Technology in the Abstract on Lockheed Martin Day

October 2nd, 2007 · No Comments

On March 20, while citizens across the country marched in demonstration of their desire for peace and in mourning for the tens of thousands of lives lost so far in the Iraq war, Lockheed Martin – who’s machinery has been put to extensive use in that war – held a solo career fair in the Great Hall of Iowa State’s Memorial Union for the recruitment of the school’s engineers and the exhibition of the company’s military and space technologies. This was a coincidence, not the result of anyone’s specific intentions, but it would not be accurate to say that it was “only” a coincidence. For Lockheed Martin is in the business of developing, promoting, increasing and profiting from military technologies every day of the year, just as the war has taken lives, broken families, maimed bodies and caused chaos on every day of the last four years. Any day that Lockheed Martin comes to Iowa State occurs on the same day as their technologies are being used to destroy life.

Lockheed Martin is the world’s largest developer of military technology and Iowa State’s deepening relationship with the organization is a significant moral burden on the university.

The career fair, which was advertised to ISU students as Lockheed Martin Day (like Valentines Day or Presidents Day or Martin Luther King Day), occurred in conjunction with the establishment of the Vance Coffman Endowed Chair in honor of former Lockheed Martin Vice President and ISU alumnus Vance Coffman who recently donated 1.5 million dollars to the Department of Aerospace Engineering. So Iowa State’s involvement with Lockheed Martin last week was expressing itself at both ends: the college was providing new workers to the corporation while simultaneously taking money from one of the corporation’s former workers.

Lockheed Martin Day itself was something of a celebration. When I first arrived I discovered that ISU’s mascot Cy was in attendance, as if to signify that the university considers its relationship with weapons manufacturers to be about as serious as a game. The Great Hall was filled with Lockheed Martin (L.M., from here on) engineers who were eager to show ISU engineers video presentations of some of the things they had built. From one side of the hall to the other were videos playing on a constant loop showing such marvels as rockets being dropped onto an empty desert landscape and a bomb being detonated under water. One video showed a few dozen rockets falling through the air and all being detonated at once as they hit the ground. The image was followed by the words “Wind Controlled Missile Dispensers (WCMD)”. But the words were not then followed by an explanation of what these missiles are used to “dispense” because they are used to dispense, among other things, cluster bombs – a notoriously inaccurate and deadly technology. Handicap International reports that 98% of all casualties resulting from the explosions of cluster munitions are civilians and that one third of these civilians are children. And there are still un-detonated cluster munitions from the Vietnam War.

The Lockheed Martin representatives at the event did not share this type of information because they cannot. For L.M. to discuss the effects of the machines they produce would be incommensurate with their recruitment goals. Knowing this, they deliberately showcased their technologies as technologies, excluding any other sort of consideration. The machines were supposed to be admirable in and of themselves, as technical achievements, without any reference to what the machines do or what they are used for. L.M. is committed to abstracting their technologies away from the real contexts in which the technologies are used and even to acting as if they are not used for what they are used for. If they did not do this on Lockheed Martin Day they would not have been able to recruit any engineers. But this is an abstraction of a very dangerous kind, for the context in which their technologies are put to use are human contexts. When the machinery does what the machinery was designed to do the machinery separates limbs from bodies and people from families.

When I have spoken, as an outsider from the colony of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to engineering students and faculty on the subject of the ethics of technology, almost all have readily acknowledged that Iowa State is in need of an increased awareness of the social and personal effects of military technologies. Currently, the College of Engineering dedicates very little time, energy or resources to serious and prolonged discussions of the ethics of technological development though it dedicates gigantic amounts of time, energy and resources to the technical aspects of technological development. This would be practical if technology existed in a void, as Lockheed Martin pretended that it does at its exhibition, but of course it does not. Technology exists in the world and in the world it has vast ecological and social implications. To ignore this is to maintain a fantasy, one that L.M. is exploiting to its financial advantage.

An e-mail publicizing Lockheed Martin Day sent to all of ISU’s engineering students and faculty, and also available through the College of Engineering homepage, advertised one of the event’s displays as a “video game-like toy”. The “toy” thus advertised was a video simulation of a missile launcher whose launched missiles are, in reality, intended to end enemy lives. The purposive omission of human content in the rest of L.M.’s displays was here brought to a bizarre extreme. So far is Lockheed Martin from any consideration of what their technologies do and have done that they are capable of treating those technologies as though are toys. They also, consequently, treat ISU’s student population as though we are children.

The sort of abstractions and fantasies on view during Lockheed Martin Day were only a very vivid and very dangerous instance of a type of thinking that is extremely common and in which I participate, sometimes against my intentions and even my will. This type of thinking is hard to avoid in a culture whose members have an almost ceaseless interaction with mass medias, in particular with visual mass medias. This mental habit of abstracting away from the human content of images allows us to enjoy watching people being humiliated on television shows or in internet videos, to treat a celebrity’s death as a source of entertainment, or to casually but curiously view a looped video of a tyrant’s execution on the evening news. We are only capable of viewing these things and being entertained in these ways because of our ability to separate the televised or digitized image of a person from the person of whom the image was made; just as Lockheed Martin is capable of celebrating their military technologies only because of their ability to separate their machines from what their machines do to people. An image is treated as an image, like the technology is treated as technology – that is, abstractly. The difference is not one of kind but of scale.

I can most clearly see the danger of my own participation in this sort of casual dehumanization when I think of it in contrast to the methods and attitudes of nonviolence. The sorts of anti-relationships between human beings that are mediated by images or by technologies certainly preclude any possibility of loving. If love for the people who have suffered from war-making machines were to have been introduced into the sales pitches on Lockheed Martin Day the whole event would have fallen apart. And if love were to spontaneously emerge in a viewer for the people buried under their own images in photographs or on screens then any type of degradation or suffering the buried people underwent would not inspire pleasure or laughter. Living as we do makes this difficult indeed but I believe that this is the exact and the only meaningful way of resisting the violence that keeps L.M. profitable. Nonviolence, as the practical action of loving, is the full opposite of the abstract interactions that assure the continuation of violence. If a stereotype, an image, a statistic, a catchphrase or a machine is allowed to interfere with one human’s relation to another human then nonviolence cannot be practiced, love cannot be experienced and violence is assured.

What it will take to make ISU’s involvement in technological development more ethical is the same as what it will take to make myself more ethical: persistent attention to the human effects of the things we do, the media we consume, the food we eat, the technology we develop. Every faculty member I have spoken to in the College of Engineering has told me that the need to encourage serious engagement with ethical issues on campus is very large and that this need can certainly be met. Iowa State’s student nonviolence group, Time for Peace, has begun working with other groups and with faculty members on campus to dramatically increase the awareness of, and engagement with, the ethical dimension of technological development. ISU can be a leader in providing for all students a deeper and more realistic understanding of the role of technology in our lives and our culture. And this will occur by regarding technology from a position contrary to the one inhabited by Lockheed Martin; by always regarding technology and its development in relation to human beings.

Tags: AP Issues · April 2007 · Commentary · Nate Logsdon

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