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The Place Of Politics Related To Technology In An Nuclear Age In A Brave New World

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A Brave New World: On the Role of Techno-politics in the Nuclear Age

This essay intends to define a relationship between the world viewpoint produced by techno-politics and the advent of the nuclear bomb, two of the twentieth century’s most influential contributions to the global perception of temporal and spatial relations between nations and the performance of war. Three major aspects of techno-politics define its role in changing the perceptions of society and the state during this time, a “new politics based on technical expertise,” Mitchell situates in his article Can the Mosquito Speak? First, the “concentration and reorganization of knowledge” within the expert community versus the introduction of new expertise; second, the recurring issue of maintaining projects which “encountered continuous practical difficulties” in their development; and third, the existence of various “failures and adjustments” regarding these projects that were either overlooked or concealed in the avoidance of having to confront them (Mitchell 2002, p. 41).

Masco’s explanation of the United States’ development of nuclear warheads aligns effortlessly with Mitchell’s description of techno-politics, as state-led, temporally progressive regimes of nuclear testing were forced to adapt their methods of facilitating nuclear tests within the confines of international policy and political agreements between states. Masco outlines three regimes of nuclear testing, the first, the era of aboveground testing from 1945 to 1962, by which scientists experienced nuclear testing through the senses, the second, the era of underground nuclear testing from 1963 to 1992, by which this sensory access was “reconfigured” and “abstracted” into less tangible forms of examination, and the third, the era of a program following the Cold War entitled “Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship” from 1995 to 2010, by which testing relied “on an increasingly virtual bomb” that furthermore transformed the field and the mechanisms through which scientific opinion or expertise on the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons were derived (Masco 2004, p. 2).

Beginning with the advent of the aboveground testing regime conducted by the American scientists of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Masco describes how scientists in this preliminary stage reacted viscerally to the explosion of the first atomic blast conducted at their site. Evoking the sublime—a descriptor of transcendence attributed to an object or event that evokes awe and terror as it offends the senses in its wake—the explosion produced by the first nuclear test at Los Alamos elicited emotion in these scientists enough to produce comparisons to religious fear and experience. Masco notes that, through this discourse, these scientists “reinvented both the physical world and international order from the deserts of central New Mexico” (Masco 2004, p. 4). In this way, scientists—experts of the nuclear realm at Los Alamos—fulfilled the techno-political requirement of Mitchell’s techno-politics, by which the worlds of religious and scientific understanding merged through the sensory experience of the atom bomb.

Mitchell describes this first element of techno-politics by citing the example of the dam constructed in Aswan, Egypt, which had been renovated by different sectors and powerful individuals that sought to exploit the river in various ways (Mitchell 2002, p. 41). Not only had the dam received a height boost in 1933, “completing a network of dams, barrages, and canals begun in the mid-nineteenth century that converted most of the country’s agricultural land to year-round irrigation,” it also underwent an installation process of hydroelectric turbines proposed to meet the nation’s demand at the time for fertilizer production (Mitchell 2002, pgs. 20 and 33). Mitchell uses this process to outline how exactly knowledge is reconceived and put into action through techno-politics in a material sense, but this theory can be extrapolated into that of the experience of the nuclear bomb by scientists at Los Alamos. All that is required of this first step is the reconsideration of a concept combined with other forms of existing knowledge in producing outcomes that were not explicitly the original intention of the expertise initially sought after or performed. In both cases, this process is exactly what occurred, as those who saw themselves as masters of their projects ultimately became the most affected by them.

The second aspect of techno-politics deals with the confrontation of experts with complications to projects during the processes of developing them. These complications are made clear by Masco as he recounts how scientists, moving into the era of underground nuclear testing, became psychologically unaware of the “direct human sensory experience of the explosion” and how this shift in nuclear testing thus “transformed the meaning of the technology within the laboratory” to one of abstract conceptualizations of mutually assured destruction and political risk (Masco 2004, p. 3). In making this clear, Masco quotes the perspective of a Los Alamos weapons scientist in describing that for underground testing, the problem was “not the effort to protect the human body from the effects of the explosion,” as in aboveground testing, “but, rather, making the exploding bomb visible to human senses.” Thus, Masco quotes the scientist, “The difficulty comes from the inaccessibility of the regime.” Here, without the visceral experience of the sublime, nuclear development quickly became controlled by political hypotheticals rather than conservative respect for the bomb, part of an experiment “underscored by a national security imperative” that “encouraged scientists to understand Cold War time along strictly technological terms” (Masco 2004, p. 7).

Mitchell elaborates on this second aspect of techno-politics by continuing with the example of the dam at Aswan, citing various misfortunes of the projects that had been conducted there. Every project, Mitchell states, failed on some level, as “seedlings of hybrid corn ‘withered,’ the oil-stabilized mud brick was a failure, the use of helicopters had ‘run into various complications,’ and the new nitrogen-fixing technology for the manufacture of fertilizer did not work as planned”—yet, technical experts overseeing these projects attempted to learn from them and fix them through further means of technological development (Mitchell 2002, p. 41). The result, however, was that the repairs did not work, because these experts did not attempt to bridge the gap between technology and natural resource, instead continuing to distort the natural geographical and topographical confines of the land (Mitchell 2002, p. 42).

The third aspect of techno-politics, the incompetence of experts to address the failures and adjustments of their projects, is exhibited through Masco’s discussion of politics and its disconnect from scientific knowledge of nuclear weapons composition. In 1970 and 1974, respectively, the United States signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, which promised that the United States would destroy its nuclear testing resources and not conduct tests of nuclear weapons over 150 kilotons. “Neither treaty,” Masco states, “in practice, prevented the United States from continuing to design and deploy weapons, even those with a destructive force greater than 150 kilotons” (Masco 2004, p. 9). Additionally, the emphasis placed on creating bombs that were supposed to be “safe, secure, and reliable” became their greatest hazard—Masco mentions the word of a Los Alamos scientist who revealed to him that in “this Cold War pursuit of safety,” nuclear weapons have gained a complexity that “could make them temperamental over time, ultimately allowing ‘safety’ to undermine ‘reliability’” (Masco 2004, p. 9). The irony of this situation is hardly lost on Masco, as he argues that the various changes to the field of nuclear weapons testing both “purified [the bomb] of its destructive potential” and resulted in a series of dangerous consequences for a world in which its most destructive force became nothing more than a “virtual representation” of “potentially endless techno-scientific pleasure” (Masco 2004, p. 10).

Mitchell defines this type of scientific de-evolution as a consequence of techno-science masking its origins from those derived from nature and of knowledge that did not relate itself to technology nor science. Mitchell claims that nobody drew the connection between the tactics deployed at the dam at Aswan— “crop-spraying, high-yield corn, drainage mechanism, fertilizer plants, or a mud brick more resistant to disease” with being “responses to problems caused by earlier techno-scientific projects, in particular the Aswan Dam.” These strategies were not wholly related to scientific endeavors, Mitchell attests, revealing that all of these tactics were in some way connecting to political, bureaucratic, economic, and colonial forces. Techno-politics is a collective “technical body” generated from these motives and “a process of manufacture whose ingredients are both human and nonhuman, both intentional and not, and in which the intentional or the human is always somewhat overrun by the unintended” (Mitchell 2002, p. 42).

Both Mitchell and Masco highlight the consequences of technology in how, contrarily to the intentions of human experts, technological intervention often produces unplanned, chance effects that pull the attentions of experts away from their initial projects to the complications delivered by those projects. Masco demonstrates that as technology becomes more abstract to us, we become less cognizant about the strength of technology and its ability to destroy, as well as what this spiritually and ethically means for the societies and civilizations around us and to come. Mitchell illuminates the separation of nature and science through the examples of the twentieth century and the impact of the expert in defining this binary relationship—merely leading to the demise of humanity by the natural forces of malaria and its vector, the mosquito in areas that had been assaulted by the technological damages of scientific intervention. One question that should be asked in the context of this discussion, however, is that given this information, what steps should experts take to better reflect and predict the outcomes of their decision making? If we are self-aware of the propensity of techno-politics to become a master of the technologies that we produce, how can we become less susceptible as a humanity to making the same techno-political mistakes in the future?

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