand that the decisionmaker attend to the particulars themselves in natural units, rather than reduce all the multifarious dimensions to a single one (i.e. monetary magnitudes. A similar charge would later be levelled against neoclassical economists during the Cambridge capital controversy, which concerned the adequacy of aggregate measures of the productivity of heterogeneous capital goods).

The latter method (i.e. money-price calculation) is a poor surrogate for in-kind calculation, for it involves a loss of information, only taking into account things bought and sold as commodities, and neglecting the technical dependencies existing between various inputs and outputs.

Assessing a hierarchy of needs, and determining how future costs and benefits are to be discounted relative to those of the present, are political decisions that cannot be left to the profit motive:

Savings in coal, trees, etc., beyond amounting to savings in the displeasure of work, mean the preservation of future pleasure, a positive quantity. For instance, that coal is used nowadays for silly things is to be blamed for people freezing in the future. Still, one can only give vague estimates. Saving certain raw materials can become pointless if one discovers something new. The future figures in the balance sheets of the capitalist order only in so far as the demand is anticipated. The freezing people of the future only show up if there is already now a demand for future coal. Just as before, capitalism would cut down the forests even if the consequence were karstification in a hundred years. In the tropics, and elsewhere, capitalism engages in over-exploitation without any disturbance. In short, for it savings would be a loss of profits.

So it appeared in 1925, and indeed we have got erosion and sinkholes, and much else besides.

To suppose today that the profit motive is the best instrument to wield against the physical effects of climate change is a hallucination induced by the profit system itself. And the hallucination is encouraged, even among the doubtful, by media touts, political placemen and the moneyed interests that both represent.

It should be resisted.

Common dreams

April 6, 2011

The Joint Fires and Effects Training System, created by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), has received some attention for using what its makers describe as ‘the creative talents of Hollywood and the game industry’ plus ‘movie-industry effects’ to mix simulation with ‘story-driven content’.

The ICT was established in 1999 as a defence-affiliated research lab following a report published in 1997 as ‘Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense’.

ICT has since also produced UrbanSim, a game that trains in ‘complex counterinsurgency and stability operations’, and Full Spectrum Warrior, an entertainment game that grants users tactical command of a light-infantry platoon.

The JFETS trainer is one of many dismounted forward-observer simulators that allow users to practice calling for indirect fire (artillery and close air support). Similar generic products are freely available online for entertainment purposes.

The more broad trainers, ‘synthetic battlespace rehearsal systems’, are themselves modified from off-the-shelf commercial games. Virtual Battlespace Systems (VBS) 1 and 2 were based on a commercial game called Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, adapted by Bohemia Interactive Australia and distributed worldwide by the Florida defence contractor Coalescent Technologies.

Meanwhile all four branches of the US armed forces, together with the DoD, Homeland Security and other government agencies, have pooled training-systems resources and commands in a ‘unique military collaborative alliance supplemented, supported and augmented by academic and industry leaders in the modeling and simulation, human performance, and training domains.’

This sixty-year-old alliance between defence contractors, universities and military is now called Team Orlando, and is based in the Central Florida Research Park.

The latter is home to the National Center for Simulation. It also contains the headquarters of IDEAS, a subsidiary of entertainment giant Disney, an ‘innovation studio’ that produced products for the US Navy’s ‘Revolution in Training’. Lockheed Martin (which produces a series of games under the DARWARS programme) has its regional office there, as do Boeing, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems (the world’s largest military contractor) and videogames companies EA and n-Space.

Another resident firm, AVT Simulations, lists as a key activity its adaptation of commercial game engines to meet the training requirements of military customers.

Each year Team Orlando holds and participates in events like I/ITSEC (the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference), GameTech and Otronicon.

These are intended, firstly, to facilitate cooperation between armed services, government agencies, academia and private firms in developing military training products and services. They are also supposed to showcase ‘how some artists are crossing over from military to entertainment to military applications’, and to attract ‘current and future gamers to add the defense industry as a career option.’

At last year’s GameTech Will Wright, creator of the Sims series of games, gave the keynote speech; this year the honorary address was delivered by the head of game-development firm Zombie Studios. The 2011 event was held during the same week in late March at the same Orlando hotel as the Army Games for Training Conference.

Indeed, insofar as the US Defense Department and the various armed-forces agencies take a serious interest in games and virtual simulators, it almost exclusively is as training instruments that can meet much the same needs as do live exercises.

Altogether, the US Army’s Warfighter Training Alliance, led by military contractor Raytheon, integrates three kinds of training: Live, Virtual (‘immersive’ simulations, operated by Computer Sciences Corporation) and Constructive (game-driven simulations, administered by General Dynamics).

Wright, in his keynote address to GameTech 2010, listed a bunch of trendy topics (network theory, complex adaptive systems, cellular automata, power-law distributions, chaos theory, nested hierarchies, etc.) in which, he claimed, the concerns of games design and those of counter-insurgency planning intersected.

But Wright’s talk was followed immediately by some quick words from Frank C. DiGiovanni, Director of Training Readiness and Strategy at the Pentagon’s Office of Personnel and Readiness. DiGiovanni is the policy coordinator and overseer of training for all four branches of the US armed forces; his office was the co-sponsor, together with Team Orlando, of GameTech.

DiGiovanni oversees development of Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiatives.

ADL emerged during the Clinton administration as an attempt to ‘support geographically unconstrained training’ in a future operating environment of ‘persistent conflict.’ The ADL website asks: ‘Why is the DoD putting so much effort into advanced learning technology?’

The increased rate of deployments of the DoD’s forces in recent years, which often involve rapid, unplanned movements to locations around the world, highlights the need to provide training on demand to individuals and units deployed worldwide. Accordingly, because of more demanding deployment criteria and other time-sensitive constraints, the DoD recognizes that yesterday’s framework of “right time, right place” learning, with its use of set times and places, may not meet future requirements. It also recognizes that providing “anytime, anywhere” instruction is essential to maintaining military readiness in the information age; future forces and their support activities must be highly adaptive to address threats effectively and rapidly.

The Pentagon’s 2010 Strategic Plan for the Next Generation of Training declared that one of the two training revolutions to have occurred in the previous 40 years was ‘the development of large scale ranges that allowed large force exercises and high fidelity conflict simulation in the late 1970s, early 80s.’ This referred to the giant National Training Centre at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert.

But this site was no longer adequate. Parts of it had recently been leased out for solar thermal and PV installations, and as a fixed location it no longer met strategic needs, which tended towards military expansionism and global power projection. This would leave hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and marines deployed in combat zones and stationed at overseas garrisons, rarely rotated back home:

Not only are U.S. forces deploying more often, they are experiencing an increasingly diverse range of missions when they do…As current operations, major materiel acquisitions and personnel related expenses continue to consume an increasing portion of defense budgets, funding for training will face significant budget pressures. Training facilities and other resources may often be underfunded, especially in relation to the increased demand described above. Meanwhile, competing demands for air, ground and maritime maneuver space, the growing reach of sensors and weapons, and environmental constraints on the use of existing ranges and maneuver areas increasingly challenge our ability to conduct live training, especially on a large scale….The long-term objective is to produce an immersive training environment… This environment must be…globally accessible 24/7…Because DoD is a global enterprise, access to that environment should be persistently available via the Global Information Grid (GIG) to the full range of users.

The 1999 DoD Strategic Plan for Advanced Distributed Learning put it thus:

In tomorrow’s dynamic threat environment, America’s forces may have to deploy on a moment’s notice…They must continuously learn, simulate, and rehearse, whether they are in school, at home station, at home, en route to, or in the theater of operations…While yesterday’s right-time, right-place learning paradigm met yesterday’s military requirements, it can not meet future requirements based on more demanding deployment criteria and other time-sensitive constraints…[Meeting] the more complex readiness needs of the future will require the Department of Defense to re-engineer its ability to deliver learning to an anytime-anywhere objective.

DiGiovanni thus made clear that the ‘strategic trends and pressures’ turning military instructors towards games and simulation were ‘high demand on our live-training resources’ from ‘competing demands.’ In such circumstances, games and simulations were a direct subsitute.

So just to be clear: what ultimately has prompted the Pentagon’s turn towards games and simulations as ‘distributed’ trainers? What lies behind the growth of institutional, funding and personnel links between armed services, giant defence contractors and private entertainment firms in the area of modelling-and-simulation R&D? (There are, of course, countless other examples of broader integration between entertainment firms and the DoD, from recruiting tools like the Army Experience Center and America’s Army, to the Catalyst workshop for aspiring screenwriters.)

According to the policymakers themselves, it is less the demands of network-centric warfare than the state of US grand strategy.

The latter was described two weeks ago by the Harvard International Relations theorist Stephen M. Walt on the Foreign Policy blog: ‘Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.’ As much has been clear at least since the Clinton Administration, the first to openly proclaim the territorial sovereignty of other states to be a revocable licence, granted by the “international community” (for which read Washington and whatever alliance it saw fit to cobble together) and enjoyed only at the latter’s pleasure.

The active citizens of the US polity – the business class, the political class itself, the Security State, the echo-chamber of thinktanks and journalists – are committed to the establishment and retention of military protectorates over the world’s energy resources, sealanes and other zones of strategic importance as a means to prevent the emergence of peer competitors, maintain the position of US firms, preserve the dollar’s privileged position, etc.

In such conditions, the dispersed masses of US ‘Warfighters’ – hundreds of thousands of them penned in fortified garrisons or engaged in combat operations around the world – can no longer be assembled reliably and periodically at home bases or live training ranges. They must find new tools by which to learn and retain their skills.

The US Army’s Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) undertakes research into training and personnel matters; its mission is to ‘maximize individual and unit performance and readiness to meet the full range of Army operations.’ Much of its recent work explores the worth as combat training exercises of games, virtual ‘immersion’ and simulation.

The psychology department at the University of Central Florida (UCF, part of the research cluster together with Team Florida) has also devoted itself to such questions. Psychomotor combat performance (marksmanship, shoot/no shoot decisions, etc.) is known to diminish with the application of stress (noise, sleep deprivation, enemy attack). Increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing and higher cortisol levels may lead to ‘unpleasant or intrusive physical or emotional reactions’: tunnel vision, auditory blocking, distraction from task-relevant stimuli, muscle tension and rigidity, and ultimately freezing and non-execution of the task itself.

According to research published in the journal Military Psychology in 1989, based on studies of Israeli veterans of the 1982 Lebanon invasion, the strongest predictor of combat stress reactions (which manifested clinically as compulsive crying, sleep disturbances, screaming, vomiting and diarrhea, numbing or levelling of affect, trembling, paralysis, withdrawal from surroundings etc.) was the sight of death (whether that of a comrade, enemy or officer).

Given that inflicting enemy casualties is the basic measure of combat proficiency, this presents a problem.

According to research from UCF psychology professor Eduardo Salas and James E. Driskell from the Florida Maxima Corporation, ‘the primary purpose of stress training is to prepare the individual to maintain effective performance in a high stress operational environment.’ The first way of inoculating against stress reactions, and thus making combat skills resistant to stress-induced degradation, is to ‘enhance familiarity with the target environment.’ This will render an ‘aversive event…less novel and unfamiliar.’

Familiarity is provided by preparing the trainee with the relevant sensory information in conditions that realistically approximate, to a reasonable degree of fidelity, the task/stress environment. The second way is by ‘overlearning’ the relevant skill or task, so as to make it a routinized habitual response to the context or stimulus.

Various DoD training outlines have emphasized that simulations, games and immersive trainers must produce ‘realistic stimulation of sensors, replication of visual cues’ and ‘stimulation of more than one sensory capacity’.

Predeployment stress inoculation is one purpose of the ‘mixed-reality’ Infantry Immersion Trainer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendeleton, and of the Future Immersive Training Environment at Camp Lejeune. The latter uses both head-mounted displays and suits equipped with sensors, enabling projected avatars to replicate the movements and actions of the participants. Rifle shots are wirelessly relayed to a receiver which incorporates the firing data into the virtual environment.

At these and similar sites, trainees are exposed to high-fidelity simulations of the ‘visual, auditory, haptic, and olfactory elements of the operational environment’: ‘sudden explosive impact, loud ambient noise, depiction of casualties, post-event chaos, presence of insurgents, and other stimuli’ including weapon signatures and ‘virtual characters [responding] realistically to being hit by small-arms fire.’

This is designed to produce an acute stress response from the infantrymen. Stress-response profiles are gathered by administering salivary-hormone tests that measure adrenal (cortisol) and alpha-amylase secretions, and by monitoring heart rates.

According to an evaluative report presented at I/ITSEC 2010, ‘exposure to realistic stressors may provide a degree of inoculation to the stress of the environment before it is experienced in theater, leading to better performance under stress’. This will, according to another I/ITSEC paper on the effect of training on mitigating stress, increase ‘the ability of forces to deliver the outputs for which they were designed’.

Such research retains the preoccupations described by former West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman in this blog’s previous post (i.e using repeated realistic drills to overcome the resistance towards killing of ‘warfighters’). But it translates the old behaviourist language into an up-to-date cognivitist account of how lethal behaviour can be learned then later elicited with ‘increased speed, increased accuracy, immunity to environmental stressors, and greater retention’.

The trick is to save (scarce) processing capacity by making automatic what would otherwise be a deliberate, consciously-willed action:

Controlled processes are those strategic processes required for novel tasks or those tasks requiring the devotion of attention. Controlled processes have been considered serial in nature and are carried out in a stepwise fashion. They have also been thought to be carried out much like a recipe, do this- then this, etc. Controlled processes have been described as being performed more slowly and under the explicit control of the individual. After much consistent practice, some tasks no longer require the devotion of attentional resources and are performed to completion in the presence of the initiating stimulus unless there is a conscious effort to inhibit them. Automatic processes are characterized by this decrease in the cognitive/attentional resources allocated for these tasks…An automatized motor-skill may operate at a level not associated with awareness, or not directly under conscious control…[Automatic] processing…is difficult to alter, to ignore, or to suppress once learned…An automatic sequence will tend to reoccur in response to the previously trained initiating stimuli.

And further:

[If] a person consistently chooses to pursue the same goal within a given situation, over time that goal structure becomes strongly paired with the features of that situation. After this consistent pairing of the situation with the intended goal, eventually, the goal itself is activated on the perception of features of the situation in a preconscious analysis…Performance improvements will occur in situations where stimuli are responded to in a consistent manner across exposures…Contextual cues should be used to mimic the effects of consistency and may activate automatic sequences of behavior…Training to levels of automaticity will also make performance reliable under environmental stressors such as alcohol, fatigue, heat, noise, and so on…In some cases, consistent practice can lead to direct memory access, such that the execution of the recipe or algorithm is no longer needed.

In short, ‘repeated experience is the best way to train decision-making skills so that a required cognitive process that might initially be analytic and labored can become more intuitive and automatic.’

UCF, alongside other institutions in the Team Orlando orbit (e.g. ARI and Lockheed Martin), has declared positive findings on the usefulness for this purpose of games and simulation. They make familiar to the trainee what would otherwise be novel and highly aversive sensory environments (i.e. all the perceptual information involved in killing another person in combat). And they allow behaviour modification via the same well-worn neuroendocrine pathways that are engaged during close-combat training and repetitive markmanship drills.

Visual-attention tasks are known to stimulate cholinergic release and thus allow rapid perceptual learning. People who engage in such repetitive, high-stimulus activities for extended periods are known to experience visual and auditory hallucinations that accurately replay the activity as they fall asleep (hypnagogic imagery, or the so-called ‘Tetris effect’). Such images are not limited to sleep onset but intrude during wakening; there is a lag between sensory stimulus and hallucination. This is known even to affect amnesics: those with deficits in conscious declarative memory.

Those kinds of training that elicit some instrumental motor response from the trainee or player (in a virtual environment, desktop computer, console or head-mounted display) are usually also designed for constant feedback and engagement of the user’s reward system, allowing proprioception and self-correction. In their most advanced form, such media gather precise activity data via click-stream logs, track sequences of decisions, detect anomalies or failure, and build behavioural profiles of the trainee or player.

Perhaps most importantly for training purposes, the user is desensitized by repeated exposure to high-fidelity depictions of physical violence against other humans: photorealistic vision of gruesome deaths, directional audio including ‘human distress noise’, scent machines, haptic feedback, wind, heat, and motor control over the action.

The boundary between processing of visual (and to a lesser extent auditory, tactile etc.) information and planning of movement is fuzzy. It seems likely that the primate brain’s comprehension of observed behaviour (say by an avatar) involves performing a ‘covert rehearsal’ of that activity in the parietal and premotor cortex. The evidence of facial imitation and automatic prereaching by human neonates shows a link between visual information and motor movements at the very outset of development, i.e. immediately after birth. But the learning of older children and adults also involves involuntary imitation and emulation of the perceived actions and gestures that are performed by those around them.

These are the biological correlates of the conditioning and social-learning process by which military recruits are made into technically proficient killers.

So, just as with the post-WW2 innovations in live marksmanship drills and operations training discussed in the previous post, some of the useful features of virtual battlefield simulations and videogame combat training (from the viewpoint of the instructors) are those that overcome a resistance to killing that otherwise incapacitates frontline ‘warfighters’.

But this raises an obvious point. Many or all of these features are also shared by popular visual-entertainment products: TV, movies, and interactive media including videogames.

These, taken as a whole and on any reasonable measure, expose users to an extraordinary barrage of realistically-depicted violence. Consequently their audience judges acts of violence against people to be less novel, aberrant and repulsive than they would do otherwise.

The ubiquity of salient and vivid mental pictures of aggression prompts people (by the availability heuristic) to overestimate the frequency of such events (in reality, though not at the cinema, homicide occurs less often than suicide). But this is a self-fulfilling judgement. If an individual fearfully supposes he is engaged in a perpetual Hawk-Dove game (a reasonable conclusion to draw from the entertainment media’s p0rn0graphy of violence), and that other players are likely to have chosen an aggressive strategy, then his best response too is to be aggressive rather than meek. The result is a breakdown in cooperation.

Of course, adopting such a strategy and executing it are two distinct things (there’s also a difference between signalling aggression, i.e. making credible threats of inflicting damage, and actually following through with violence).

The latter only occurs, as the above military research shows, when violence is made automatic and reflexive by instense and persistent brutalization. Such a programme can over-ride the social and natural barriers that otherwise keep conspecifics (including fellow humans) from killing each other, even when instrumental rationality tells them to do so.

Conflict between animals of the same species is commonly described as ‘limited war’, involving insufficient force, ritualized tactics, withholding of offensive weapons, and seldom causing serious injury to the participants. ‘Escalated fighting’ is generally absent from intraspecific battles, e.g. snakes merely wrestle each other.

But, to judge by skyrocketing rates of aggravated assault in most industrialized countries over recent decades, humans are trying to kill each other rather a lot more than they used to. All this is suboptimal, to say the least.

But is it just another regrettable case of market failure: a poor aggregate-welfare outcome resulting from individual firms each trying to make a buck, whichever way they can? Or does it serve some functional purpose?

An unsentimental education

April 1, 2011

In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War, former West Point psychology professor Dave Grossman claims that ‘the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves unable to kill.’

The available evidence seems a little too patchy to establish this proposition.

Nevertheless it is true — nobody has bothered seriously to argue otherwise — that musket fire during the nineteenth century, and lines of riflemen during the Second World War, did not produce anywhere near the technically feasible number of lethal hits per minute.

This, Grossman contends, was because individual infantrymen often could not bring themselves to kill a fellow human, preferring to fire harmlessly into the air, over the heads of their enemies, or refusing to expend ammunition altogether:

The simple fact is that when faced with a living, breathing opponent instead of a target, a significant majority of the soldiers revert to a posturing mode in which they fire over their enemy’s heads…

[Generations] of soldiers appear to have either intentionally or instinctively outwitted the powers that be by simply exercising the soldier’s right to miss…

Secretly, quietly, at the moment of decision… these soldiers found themselves to be unable to kill their fellow man.

Some, unable to fire at all, pretended to shoot; others busied themselves with non-lethal tasks like loading weapons or gathering ammunition. An instinctive aversion to inflicting death on others limited casualty rates even on densely-packed battlefields like Gettysburg.

It evidenced, he says, a psychological force ‘stronger than drill, stronger than peer pressure, even stronger than the self-preservation instinct.’

To overcome soldiers’ ‘inner resistance to firing their weapon in combat’, armed forces had long ago introduced battlefield supervision and direction by squad leaders and platoon sergeants. To the coercive presence of superiors was added mutual surveillance by peers, group-loaded and crew-fired artillery, etc. Above all, after the Second World War, firing rates were raised by more effective combat training.

Grossman describes the brutalization and desensitization to violence of recruits during US Army and Marine Corps basic training (boot camp), and the mix of classic and operant conditioning involved in more realistic weapons-and-marksmanship drills (e.g. shooting from foxholes or behind cover, changing visual stimuli from bullseyes to pop-up human sillhouettes, 3-D moulded plastic, photo targets that fell down when hit, firing paint projectiles at live targets, filling balloons with red paint to mimic blood, and so on).

The new training regimens involved more realistic simulation of combat alongside repeated, stimulus-response conditioning to allow reliable elicitation of the desired behaviour (i.e. firing on the enemy). Tasks were trained ‘to automaticity (i.e. so that they could be performed with little or no active cognitive control).’

These techniques ensured that soldiers would execute lethal actions even under the immense physical stress of battle, when information processing slowed and motor skills degenerated.

Grossman claims that, by the time of the US war in Vietnam, firing rates had increased to around 95%. Among these soldiers and marines, resistance to killing had been broken.

sprezzatura of lethality had been achieved.

Likely combat scenarios have changed with the geopolitical weather.

For Washington’s twenty-first century Drang nach Osten (a.k.a the War on Terror) the task to be simulated now includes occupying the densely populated megacities of energy-rich regions like Southwest Asia, the Niger Delta, Central Asia and Northeast Africa. This, as Dick Cheney said in 1999, is ‘where the prize ultimately lies.’

Simulating today’s battlespace for combat training thus may require construction of a replica mini-city.

The conditions of urban warfare, counterinsurgency and occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq are simulated at the US Army’s Joint Readiness and Training Center at Fort Polk in Louisiana. For the sake of realism, soldiers playing the enemy wear beards and costumes. Other role players are recruited from among the local civilian population, including immigrants from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The smell of dead bodies is reproduced by burying days-old meat and bones. Scenario villages and ‘in-theatre facades’ are constructed from shipping containers, interior and exterior sets are dressed, and trauma moulage (wound makeup) is applied with ‘film-production realism.’

At “Chicago”, the IDF’s model Palestinian city in the Negev, the smell of rotting corpses is also recreated. Props staff from the Israeli National Theatre dress soldiers as Palestinians; cardboard cutouts of these figures pop up as targets during live-fire exercises.

The US training facility at Zussman Village, near Fort Knox in Kentucky, is described by the private company that designed, engineered and installed the pyrotechnics:

One of the most realistic urban combat training facilities in the U.S. is located right here in Kentucky. Zussman Village in Ft. Knox, Ky. encompasses 30 acres and is home to some of the most devious and realistic urban warfare scenarios that the Army’s top personnel can concoct. Deafening explosions that rattle your body, gun toting guerillas, the odor of raw sewage, the chaos and confusion of civilians on the street, burning buildings and large, fiery explosions all await those soldiers who train at Zussman Village.

The genesis of Zussman Village can be traced back to 1988 when Major General Tom Tait identified the need the train the armored force in an urban setting. A group of Vietnam veterans were charged with the task of creating design guidelines for how the site would look and operate.

“There were a lot of meetings and a lot of scribbling on bar napkins involved,” chuckled Andy Andrews, Zussman Village Range Manager. “We reviewed all the urban combat scenarios that our units have faced in the past. Everything from World War II to Somalia. We also learned a lot from British forces and their dealings in Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Syria. It was extremely important that our MOUT site (military operations in urban terrain) be as realistic as possible. We wanted it to be dirty and nasty — the way war really is.”

One of the realities of war and urban combat, as witnessed currently in Iraq, is unexpected explosions and lingering fires. Andy Andrews envisioned exploding gas stations, burning buildings and burning cars. The goal is to produce a realistic, highly stressful situation that teaches troops how to navigate a hostile, urban landscape. Zussman Village is currently the only MOUT site to incorporate pyrotechnics into training scenarios.

“One of the reasons why the fire effects are so crucial is that most of our military operations are conducted at night,” said Andrews. “When an explosion occurs and a soldier is wearing night vision goggles, his vision goes blank. Soldiers need to learn how to react to this type of situation and also to resist the urge to have his concentration lapse. It’s just human nature to take that second to stare at a fire or explosion, but in combat, soldiers need to react quickly to their changing surroundings.”


“Hollywood has nothing on us,” said Daniel Hawkins, Zussman Village Systems Engineer. “Whatever scenario you can imagine, we can create here. We’ve paid attention to the smallest detail — everything from our sewer ‘smell-o-vision’ to fully furnished hotel rooms. We also have several rigged ‘surprises’ like blowing up the bridge, knocking down a utility pole or springing a dummy from behind furniture in a building. While this is a very interesting and exciting to work, we all understand the greater purpose. This is not just a paycheck, we all believe in what we do here. We want to scare the soldier here, so he’ll be more careful over there in combat.”

Zussman Village cost $15 million to complete and this includes 20 concrete-block buildings with varying levels of simulated damage, a junkyard, soccer field, an open air market, church/mosque, cemetery, gas station, electrical substation, train tracks and bridge. The site continues to expand and offer new challenges.

Field training, especially with artillery, is expensive. Aside from these physical re-creations of cities, combat training thus increasingly involves electronic simulation of urban environments.

The US Army’s Warfighter Training Alliance, led by military contractor Raytheon, now integrates three kinds of training: Live, Virtual (‘immersive’ simulations, operated by Computer Sciences Corporation) and Constructive (game-driven simulations, administered by General Dynamics).

The purpose of the latter two is not, as commonly is made out, to school a new generation of ‘wired warriors’ in the ways of ‘network-centric warfare’ or ‘remote-control battles.’ The truth is less glamorous and more mundane.

The trainees are frontline infantry; games and simulations are merely an efficient means for each to receive the same perceptual signals, perform the same neural and motor activity, and undergo the same reinforcement learning as in live exercises.

Just as with live training, repeated exposure to the sensory inputs involved in killing (photorealistic vision of gruesome deaths, directed audio including ‘human distress noise’, scent machines, haptic feedback, wind, heat, and motor control over the action) increases the user’s tolerance for and mastery of the act itself.

The Joint Fires and Effects Training System, at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, is made up of three virtual environments: urban terrain, open terrain and air support. One task of its creators was to ‘create believable and evocative insurgent behaviours for observation and interaction’, with a ‘high level of fidelity in munitions effects.’

Army News describes it thus:

A 15-foot-high, 30-foot-wide projection screen plays out the battle, as the soldiers react to the changing scenarios and “virtual humans” use artificial intelligence to counteract. From their perspective, the crew is fighting for their lives — only here they will get the opportunity to live and learn from their mistakes.

“They’ve got to be immersed,” said Maj. Gen. Michael D. Maples, Fort Sill commanding general and chief of the field artillery. “In this kind of environment where you use a combination of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, you can give… all of those sounds, those sights, those feelings of being in combat, so they sense the same things.”


He said that training universal observers and battle staff in fires and effects capabilities and doctrine is vital to reducing the amount of time between identifying a target and delivering fires.”I would say we’ve really got to look at ‘sensor to effects’ solutions,” Maples said. “You’ve got to minimize the amount of time from the when you see the target… until you produce the effects on the target. So we’ve got to have that whole linkage put together, and it’s a pretty complex business. This is not easy. It has to be trained.”

The urban training scenario (which focuses on ‘force protection’, close-quarter combat and decision-making for a small unit) sees the trainee positioned near a highway intersection, playground, garage, wedding party, outdoor market, ‘IED vehicle’ and ‘insurgent staging area’:

[A] computer-generated city is projected on the wall in front of the trainee, while other soldiers’ images (virtual humans) are projected on the wall to the left of the trainee. The trainee interacts with the virtual soldiers as a team during the exercise. The trainee acts as a universal observer, working through target-related issues and calling for fire.

Users may also perform house-to-house searches in small units, clearing housing and buildings.

This product, created by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), has received some attention for using what it described as ‘the creative talents of Hollywood and the game industry’ plus ‘movie-industry effects’ to mix simulation with ‘story-driven content’. The ICT was established in 1999 as a defence-affiliated research lab following a report published in 1997 as ‘Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense’.

This blog’s next post will look at some of those links.

The changing household consumption bundle

October 21, 2010

In any given time period, an average member of Australia’s employed population buys such-and-such amount of food, clothing, shelter, TVs, Hollywood movies, football matches, medical care etc.

Has this consumption vector changed much over recent decades?

The figures below show the proportion of household expenditure accounted for by various categories of goods and services, and how these proportions changed between 1984 and 2004.

What we see is contrary to the popular, media-fuelled view of affluenza and luxury fever.

The largest relative growth came in categories of spending like household services and operation (phone calls, childcare, housekeeping, cleaning, gardening), housing costs (rent, interest repayments, rates, etc.) and miscellaneous (mostly education fees).

Most new spending was not on items like household furnishings, recreation or personal care (toiletries and cosmetics).

But this is a bit deceptive. It says more about changes in relative prices than the physical volume of items purchased.

The relative price of “goods” to “services” (a crude distinction, it’s true) has fallen over the past 30 years.

Medical practitioners’ fees, for example, increased far more during the period under consideration than did most durable goods. The per-unit cost of components found in electronic equipment (TVs, mobile phones, personal computers) declined due to technical advances.

And of course the average Australian household did not buy fewer shirts, dresses or shoes than it had twenty years earlier. But prices in the textiles and clothing industry barely increased in this time.

Hence the grain of truth in the otherwise fantastic claims of Clive Hamilton, prominent “public intellectual” and one-time Greens candidate:

Average households today are filled with big-screen TVs and DVDs… [We] see backyards dotted with swimming pools. It is nothing for an average parent to spend $1000 on a present for a child or to buy them a personal mobile phone. Ordinary families happily shell out $40,000 for a four-wheel drive play-thing and gamble away a few thousand dollars each year merely for entertainment.

But this is not because, as Hamilton claims, “modern consumers no longer consume the ‘utility’ of goods and services: they consume their symbolic meanings.”

Instead it’s simple technological innovation, working through the substitution effect, that increases demand for certain goods, transforming them “from luxuries to necessities“.

Productivity gains reduce the number of labour hours required to produce many items, lowering their unit price. They can thus be bought at higher volumes and in larger sizes. (Service products are, arguably, less susceptible to technical advances, which may help to explain the recent movement in relative prices.)

Consider some of the major consumer goods (CD, CD-ROM, DVD, MiniDisk, Blu-ray) developed over the past 35 years. These are some of Hamilton’s prime examples of “items that have been transformed from luxuries to necessities in most Australian homes.”

But such products were not developed in response to consumer demand, let alone “ever-rising aspirations in pursuit of lifestyles that would give us an identity.” Consumers didn’t grow tired of the gramophone record and demand something new.

On the contrary, consumer demand was created by Philips, Sony, Pioneer and MCA to meet a technology – Laserdisc – that had been developed in the late 1970s for another purpose: home video. Of course, VHS cassettes proved more successful. To recoup their investment in Laserdisc, these companies created another mass market for the technology: “compact disc”.

This meant placing long-term orders for disc-pressing machinery, laser diodes, and all the intermediate inputs necessary for different stages of production; agreements with record companies to ensure that audio recordings would be released in the right format; and finally the advertising and distribution networks to ensure the product would be bought once it had been launched.

From this beginning followed successive innovations in the production of optical-disc products, similar to those in computing, which increased storage capacity to the extent that a single disc can now hold more than a terabyte of data.

This tendency for technical innovation to allow more efficient delivery of basic needs is a  200-year old feature of industrial capitalism. If the product contributes to the employed population’s consumption bundle, it makes labour cheaper to employ (after nineteenth-century cotton mills made workers’ clothing cheaper, the same real wage, in all industries, could henceforth be met with less money).

It also generates, as Hamilton isn’t the first to point out, the profusion of “non-basic needs”, a “failure to distinguish between what we want and what we need”. (Even though, last anyone heard, Hamilton had declared that the Great Recession meant “the era of affluenza is over”, aggregate demand is in fact sustained more than ever by growth in household debt).

The cause of this cornucopia isn’t the spiritually empty “materialism” of the working population,  and its solution isn’t “downshifting” (“rejecting the values of consumer society”).

The culprit is both mundane and more formidable. It is an invariant structural feature of capitalism: improvements in labour productivity, driven by competition and the search for innovator profit.

As Hamilton makes clear, “growth fetishism”, and its consequent effect on the consumption bundle of the working population, has us on a path to biospheric disaster. But the solution to this social problem isn’t the taking of thought, any more than a remedy for capitalism’s ecocidal, grow-or-die dynamic is the election of Greens members to parliament, or Australia’s “easing back the immigration tap“.