A panel that I proposed and organized for this year’s meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science, to be held in Washington, DC at the end of October, has been accepted.  The Panel, “Technoscience and the (Post)modern Military Imaginary,” will feature presentations by Christopher Coker, Frans Osinga, Antoine Bousquet, and (of course), me.

Panel Description

From the work of historians and science and technology studies (STS) scholars alike we know that military funding has had profound impacts on both the direction and content of postwar scientific and technical research in the United States.[1]  However, with only a few notable exceptions, STS has been less interested in how the military has been influenced by changes in postwar science.  Indeed, MacKenzie noted in 1986 that STS had not dealt adequately with the relationship between the sciences and the military, a situation that continues today.[2]  As such, this panel will include a number of papers meant to contribute to existing work by Paul Edwards and others that has begun to explore the role of technoscience in shaping (post)modern military imaginaries.[3]

In the postwar period, technoscience has not only served as a source of increasingly destructive weapon systems, but also as a source of compelling concepts and metaphors used by military professionals and civilian strategists alike in the construction of theories, strategies, doctrines, and visions of contemporary and future warfare.  This panel will explore this phenomenon in more detail with papers that examine the U.S. military’s recent turn to chaos theory and complexity theory in its construction of a nonlinear view of warfare in the Information Age; the role of the military’s ambivalent relationship towards computers and systems sciences during the immediate postwar years in the emergence of a nonlinear view of war; the degree to which the military’s enlistment of nonlinear science maps onto wider socio-cultural changes characterized as postmodern; and the ethical concerns raised by contemporary American visions of future warfare in which unmanned, autonomous combat vehicles are a centerpiece of U.S. forces.


Panel Participants and Papers

Panel Organizer

Dr. Sean Lawson, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Utah.

Paper: “The Closed World Revisited: Systems Science, Computers, and the Emergence a Nonlinear View of War.”


Recently, a number of scholars have begun to note that U.S. military discourses of information-age warfare have come increasingly to rely upon concepts and metaphors gleaned from the nonlinear sciences, in particular chaos theory and complexity theory.  The emergence of such a nonlinear view of war is typically contrasted with, and assumed to represent a radical break from, a supposedly linear, industrial-age view of war typified by the military’s supposedly unproblematic adoption in the postwar years of the digital computer and associated systems sciences such as operations research, systems analysis, and cybernetics.  The Vietnam War and the tenure of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara are said to represent both the apotheosis, but also the deficiency, of that view of war.  In contrast, this paper will argue that U.S. military professionals did not wholeheartedly adopt the computer or systems sciences, but rather, exhibited a deep sense of ambivalence towards both.  That ambivalence has continued into the present period and has shaped the particular form of the nonlinear sciences’ enlistment into the service of U.S. military discourse.  Additionally, it will argue that the systems sciences held the seeds of a nonlinear view of war that would, in the latter half of the twentieth century, increasingly portray information-gathering, communication, and decision-making on noncontiguous, global “battlespaces” as the central activities of warfare.  Thus, the turn to nonlinear science in the last two decades represents not so much a radical break as an evolution in, or intensification of, a view of war that had begun to emerge as early as the 1950s.


Col. Frans Osinga, Ph.D., Royal Netherlands Air Force.

Paper: “Science and Military Thought: John Boyd as the First Postmodern Strategist.”


Like the development of social theory, strategic theory development in a specific era and by specific persons is influenced by a number of formative factors. While in general military thought is deemed to be heavily shaped by technology or operational experience, in fact the organizational context in which a strategic theorist develops his ideas is one very important additional one, as well as the personal professional background of the theorist. Often overlooked formative factors in military thought are broad societal changes and, as a subset of these, the emergence of specific scientific debates, ideas and insights. This paper argues that ideas, arguments, and insights from a variety of disciplines that emerged in the past 50 years, and that are now regarded as markers of the postmodern shift, have been directly influential in the development of a leading contemporary military thought, in particular the work of the late John Boyd.

John Boyd is regarded as one of the premier military theorists of the past 30 years, and his influence is actually rising. The paper will demonstrate how postmodern scientific developments in epistemology, cognitive sciences, neo-Darwinism, and non-linearity directly influenced his arugments, leading to the introduction into military planning and doctrines of a new lexicon, new metaphors and new causal relationships in strategic logic. It will argue that Boyd’s work is grounded in the epistemological debates of the 1960s of Popper, Kuhn and Polanyi, the cognitive revolution, systems thinking and the emergence of complexity theory. His work revolves around the notion of inescapable uncertainty in the act of observation, both as an impediment and a tool to be exploited. He developed a strategic theory around a concept of individual and organizational learning and evolution, attaching strategic importance to the quality of the cognitive processes social entities develop to deal with that. pregnant with postmodern concepts, this body of work makes evident that military affairs and strategic thought are not separate domains but are clearly influenced by wider societal intellectual developments.


Dr. Antoine Bousquet, School of Politics and Sociology, University of London.

Paper: “Chaoplexic Warfare: Network-Centric Warfare and the Non-Linear Sciences.”


This paper will provide a critical appraisal of the influence of the scientific ideas of chaos and complexity theory on contemporary military thought, in particular through a treatment of the current official Pentagon doctrine of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). STS scholars Paul Edwards and Chris Hables Gray have previously produced illuminating accounts of the
impact of cybernetics on the U.S. military during the Cold War and beyond. This paper proposes to complement and extend this work by taking into account the more recent outgrowth and transformation of the original cybernetic paradigm into the non-linear sciences of chaos and complexity (taken here together as “chaoplexity”) with their emphasis on decentralised networks, emergence, positive feedback and run-away processes of change.

Starting with the early insights of military strategist John Boyd in the early eighties, chaoplexic ideas have increasingly permeated the mainstream of military thought in the United States. Drawing on the doctrinal literature of Network-Centric Warfare, this paper will draw out the explicit and implicit chaoplexic influences behind the military concepts of swarming and self-synchronisation. However it will also find that, although references to chaoplexity are numerous within the NCW literature, there are nonetheless significant discrepancies between doctrinal pronouncements and the scientific theories it draws inspiration from. There thus remains considerable doubt about the extent to which NCW truly represents a break with the limitations of previous rigid centralised cybernetic frameworks, the failings of which have been well documented by the aforementioned scholars.

Nevertheless, this paper concludes that the development of the non-linear sciences in the last few decades is being accompanied by a transformation in the theories and practices of warfare (as was previously observed with the rise of cybernetics) and NCW, however imperfectly, can be seen as one of the heralds of the emergence of a new scientific mode of war: chaoplexic warfare.

Dr. Christopher Coker, Department of International Relations, London School of Economics.

Paper: “Can Robots be Kantians? Ethics and Unmanned Combat Vehicles in Future Warfare.”


It is only really since the 1960s that we’ve begun to ask how technology has shaped the horizons of human experience. It’s only recently that we have begun to ask whether we are losing touch with our traditional modes of understanding. Are we allowing the world to be increasingly mediated through the technologies we design? As technology encroaches upon or mediates our experience, is it beginning to transform our perceptions of the world? One day, perhaps quite soon, will we be asked to see the world through the machine?s point of view?

In 2007 the US Army commissioned a study of how ?lethal autonomous systems? could be built with “an ethical control and reasoning system.” My paper will ask whether we can programme an amended form of Azimov’s behavioural rules into robot software. The US military thinks that robotic systems can be endowed with a “conscience” that would reflect protocols and rules. At the moment this means applying ethics not just to machines but the people behind them. But all such codes are based on human embodiment and require what Karl Jaspers called the “unconditional commitment that inheres in contact with others.” In disembedding war, ethical codes would be removed from the two forms in which morality is traditionally embodied (pain – biological; shame – cultural). My paper would look at the extent it will be possible to programme autonomous systems with even a rudimentary “conscience” and what doing so might mean for the “nature” of war.

[1] For example Paul Forman, “Behind Quantum Electronics: National security as Basis for Physical Research in the United States, 1940-1960,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 18, no. 1 (1987); Daniel Lee Kleinman, Politics on the Endless Frontier: Postwar Research Policy in the United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995); and Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

[2]  Donald Mackenzie, “Science and Technology Studies and the Question of the Military,” Social Studies of Science 16, no. 2 (1986): 362-363.

[3] Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

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