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The Enforcement Droid is Programmed for Urban Pacification!

Yesterday, Eric C wrote about RoboCop, telling a charming story about our dad editing it down so seven year-olds could watch it. When I heard about this, I got really excited. RoboCop touches on so many different On Violence issues without even meaning to. Then I read Eric C’s review.

He only covered the privatization of the American military, police and security forces.

“Just that?” I asked him, “What about the idea that ED-209 is a drone? What about holding military contractors accountable? What about relating ED-209 to policing and counter-insurgency?”

He told me that if I had so many ideas, I should write my own damn post. So I did. (It helps that Eric and I have virtually memorized this film.)

Without further ado, four other RoboCop thoughts:

1. RoboCop isn’t just about the rise of privatization in our police and military, but the militarization of police forces across America.

In Robocop, OCP wants to roll out ED-209 to Detroit first, then to the military. OCP views the two spheres--military and police--identically. America has started to do the same thing.

Police forces now wear tactical gear like soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They carry tricked out M4s like special operations soldiers and pack night vision goggles. Federal law enforcement, like the FBI, Border Patrol and Homeland Security, all have SWAT teams, armored vehicles and intelligence units. If you want to see this in action, just scan the catalogue for Ranger Joe’s, and try to find where the military gear ends and the police gear starts.

Most of this has occurred slowly, without debate. When politicians told our policemen they stood on the frontline of a global war, we basically told them to go to war. With their own communities. As a result, policemen arm and armor up to go to work. Yet most Americans--especially “libertarians” and conservatives--care more about universal health care than militarized police forces.

(I give a lot of credit to Mr. Hilliard of the Military Intelligence Career Course seminar program for opening my eyes to this situation.)

2. The ED-209 is terrible contracting. And no one holds the contractors responsible.

ED-209 cannot arrest anyone (it doesn’t have hands). It shoots the wrong person. It cannot walk down stairs. It cannot go indoors. And it’s exorbitantly expensive. In the worst case, ED-209 shoots a co-worker, and someone dismisses it as, “That’s life in the big city.”

It’s the F-22 of the near future, in other words.

But it speaks to something that actually happens. In our current conflicts, military contractors don’t fall under UCMJ and don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the countries they work in. “Third country nationals” at Victory Base Complex rioted because they didn’t get enough rice to eat. Did anyone hold the contractors responsible? Nope.
Even in America, our government doesn’t punish contractors for sub-standard or shoddy work. Almost every big ticket project of the last fifteen years has run late and gone over budget. Why? Instead of providing oversight, the Senate and House of Representatives usually rewards those contractors with more contracts to bring jobs to their states. Just look at the reports from the Committee for Wartime Contracting. Virtually every company overcharged the U.S. taxpayer, and the government can’t/won’t do a thing about it.
3. ED-209 is a drone.

Drones don’t just have to fly. This Economist leader on drones describes rolling, crawling and leaping drones. And the drones of the future won’t always have operators. And they could be as dangerous as helpful.

Of course, it is a long way from flying remotely controlled drones over American cities--a topic up for debate--and arming drones to kill people on their own. But the ethics and morals of robots have mainly been explored in obscure philosophy podcasts and Isaac Asimov’s books. When death is on the line--with ED-209 and future drones--we need to have this conversation.
4. ED-209 is bad policing. And COIN.

If the problem in “old Detroit” is crime, ED-209 won’t solve it. Crime stems from plenty of things: open air drug markets, unemployment, and lack of education for starters. Attendance at pre-school correlates to lower crime rates better than most other factors. (An under-reported explanation for the current drop in crime is the implementation of Head Start programs about 25 years ago. Don’t worry, Congress will slash funds for these soon.)

But that still really isn’t the issue. ED-209 stops crime at the wrong place, standing on a street corner, watching for trouble. And it doesn’t prevent crime, it shoots people who break the law. Good policing prevents crime; it doesn’t wait on a street corner watching for law breakers.

Which reminds me of the vast measures of counter-IED techniques employed over the years. Finding new and more complicated ways to stop IED detonations--or survive IED detonations--doesn’t solve the problem of discouraging an insurgency. Counter-IED techniques just help you survive IED attacks or attempted attacks.

So what can prevent crime and break-up IED networks? Detective and intelligence work based on people. A robot cannot know what people think, or what they do in their homes. In short, ED-209, or drones, can help fight a war, but they cannot win it. Only people can. People finding, talking to and (if need be) arresting other people. In Robocop, Dick Jones bills ED-209 as the solution to crime in Detroit. No technology will ever stop all crime; only people can.

two comments

Great insights. Slightly tangential, but Robocop also predicted the rise of synthetic stimulants that we are seeing now (aka bath salts).

I will only take exception that “no one holds the contractors responsible.” There are lots of times where the federal govt has to drop a contractor for “failure to deliver” or other reasons. But your premise is that, if a piece of hardware does something bad, it is the contractor’s fault for building it. Hardly the case. If the contractor can prove that the customer (police chief or military chief) accepted the product knowing of its limitations, the contractor has clean hands. There is an agreement as to what is to be provided, it’s not up to the contractor to second-guess the client.

Now, if the evil contractor is directly manipulating the product outside of the confines of the agreed-upon parameters, to wit, sending a drone to kill a cop within the corporate headquarters, well then that’s a clear violation on behalf of the contractor, and (in fairness) he was fired as a result of overstepping his authority.