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<nettime> Engaging Ambivalence: Interventions in Engineering Culture
IAA Operative on Fri, 30 Sep 2005 00:35:31 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Engaging Ambivalence: Interventions in Engineering Culture

[from DATA browser 02: Engineering Culture (G. Cox and J. Krysa, eds), 
Autonomedia, 2005]

The most significant underwriter of engineering research in the United 
States is the Department of Defense, largely acting through the Defense 
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA exists to channel funds 
from the military to academic and corporate research labs in exchange for 
technological innovations that serve the needs of its clients - the Army, 
Navy, Air Force, and Marines. As DARPA public relations officers are fond 
of pointing out, innovations funded by DARPA grants may also find 
expression in civilian applications, particularly in the communications 
and aerospace industries.

Researchers ("principal investigators") are held accountable to DARPA 
program managers via aggressive schedules of milestones, deliverables, and 
administrative review. Framing this process as a form of cultural 
co-production implicates both researchers and military officers as active 
participants in constructing military-funded civilian research, and 
highlights tensions between martial and academic approaches to knowledge 
production. This depiction reveals opportunities for interventions that 
pose deep challenges to engineering culture.

_DARPA review as co-production_
DARPA's mission, "to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. 
military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national 
security by sponsoring revolutionary, high-payoff research that bridges 
the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use" [3], is a 
narrative of transcendence. As the titles of two of its recent DARPAtech 
conferences suggest, the agency is concerned with "Bridging the Gap" 
(2004) between laboratory research and battlefield application, or more 
poetically, with "Transforming Fantasy" (2002) into martial reality.

Like other institutions that employ "fantasy into reality" imagery (e.g. 
Disney, the pornography industry), DARPA is in the business of creating 
and satisfying desire. DARPA program managers entice academics with 
fanciful visions of future combat scenarios informed by science fiction 
and video games. These solicitations are cryptic pronouncements to be 
interpreted by principal investigators at competing research laboratories 
and presented back to DARPA in the form of proposals and prototypes. The 
most stimulating submissions are selected for further development while 
the rest are abandoned, unworthy of further attention. Principal 
investigators who keep their program managers satiated are in turn 
nourished with DARPA funding and the support of their host institutions. 
Researchers who fail to satisfy DARPA managers must look to other, less 
well-endowed, funding sources or be denied resources and, often, tenure.

Research prototypes thus become the Word made Flesh (or, more accurately, 
silicon and steel), embodiments of desire created through a cyclical 
process of co-creation by researchers and program managers. Through 
proposal solicitations, review sessions, and demonstration milestones, 
researchers continuously labor to engage DARPA managers in the 
co-construction of technologically enabled martial fantasy, enjoying the 
bounty of continued funding where they succeed and adjusting their 
products where they fall short.

_Re-interpretation as Intervention_
Because their operations depend on the unfettered flow of DARPA funding, 
research and development labs generally rely on literal interpretation 
strategies when deciphering DARPA solicitations. Artists and amateurs, on 
the other hand, have much more latitude in their reading of DARPA texts 
and are free to explore the metaphorical value of DARPA concepts. For 
example, our "Contestational Robotics" [2] initiative proceeds from a 
loose reading of DARPA's Tactical Mobile Robotics program:

"The Tactical Mobile Robotics program is developing robotics technologies 
and platforms designed to revolutionize dismounted operations by 
projecting operational influence and situational awareness into previously 
denied areas. "

Recognizing the references to "denied areas" as a metaphor for the 
privatization of public space, we developed several devices that allow 
artists, activists, and juvenile delinquents to "project operational 
influence in ways that humans cannot by using reliable semi-autonomous 
robotic platforms". Like their military counterparts, our graffiti writing 
and humanoid propaganda machines are intended to perform actions too risky 
for human actors - although, in our case, the "operations" include 
spray-painting slogans and distributing subversive literature, and the 
"denied areas" are government buildings, shopping malls, and public 

Similarly, our metaphorical reading of the Small Unit Operations: 
Situational Awareness System concept ("mobile communication system... 
optimized for restrictive terrain" that relies on "wearable computing" to 
"maintain communications and situational awareness in a difficult urban 
environment") substitutes civilians for soldiers and cities for 
battlefields. Taking this conceptual turn reveals a need to monitor and 
avoid surveillance camera networks, and the utility of a cell phone text 
messaging service that allows demonstrators to coordinate actions and 
track police movements during political protests.

_Normalized Ambivalence_
By explicitly addressing political issues, our projects challenge 
engineering culture. As a practice, engineering proceeds through a highly 
productive ambivalence about the relationship between engineers and the 
society in which they operate. On the one hand, engineers are 
fundamentally concerned with acting on a world that they perceive as 
"essentially problematic... an opportunity for continuous, useful, 
material, development" [5]. We may call this the da Vinci impulse - the 
capacity for innovative material production that draws upon all of the 
arts and sciences to increase understanding and improve the human 
condition. At the same time, engineering views itself as a service 
industry whose primary responsibility is to provide technical expertise to 
its employers [1]. This is the Dilbert impulse - the tendency to 
myopically focus on technical problems and leave consideration of a 
product's ultimate use to marketers and end-users.

While the da Vinci impulse energizes a highly skilled workforce dedicated 
to solving "hard problems", the Dilbert impulse provides ethical 
justification when those problems arise in conjunction with morally 
dubious applications. The ambivalence embodied in these contradictory 
formulations of engineering practice is enabled by a conception of 
technology as value-neutral tool that, by extension, insists technological 
development is an ethically indifferent activity. This instrumental view 
of technology [4] and ambivalence towards the world are normalized through 
immersion in engineering culture - primarily in technical universities.

In addition to providing technical innovation for the military, DARPA 
involvement in academia normalizes ambivalence among students and 
researchers. Although the agency's motivation is to enhance the military's 
ability to win wars and kill enemies, open declarations of martial 
efficacy are rare within academia. Instead, DARPA-supported research is 
presented to the academic community (including the students working on 
military projects) in abstract terms, as "optimization algorithms" and 
"enabling technologies". Civilian applications are highlighted, thus 
fostering a sense that the particular (and, by extension, all) 
technologies are neutral. The rhetorical work done by this positioning of 
military research relies on the slippage between "dual use" technologies, 
which have a varied but limited set of military and civilian applications, 
and "general purpose" tools, which can be brought to bear on virtually any 
problem. While it may be argued that in practice there can be no such 
thing as a general purpose tool [6], emphasizing civilian applications for 
a DARPA-funded research project downplays the particular application for 
which it has been designed and frees the engineer from responsibility for 
the uses to which it will most likely be put. The culture that celebrates 
technology's neutrality thus mobilizes ambivalence as a mechanism that 
enables thoughtful, well-intentioned individuals to work on projects they 
would otherwise find morally repugnant.

_Infiltration and Tactical Aesthetics_
As an organization, the IAA is an exercise in tactical aesthetics - we use 
the visual and rhetorical devices of sanctioned research organizations in 
an elaborate performance aimed at infiltrating engineering culture. By 
demonstrating technical competence, we earn the right to speak to 
engineers not as activists or theorists, but rather as an "Institute" of 
fellow travelers, indistinguishable in many respects from the research 
organizations where our audience toils every day.  Our projects are 
presented as "research findings" at university lectures and technical 
conferences, and are reported on in engineering journals and trade 
publications. Our critique of engineering practice thus comes from within 
engineering culture, and is given material weight by the production of 
working artifacts.

While there is a long history of artists and social theorists questioning 
relationships between technology and society, there is an equally long 
history of engineers ignoring art and social theory. By acting as 
engineers who address contentious political issues, we undermine the 
normalized ambivalence that characterizes engineering practice. The works 
thus act as Trojan horses, carrying our critique through the gates of 
detachment that guard engineers against taking responsibility for the 
products of their labor. In lieu of ambivalence, we offer the engineering 
community the image of an "engaged engineering" that works diligently in 
the service of freedom and human dignity, and takes responsibility for the 
world it helps create.


1.	Code of Ethics for Engineers (CoEE). 2003 National Society of 
Professional Engineers.

2.	Critical Art Ensemble and Institute for Applied Autonomy, 
Contestational Robotics, in Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical 
Media, Critical Art Ensemble, editor. 2001, New York: Autonomedia.

3.	Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: Mission and Overview. 
(website) http://www.darpa.mil/body/misssion.html, accessed on 24 
December, 2004

4.	Feenberg, A., Critical Theory of Technology. 1991, New York: 
Oxford University Press.

5.	Holt, J.E., On the Nature of Mechanical Engineering Work - An 
Engineering Ethos. The International Journal of Engineering Education, 
1997. 12(5).

6.	Weizenbaum, J., Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to 
Calculation. 1976, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman

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