Scampering Robots, Are You The Destroyer?
The robotic hounds of the uncanny valley of the death undergo trials in El Paso.
On February 1st, Homeland Security announced it was one step closer to deploying robot dogs on the border. Customs and Border Protection, who received the robots, ran them through trials in El Paso, where they explored a building, patrolled a section of desert, and inspected train cars at a rail yard. When it comes to new tools for border violence, it’s never a question about which border will see that technology used first.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton of Wars of Future Past, and for this week’s Discontents, I’m talking about robot dogs along the border.
Made by Ghost robotics, the Vision series of four-legged machines has already seen adoption by the US Air Force for patrol around bases, and is the result of years of research funded by the military. While superficially similar to the Spot and BigDog robots made by Boston Dynamics, the Vision 60 Q-UGV robots are distinct machines, with a unique balancing system and an acronym-dense name that feels calibrated to be as forgettable as possible. (Q-UGV stands for “Quadruped Uncrewed Ground Vehicle”).
The Vision robot tested by CBP is an expensive camera that can see at night and climb hills, but still needs to ride in the back of a truck after a couple hours in the field. It is another accessory to the violence of the border, a border that in living memory was once so demilitarized it could be crossed on commute in an electric streetcar.
In its announcement of the Vision robot dogs, Homeland Security declared the southwest “a region that blends a harsh landscape, temperature extremes and various other non-environmental threats that can create dangerous obstacles for those who patrol the border” (emphasis added).
From a pure risk assessment position, the Vision robot does absolutely nothing to change the reality that, like all of law enforcement in 2021, Customs and Border Protection overwhelmingly suffered deaths in the line of duty from COVID, not violence.
The southern border includes deserts inhospitable to people trying to cross them, made more so by the actions of Customs and Border Protection. Surveillance towers, often placed near the border in the name of better situational awareness, have been shown to have a measurable effect on reducing the survival chances for people trying to cross the Sonoran desert into Arizona. People will move through harsher routes to avoid detection, and in so doing, distance themselves from water, shelter, and the possibility of compassionate rescue.
While the Trump administration was an exceptionally blunt advocate of harsh policies on the border, the conscious policy decision to force crossings into harsh desert can be traced back to decisions by the Clinton administration in 1994, and an expansion of surveillance technologies on the border continues under the Biden administration.
The desert is harsh, but border crossings do not have to be, and Border Patrol has a long history of explicitly making those crossings harsher, including destroying the water containers placed in by humanitarian groups for the survival of anyone making the crossing.
In its announcement of a dog-shaped robot for use on the border, a CBP agent listed the dangers faced by CBP officers, with lines dusted off the first decade of the War on Terror. The dangers listed include smuggled humans, drugs, weapons, and even weapons of mass destruction. This line is the only mention in the announcement of the robot potentially being used to find people.
The robot is not being pitched as a desert rescue tool, where its familiar form could offer a gentle welcome to people suffering and in need of assistance. Instead, the robot will be used to protect the humans of Customs and Border Protection, and in that role receives more compassion than anyone crossing a border.
Ghost describes their Vision-60 version of the robot as carrying up to 20 pounds of cameras and other sensors, operating for about 3 hours, and traveling a total distance of slightly less than 8 miles, all at a top speed of less than 7 mph. That’s a small, limited frame on which to rest expectations of life-saving and officer protection, when at best it might be able to in some circumstances see people hiding first.
In civilian and military contexts alike, people extend the same sympathies they have for companion animals to useful robots. It’s no surprise that Homeland Security describes a robot tested for service with familiar language, but it’s still jarring to read.
Throughout the release from DHS, the Vision robot is referred it as a “robot dog,” “quadruped mechanical reinforcement,” “Man’s best friend with a very futuristic twist,” a “four-legged ground drone solution,” a “battery-powered pooch,” and a “robot “Fido”.” This robot doesn’t just contribute towards mission success, it lends a “a helping hand (or “paw”),” and it wasn’t designed and assembled by humans to specifications but was instead “bred for exactly the type of work that CBP needs done.”
The four-legged robot is not a living being, though that won’t stop people from responding to it as one. Homeland Security already branding an unfeeling machine with the gentle language used for beloved pets feels not far off from prioritizing the safety of the machine over the safety of the people it is sent to detain.
If this robot dog is upsetting, that’s because it makes visible the institutions it serves. Left unchallenged, in time robot dogs will become a routine tool, rather than an extraordinary one. What will remain is the institution of violence, equipped with an ever-growing box of toys.
Thanks for reading. Here’s the rest of the crew.
Welcome to Hell World
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the U.S. has “some of the weakest labor protections for temp workers in the developed world.” Last week I dug into a new report from groups including Temp Worker Justice and the National Employment Law Project and others that shows just how bad things are for such workers.
Of course I had assumed this system was all fucked but I wasn’t prepared for something called “bondage fees” that temp staffing agencies charge companies who might want to hire a temp on as full time. Read more here.
Today I wrote mostly about the stunning book Fever Dream by the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin. It’s a nightmarish allegory about ecological poisoning in the grand tradition of South American surrealist literature. Read it here.
This is a random and underdeveloped thought that I haven't put together yet for FOREVER WARS, but who cares, let's test some material here. You've probably heard the Trumpist right and its apologists credit Trump with not starting any new wars. And you probably have the sense that it's bullshit, because (1) that owed a lot to the patience of the Iranians and (2) escalating the ones he inherited really highlights how pitiful that standard is. But the more fundamental counterexample, the one that's going to remain with us for the foreseeable future, is that Trump launched a rapidly coalescing Cold War with China.
Sure, you say, it's not a shooting war. To which I say: for now! Our experience with the last Cold War shows that imperial struggles for dominance kill a whole lot of people outside the imperial metropoles. The idea that you can array the world's two largest economies, one of which belongs an imperium under extreme strain and the other belongs to an aspirant imperium on the rise, against one another in "great-power competition" and have that not lead to violence is simply ahistorical.
Similarly, you can point to how thoroughly bipartisan the China Cold War is to absolve Trump of blame. You can even point to extant conditions that prompted Trump's reactions, to say nothing of the groundwork laid by previous administrations. It was still Trump's choice to pivot the U.S. posture toward China as one of explicit hostility and challenge to its economic interests and geopolitical ambitions. Democrats applauded loudly and deserve blame for that. The War on Terror was also bipartisan. That doesn't absolve George W. Bush for launching it. Barack Obama smoothed away its cruder edges and entrenched its fundamental ugliness. Joe Biden is performing the same ratification for Trump and the China Cold War.
The shooting hasn't started. The media narratives sure have. Our Asian-American neighbors have already been subject to vigilante violence that is the direct result of the political message that China is an enemy assaulting the United States. State pressure is accelerating as well. The presence of Chinese students or professors on American university campuses is increasingly seen through the lens of counterintelligence. Like with the last Cold War, there's likely some truth to Chinese intelligence penetration. But the hysteria over America's Precious Competitive Edge is going to overwhelm that, as with the recent collapse of the Gang Chen prosecution.
The experience of the post-9/11 era makes this all so depressingly familiar, particularly the basic malpractice committed by those who commit themselves to such imperial misadventures. Not that I have any wish to line-edit an imperial misadventure, but if you're going to wage a new Cold War, don't return to the last one, unless you want to see those formidable adversaries unite against you. I have no idea whether the China-Russia No Limit Soldiers will end up as actual, durable allies and will not bullshit you here like I do. But to thwart U.S. ambitions, all they really have to do is collaborate in international fora, and that's easy enough for both Beijing and Moscow. The only cool part of Henry Kissinger being alive in 2022 is that he got to see Xi and Putin manifest his longstanding geopolitical nightmare of Russia and China united against America.
So it's not that Trump didn't start any new wars. He started a whole new forever-war.
Anyway, what did we do at FOREVER WARS this last week? Sam wrote a real banger about the censorship of Maus. I wrote something about the psychosis of the SEAL Teams based on Matthew Cole's forthcoming book Code Over Country, which you should read. And remember that when you subscribe to FOREVER WARS for a year, you'll get six subscriber-tier months of Luke’s WELCOME TO HELL WORLD and Derek’s FOREIGN EXCHANGES.
Last week at The Flashpoint, raising a small child is hard work—more so if they have Covid.
Parents talked to me about their struggles:
“Often you just don't have anything left,” David told me. “Everyone gets crabby. You feel horrible for feeling that way because you love your kids but you're counting down the minutes until nap time or bedtime.”
Felony convictions can be a second sentence for offenders who have served their time:
“It’s an additional punishment, not set out in your sentencing or your plea deal or discussed with your attorney, that you deal with for the rest of your life,” Minnesota attorney Elana Dahlager told me.
And the Board of Health in a small town in Massachusetts refuses to endorse vaccinations:
The board declined to recommend the regional school district implement a Covid vaccine mandate during the January 11 meeting.
“I don't think the common ground between all three of us is comfortable with recommending vaccinations,” board member Peter Stanton said.
This week I’ll talk to Al Jazeera’s Sana Saeed on Tucker Carlson and Abby Martin of The Empire Files on Biden’s foreign policy.
Thanks for reading and listening, as always—see you next week.
Last week, I talked to healthcare workers about their student loan debt, and how the pause in repayments has helped them. From the nurse who paid off over $20,000 in private loans during the pandemic, to the doctor with an untouched $400,000 debt, I can’t figure out why it would make sense for any of them to go through this. They’ve all been working their asses off during the pandemic, keeping people alive, and this is the thanks they get. (They’re pretty pissed about it, too.) I also wrote a little bit about poverty and sickness in my Sunday post. Those weekly news roundup posts will soon be going behind the paywall, so if you enjoy them, subscribe now—it’s 30% off for a limited time. And if you can’t afford to subscribe, just shoot me an email.
Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau
This week we — for some strange reason — waded into yet another Joe Rogan news cycle, as backlash from his constant platforming of dangerous vaccine misinformation (as well as contemptible reactionary alt-right figures, climate deniers, transphobes etc) metastasized into a campaign to have his podcast removed from Spotify. For this conversation we brought on Ryan Grim of the Intercept and The Hill’s Rising, and talked through how a complete removal of Rogan from the platform would play out, what responsibility Spotify has in this scenario considering they’re a publisher paying hundreds of millions of dollars for this content, and whether Rogan should maybe consider actually preparing for these interviews, or living up to his ideas by actually platforming more than the odd handful of token liberal or progressive voices. This one is for subscribers only, seeing as we don’t have a massive Spotify contract.
The AP (Alex Pareene) Newsletter
This weekend I wrote about states (the U.S. form of subgovernment, not the nation-state), and how they were a mistake.
If you read about what states, and especially Republican-led states actually do, it turns out that a lot of it is subverting the democratically expressed will of those smaller forms of government, imposing the preferences of the state government on large cities, Black cities, even college towns. Here in New York, for example, the people chosen by the city’s voters to run the city are not allowed to set the speed limit, among countless other powers reserved for a state legislature that was, for decades, purposely designed to boost rural and suburban representation. It is far worse in Republican-run states. In Texas, which practically makes a sport out of subverting the desire of its many large cities to rule themselves, San Antonio cannot determine the design of its own streets. Multiple state governments have denied cities the ability to decide to reduce police funding. State preemption of local rules on schools, guns, Covid restrictions, police, taxes, and budgets are an open conservative strategy, pursued with model legislation by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. The fact that Austin the city is unable to stop Austin the capital from widening I-35 right through the middle of it certainly makes it seem like we can toss the “small” versus “big” framing right out.
I think it is helpful to consider our system of government as basically an agglomeration of mistakes, rather than a natural feature of the landscape (or, even worse, a divine gift). It shifts your thinking from “how do we get the least-bad outcome out of this system” to “how do we fix this stupid mistake.” Abolish your state today.
Last week, inspired by that cosmically horrifying video of Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon chuckling about Bored Apes on the Tonight Show, I wanted to see if I could figure out why so many celebrities have been pushing NFTs lately. I can't say I found a definitive answer, but I did get to bust out my chart-making software and put together a paranoia map:
Is this evidence of a closely knit conspiracy? I somehow doubt it: CAA is a huge agency, and not particularly well coordinated; I don't think Ashton Kutcher is sitting somewhere in the dark pushing NFTs on everyone. Rather, I think this is how capitalist elites in all industries and all places naturally cohere — around a series of shared ventures and investments, linked by professional and personal ties. In that sense it's less a shadowy conspiracy than simply "how the world works." Though, isn't it interesting that "how the world works" looks so much like a conspiracy theory?
If you enjoyed this, you'll probably also like this piece on Dirty Bubble Media tracking Reese Witherspoon's NFT purchases.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
Several months after the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there remain enormous legal and practical challenges for Afghan refugees both inside and outside the country. For some 35,000 would-be refugees abroad, either in Afghanistan or third countries like Qatar and Iran, the dream of resettling in the U.S. is being dashed against the rocks of U.S. federal government inflexibility and callousness, as it continues to largely deny parole request after encouraging people to apply—and happily taking their $575 fee.
It’s not been smooth for those who have made it into the U.S., either. About 36,000 of them were paroled in but have no set path to permanent residency, putting them in an indefinite limbo not dissimilar from current DACA or TPS holders. They have renewable status that provides protections from deportation and work authorization, but it is inherently temporary and there’s no way to channel it into a green card, meaning that they will always be at risk of losing status from minor infractions or oversights like forgetting to reapply, or because a potential hostile administration simply decides to stop renewing it. Many of these refugees have also found out the hard way that the U.S. resettlement infrastructure was gutted under the Trump administration as they struggle to get assistance with the basics of reestablishing their lives in the U.S.
As we discussed in last week’s BORDER/LINES, the dramatically reduced refugee cap and severely impacted the public and private entities tasked with jointly conducting resettlements, leaving many in the lurch. The complication of the formal refugee process itself also meant that the government should have launched a widespread effort long before it was already pulling out; by the time Afghans needed to leave en masse, it was far too late, leaving parole as one of the only options. All in all, the whole effort has been a fiasco, start to finish.
If you care about preserving a livable climate, then consider paying more attention to the public relations industry.
Specifically, consider paying more attention to Edelman: the number one PR firm for fossil fuel companies.
Edelman’s PR campaigns on behalf of fossil fuels has “shaped public elite discourse about climate change,” research published in the journal Climatic Change last year showed. By systematically greenwashing the high-polluting industry and continually emphasizing the benefits of fossil fuels, Edelman has helped convince the public that systemic climate action isn’t needed—and has made a fortune doing it.
Lately, however, the public has been catching on—and Edelman has been under pressure to drop its fossil fuel clients. So far, the firm has resisted, promising instead that it will only work with climate-friendly fossil fuel companies that are truly committed to achieving net zero emissions.
But Edelman’s climate promises have a history of being bullshit—which is what my newsletter has been digging into lately. If you have time, check out HEATED’s last two original investigations on Edelman’s climate promises (Here and here). If they get you fired up for action, follow the Clean Creatives campaign on Twitter. And if you want more info on Edelman, subscribe to HEATED. We’ll have another piece on them this week.
Thanks to a guest column gig at the Nation, I've been updating my Patreon very frequently with links to those stories (with some added context tucked in). Last week, I got to spotlight two really incredible labor leaders - Mexican American Communist strike leader Emma Tenayuca and Pan-Africanist labor organizer Maida Springer Kemp - who focused their energies on fighting for communities of color and made a massive difference in workers' lives from San Antonio to South Africa. You can read more about them both here, and can see the whole series so far on my Nation author page.
I've only got two more installments left in this column, which is bittersweet; the pace (reporting, writing, and publishing two long pieces each week) knocked me on my ass, especially after spending the past year ensconced in the much more languid world of book-writing, but I've really loved having this platform and the (temporary) security of a regular gig.
There's so much happening in the U.S. labor movement right now (Starbucks! Amazon! Teamsters! REI! Coal miners on strike!) and it feels like such a privilege to be able to play some miniscule part in bringing those workers' stories to the fore. Thanks for reading.
Hi again, and welcome to another edition of Things That Made Us Mad.
Over at Discourse Blog, we’re good at getting mad. Check this out:
Sam Grasso blogged about her eternal rage at the ruling party of Texas during yet another deep freeze.
Katherine Krueger blogged about her hatred of the giant gold cube in Central Park (it’s a dumb art-world stunt).
I, of course, blogged about cable news. Sorry! I keep doing this! It’s bad! I don’t even watch cable news!!
Meanwhile, Paul did some reporting and found out that a lot of workers on university campuses are, you guessed it, extremely mad – as conditions there have been atrocious during the pandemic.
And Rafi Schwartz blogged Bari Weiss’s latest rake-stepping newsletter, of course.
Finally, Jack Mirkinson blogged about British politics – which make him mad, but also are completely ridiculous, so that’s a nice note to end on. Let’s all laugh at the Brits. No offense Libby if you’re reading this.