Military Drones: Point, Click and Kill

There is a thoughtful post by Chris Newman here. The title provides a clue to the author's focus: 'Moralization' of Technologies - Military Drones: A Case Study.

During the next couple of days I want to undertake a literature review with this particular issue in mind: how do we articulate the boundaries of legal, ethical and moral boundaries? Increasingly, the literature I have examined do not do this with the type of clarity that aids my understanding.

There is no doubt that the Chris does a good job in setting out the context in which the military drones are used and controversies raised as a consequence.

Chris’s source of inspiration is Peter-Paul Verbeek. The idea that ethics and technology are indivisible is very much a theme pursued in Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things (2011). Many will agree that designers of technologies cannot insulate themselves from social, legal and ethical implications resulting from their artefacts. As Chris acknowledges, the policy issues raised are not easy to disentangle:

“The ‘moralization of technology’ is a complex and difficult task that requires the anticipation of mediations. In addition to the fact that the future social impacts of technologies are notoriously difficult to predict, the designers and engineers are not the only ones contributing to the materialization of mediations. The future mediating roles of technologies are also shaped by the interpretation of users and emergent characteristics of the technologies themselves (Verbeek, 2009). This means that designers of artifacts cannot simply ‘inscribe’ a certain morality into technologies but that the capacity for ‘moralizing’ a specific technology will depend on the dynamics of the interplay between the engineers, the users and the technologies themselves.”

Chris, questions the viability of ‘mediation analysis’ as a heuristic and worries about the democratic deficit. He has a point. The ‘Constructive Technology Assessment’ he alludes to is seen as overcoming this shortcoming since:

“As such, all relevant actors have a stake in the moral operation of the socio-technical ensemble and therefore the democratization of the technology design process contributes to the ‘moralization of technologies’ in a broader sense (Verbeek, 2009). This is precisely what STS scholars intend to achieve by opening the black box of technology and analyzing the complex dynamics of its design. In the following, some important moral challenges with regard to military drones will be analyzed utilizing the theoretical concepts presented thus far and possible ways to address these challenges will be discussed.”

The article proceeds to set out the activities of military drones and highlights some of the ethical challenges raised by the disintermediation of warfare. Chris concludes:

"However, recalling the quote at the beginning of this paper and presuming that we do not want drone pilots making life and death decisions with the feeling that they are merely playing a video game, it appears that much work remains to be done in ‘moralizing’ drone technology design in order to promote more ethical behavior on the remote battlefield."

True - but in a later post I want to deal with work that has been done by Professor Gillespie, on the systems engineering approach being used for autonomous unmanned aircraft. You can read his co-authored article with Robin West, Requirements for Autonomous Unmanned Air Systems set by Legal Issues (2010) published in the International C2 Journal.