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Wikipedia The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

Why is the French army hiring science fiction writers and why should you worry about it

Disclaimer: This article was originally published at O Futuro das Coisas, in Portuguese.

Only this week, at least two friends sent me the link to this article about the French army hiring writers to think about the future of war, and that even Brazilian authors have been contacted for that. I had shared a bit of my own personal view on my Twitter, but here I want to focus on the fact that a military institution is hiring artists to think the future not in a broader sense, but specifically the future of war.

Curiously (or not), the same day when this article was published, the website Popular Mechanics also released this news that France approved a project of cyborg, bionic soldiers. While some Brazilian writers interviewed didn’t believe in the possibility of a physical war, but rather informational (as we already see on a level of fake news, the case of Cambridge Analytica and Brazilian ‘hate cabinet’), what we see, in any case, is that war is war, and when the “boys” are allowed to play with their G.I. Joes, even better.

On the contrary of institutions such as the Swiss army, which historically has adopted a more neutral or even conciliating approach, France doesn’t have an actually peaceful military history. When we analyze historical events such as the French Revolution (always from the winner’s perspective, as Hobsbawm would say), we kind of start to believe that this was a victory of reason when, in fact, when we see paintings such as El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid by Francisco Goya, we unravel another facet of what the Napoleonic army did in Spain and what the artist wanted to say when he inserted a very symbolic, but central element to his painting: a lamp below the rifles.

Goya was one of the main artists to paint the disasters of war, expression that is used as the title of a series of his illustrations. Later on, other fellow countrymen such as Picasso painted the unforgettable Guernica, where observers can experience the same sense of fear that is still being approached by contemporary artists such as the Austrian painter Gottfried Helnwein, whose work was the theme of my Master’s dissertation. When I interviewed him, I realized that the artist, in fact, reads a lot about history and quite often is surprised by horrible things that men have done, to an extent that any person would lose their faith in humanity. This is why, as someone born right after the end of World War II, in Vienna, his paintings reflect the agony of growing up as a child in a context of war, even when the conflict is already over. Berlin is one of the cities where these memories ressonate in every corner, but it was at the East Side Gallery that I found one stark inscription: “Du hast gelernt was Freiheit heisst, und das vergiss nie mehr” (you learned what freedom means and this you should never forget).

How is it possible that we opened 2020 with Trump sending bombs to Iran? How is it possible to talk about a future of technological Singularity when Palestine and Israel are still at war? In other words, how can war still be an important topic to be discussed when thinking about the future and technological innovation? That’s an easy one: the military industry is one of the richest, most resourceful industries in the world and it is from military interests that most of the technologies we use today have come from — from cryptography to personal computers, the internet and so forth.

One time, my boyfriend asked me if it would be ethical to forbid the development of missiles used in previous war knowing that the technology used for this weapon was also important for the development of rockets. In other words, if the development of missiles was interrupted, maybe we would take more time to go to the moon and so on. Likewise, when Marie Curie discovered radioactivity, she wasn’t trying to develop weapons, but still her research was later used for military ends.

At first, the development of military technologies has this uttermost objective of being useful for future conflict, but it doesn’t mean that this same technological knowledge needs to be used only in the context of war. But, in the case of the French army, the news about this project was already release last year, and it was already stated that their goal was to map possible risks such as terrorist attacks and how to respond to them.

For instance, Hans Jonas and his concept of comparative futurology argued that we need to imagine negative scenarios in order to develop defense strategies or, most importantly, how to avoid the event itself. Henceforth, from the perspective of a department of defense, it makes sense to hire creatives (artists) to work in partnership with scientists, so they can imagine speculative worlds of science fiction where possible conflicts can be explored.

But if the government has already approved that soldiers be equipped with cybernetic implants, provided that their “free will” (this hypothetical particle with existence that varies according to the philosophical source) is secured, are we really trying to avoid war or rather promoting it? It’s not like we needed to create super soldiers to explore the possibilities of bionic members and exoskeletons — Miguel Nicolelis has been doing this in Brazil for a long while, and his intentions are rather to help people with reduced mobility.

Interviewed by UOL, writer Sheyla Smanioto says she was contacted by the French army, and though she was flattered by the invitation, she wouldn’t allow herself to “create this future war”, because she would rather use her “imagination technologies to create other things”. That is, when we consider projects such as this one, what is the boundary between helping society to avoid such outcomes or inspiring institutions to actually fulfill the promise of war?

Curiously, in the book “History of the Future”, the French historian Georges Minois mentions that even among the people of Mesopotamia or in Ancient Greece, governors recurred to oracles and fortune tellers to help them take political and military decisions. Even Napoleon consulted with fortune tellers in order to be oriented about his decisions at war. Therefore, history repeats (though in a more scientificist way) when the French government calls science fiction writers to think the future of war.

The reason? Minois analyzed that, by the time of the ancient wars, not even governors or the military knew what to do. In spite of all strategies and practical techniques such as estimating the firepower or the amount of troops to be sent, the human need to be secured, to have a confirmation that supports our acts was something that came from these oracles — people who were able to organize narratives, to prophesize or even give a more psychanalytical support to these regents. It’s not much different from the fake news we consume these days: they simply verbalize previously stablished convictions and make them “concrete” in the format of a website, a message shared on WhatsApp or a photomanipulation.

Therefore, I end this essay stressing the same question raised before: how desirable is it to work for an army that is thinking about the future of war? How aspirational or how terrifying is to think that we are (still) living in times like these?

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