The Final Frontier: Enclosing Outer Space

Taken from Predator Empire, Chapter 3: Full-Spectrum Dominance of the Globe

From soil, to sea, to outer-space: the final frontier of the Predator Empire lies beyond the breathable atmosphere of human existence in the extraterrestrial orbits where only machines survive. This final section explores the satellites, missiles, and strategies that have foregrounded what can only be described as the growing materialization of a “space war” in the corridors of the Pentagon. Outer space, like the ocean, is part of the same “full-spectrum domination” strategy pursued by the U.S. military. The Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellite navigation is central to nearly everything the modern military does and has revolutionized drone warfare by enabling precision reconnaissance and targeting. Orbital space infrastructures, in short, enable the U.S. military to “see” and “communicate” across the planet.

The Cold War saw a protracted period of research into space technology by Soviet and American scientists. Sputnik, the Soviet satellite launched in 1957, was the first artificial Earth-orbiting satellite and propelled the Cold War space race. Sputnik was carried into space by the R-7 launch vehicle, the world’s first intercontinental missile (ICBM). Over a decade prior to that, however, RAND (then part of Douglas Aircraft Company) was investigating the launch of satellites in an important 1946 paper called, “Preliminary Design of an Experimental World Circling Spaceship.”[i] Indeed, in many ways, the roots of the looming space war actually date back to the V-2 rocket used by the Nazis, which influenced early missile designs in the U.S. and the USSR. The first American ICBM was the SM-65 Atlas missile, which began unsuccessful test flights in 1957.

As well as offensive capabilities, both the U.S. and the USSR began to construct defensive systems. This includes anti-ballistic missiles, or ABMs, together with ABM complexes that monitor incoming missiles. The development of these kinds of ABMs was restricted by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed by President Nixon and Soviet Secretary General Brezhnev. The agreement prohibited a nation-wide missile defense system. It did, however, allow the U.S. to build the Safeguard ABM Complex in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In 1976–a year after the Safeguard site was constructed–the entire program was shutdown.[ii] As it turned out, the system could be easily blinded if its radars were destroyed (a problem that hasn’t really gone away).

The aerial bombardment of Serbia, from March 24 to June 10, 1999, was one of the first major “space-enabled” wars due to heavy reliance on satellites. For NATO this period was officially known as Operation Allied Force, and Operation Noble Anvil for the U.S. military. While the Serbian military was ultimately subdued by precision U.S. airpower, Operation Noble Anvil revealed a paradox that still haunts the U.S. military today. As the Pentagon has become ever more reliant on space-based technologies, it has also become more vulnerable. Without the eyes and ears the satellites now provide, the military’s high-tech systems would be “blind.” In spite of, or perhaps because of this unwelcome paradox, the determination to militarize outer space has accelerated over the past two decades. As Johnson writes, “the United States now argues that it must totally dominate space to protect its new, casualty-free war-fighting technologies.”[iii]

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered a national address that energized the anti-ballistic missile race and shattered the restraints of the previous administration. Reagan, who had campaigned to develop an ABM system, urged the U.S. to redouble its efforts. As he resolved, “I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.”[iv] This ambitious project would become the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), overseen by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). SDI was built on the idea of a planetary-wide defense shield that could intercept incoming Soviet ICBMs with ground-based missiles and orbital lasers. The proposal would be mocked as an unrealistic “Star Wars” fantasy and eventually collapsed. But this misses two important points. First, SDI paved the way for billions of dollars’ worth of defense spending and research. Second, it was the first step in militarizing space and enclosing the planet.

During the 1990s, the conceits of cosmic power continued. In 1993 the SDIO was renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Rather than engineering a global shield, the Clinton administration shifted its ABM strategy to focus on regional threats and “rogue nations.” Of course, the collapse of the Cold War should have ended the project. But there were too many vested interests. The Republican-controlled Congress accelerated anti-ballistic spending despite the enormous costs. Conservative defense hawks were convinced that the collapse of the USSR had everything to do with U.S. technological power, and that throwing more money at missile technology “was a sure way to achieve perpetual domination of the world.”[v] Missile lobbying came from the powerful right-wing think tank, “Center for Security Policy,” which was funded by major weapons contractors and served as “the de facto center of the Star Wars lobby.”[vi] Frank Gaffney Jr. was the founder of this group and an important figure in the weaponization of the atmosphere during the 1990s. So too was Republican Curt Weldon, a board member of the Center for Security Policy. He obtained a resolution to create a Congressional committee to assess the ballistic threat posed to the U.S. [vii] It was time to scare American lawmakers.

The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States was chaired by Donald Rumsfeld.[viii] Their 1998 report was heavily influenced by the military-industrial complex. Controversially, the “Rumsfeld Commission,” as it was known, contradicted a 1995 National Intelligence Estimate that a “rogue nation” would need ten to fifteen years to build a ballistic missile. The report warned that “rogue nations” could acquire these capabilities within five years. “In essence, the Rumsfeld panel gave Star Wars boosters in Congress the quasi-official endorsement they needed to push the program forward.”[ix] By this point in time, the U.S. had already sunk $50 billion on anti-ballistic systems, none of which had proven workable.[x] The report’s findings were leapt upon by proponents of a national missile defense shield, leading to the passage of the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. This called for the U.S. to “deploy as soon is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack.”[xi] President Clinton, however, deferred the deployment of the National Missile Defense (NMD) system. His reticence was unsurprising: an ICBM is incredibly difficult to stop effectively, given that the interceptor missile, or “exoatmospheric kill vehicle,” is easily fooled.

After Bush came into office with Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense, Star Wars was back on the table. In December 2001, the administration announced that it was withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. On December 16, 2002, Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive-23 that instructed the Department of Defense to “deploy a set of initial missile defense capabilities beginning in 2004.” The directive stated that the missile shield must be global in scope: capable of defending the U.S. homeland, international forces, and even foreign allies, thereby eliminating “the artificial distinction between ‘national’ and ‘theater’ missile defense.”[xii] Reagan’s planetary vision from 1983 was back. Bigger and better than before, it would go by the name of “Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system” (GMD). Since testing began in 1999, ground-based ICBM defenses in the U.S. have been unreliable. The GMD, which cost billions of dollars, is no exception.

In January 2001, Rumsfeld chaired “The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization.”[xiii] Unsurprisingly, the commission was influenced by the missile defense lobby. While the report acknowledged it was in the U.S. national interest to use space for peaceful purposes, it also recommended the construction of space defense systems. These would provide the president with “revolutionary methods” for spaced-based intelligence. But moreover, orbital defenses could protect the U.S. from a possible “Space Pearl Harbor.” This incendiary phrase was repeatedly used to warn lawmakers that the military’s heavy reliance on space technologies had rendered it vulnerable to enemy attacks. There are, after all, approximately 1,200 satellites in space, of which over 500 belong to the U.S. Of these, an unknown number serve as “spy” satellites for intercepting foreign communications and photographing the planet.

“Space war” is now, after two decades of lobbying, a strategic concern. No other country has anti-satellite weapons in space, yet for U.S. galactic warriors, the enclosure of space is viewed as an inevitable future for the military. Outer space presents the U.S. military with the same kind of opportunity as the “black seas”–an environment devoid of direct sovereign control. There are no foreign governments to negotiate with and no need to adhere to legally binding SOFAs. “Best of all,” writes Johnson, “the weaponizing of space enables [the U.S.] to project power anywhere in the world from secure bases of operation. It is, by definition, the global high ground.”[xiv] One of the first documents laying out the U.S. military’s ambition was the “Vision for 2020,” published in 1997.[xv] The booklet argued that space was becoming the “fourth medium of warfare,” after land, sea, and the skies. As a consequence, space must be “controlled,” and if necessary, “denied” to foreign governments.

The United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) has overall responsibility for space operations. It was established in 1992 as the successor to Cold War-era Strategic Air Command. Within STRATCOM, there are two important organizations for coordinating activity in space. First is the Air Force Space Command (AFSC), which employs 40,000 personnel and operates over 31 military satellites. Within the AFSC lies the main hub for space-based operations, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space). Known as “Guardians of the High Frontier,” JFCC Space operatives support U.S. ground forces across the planet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is congested with space junk–from spent rocket boosters to globs of frozen sewage. By its own estimates, the Air Force Space Surveillance Network (part of JFCC Space) tracks around 23,000 objects every day (with hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces too small to track).[xvi] Given this space debris travel at tremendous speed, even minute fragments can severely damage and destroy satellites. This makes space war a disastrous proposition.

The U.S. 2010 National Space Policy affirmed its commitment to peaceful access to outer space. But it maintained that such “peaceful purposes” included using space for “national and homeland security activities.” As the report states, “The United States will employ a variety of measures to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.”[xvii]

In other words, the world’s premier space-faring nation affirms its status as the unilateral guardian of space, a galactic shepherd to the other nations that dwell in the upper and outer atmospheres. Similarly, the 2011 National Security Space Strategy argues, “Our military and intelligence capabilities must be prepared to ‘fight through’ a degraded environment and defeat attacks targeted at our space systems and supporting infrastructure. We must deny and defeat an adversary’s ability to achieve its objectives.”[xviii] Beginning in 2008, the U.S. established a multi-million dollar “Space Protection Program” to coordinate the defense of U.S. space assets. This “counterspace” program includes funding for satellite-jamming technologies to disrupt “adversary” communications, although this is rarely vocalized in public.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is the U.S. intelligence community’s “eyes and ears” in outer space (and as Chapter 2 detailed, was instrumental in the dronification of the Vietnam War). The NRO was formed by the Department of Defense in September 1961.[xix] For much of its history it was a classified agency until its existence was publicly revealed in 1991. Around 3,000 NRO personnel–drawn from the armed services, CIA, and other civilians–operate the U.S. fleet of spy satellites and deliver SIGINT and imagery intelligence (IMINT) to the other branches of the intelligence community. The NRO’s “black budget” in 2013 was at least $10.3 billion, forming part of what Barton Gellman and Greg Miller called an “espionage empire.”[xx] Publicly, the NRO states it provides “innovative overhead reconnaissance” for U.S. national security. But, as internal documents show, the NRO programs go beyond reconnaissance to collect and intercept global communications. As it states, “Space collection provides unique access to otherwise denied areas to provide persistent and responsive collection; and it does so without risk to human collectors or infringing upon the territorial sovereignty of other nations.”[xxi] In short, this is another reworking of the “high seas” doctrine.

The NRO’s first signals intelligence satellite was the 1960 GRAB, and its successor, POPPY, which intercepted Soviet radar communication until 1977. The first image intelligence satellite was the CORONA satellite, a system built in the late 1950s. Launched on August 18, 1960, CORONA’s first successful mission photographed 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory. Interestingly, in the days before imagery could be remotely transmitted, film had to be stored in capsules and dropped back down to the planet. 3,000 feet of film was captured in this way.[xxii] Indeed, CORONA was so successful that it was used until 1972. For much of the Cold War, satellite intelligence from the NRO was used to record and estimate the number of missiles, planes, and submarines in the Soviet inventory. After the Cold War, the NRO supported the 1991 Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Since then, the NRO has played a pivotal role in the U.S. war on terror and continues to launch spy satellites.

The radio transmissions NRO spy satellites intercept must be downloaded back on the ground. Two of the biggest “downlink” facilities are located in the UK and Australia, part of the worldwide surveillance network called ECHELON, or Five Eyes. Menwith Hill, in the English countryside, is the largest electronic surveillance station in the world and is a cornerstone of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense program. Despite technically being an RAF base, the site is run by the National Security Agency (NSA). Around 2,000 intelligence personnel and cryptanalysts, together with billion-dollar supercomputers, analyze the interpreted satellite data and transmit it to the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland.[xxiii]

Pine Gap is the second-largest satellite downlink facility in the world. Built upon ancient Aboriginal land in Australia, the purpose of this remote base is to track the “geolocation” of radio signals and mobiles, pinpointing the whereabouts of enemy combatants in the Eastern hemisphere. The facility, instrumental to the war on terror, was established by a 1966 Australia-U.S. treaty. Around 1,000 personnel, mainly CIA, NSA, and NRO agents, control a set of geostationary satellites positioned above the Indian Ocean and Indonesia. The satellites are able to pinpoint the origin of a radio signal to within approximately 10 meters. “Initially Pine Gap was collecting information – it was, if you like, listening in. It’s now targeting weapons systems. It’s also very much involved in the targeting of drones,” explained former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, in 2014.[xxiv]

From the launch of the first satellites, space has been a “militarized” domain, providing the eyes and ears for the U.S. military and intelligence community. The future not only points to more intense forms of militarization but, potentially, more overt forms of weaponization–that is, the placement of orbital weapons into outer-space. This has yet to happen, although both the U.S. and China have anti-satellite capabilities. Some speculate that the U.S. military’s secretive X-37B unmanned orbital spacecraft is a space weapon of some sort, although its real purpose remains unclear.[xxv] U.S. Congress has approved a big increase in space defense for 2016, totalling $5 billion over the next five years. Of course, the majority of UN states are against any form of space weaponization. To a large extent, UN legislation already prohibits space weapons, stemming from the foundational 1967 Outer Space Treaty. A big question mark therefore hangs over whether this kind of legislation will be able to hold back the emerging weaponization of space.

[i] Douglas Aircraft Company, Preliminary Design of An Experimental World-Circling Spaceship, Report No. SM-11827, May 2, 1946.

[ii] Council on Foreign Relations, “Chronology of National Missile Defense Programs,” June 1, 2002,

[iii] Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 81.

[iv] Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation on Defense and National Security,” (speech, Oval Office, March 23, 1983), Ronald Reagan Presidential Library,

[v] Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007), 211.

[vi] William D. Hartung and Michelle Ciarrocca, “Push for Missile System Ignores Lack of a Real Threat,” Deseret News, January 28, 2001,

[vii] Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 212.

[viii] Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, Executive Summary, Pursuant to Public Law 201, 104th Congress (Washington D.C., July 15, 1998).

[ix] Hartung and Ciarrocca, “Push for Missile System Ignores Lack of a Real Threat.”

[x] Eric Schmitt, “Panel Says U.S. Faces Risk of a Surprise Missile Attack,” New York Times, July 16, 1998,

[xi] “National Missile Defense Act of 1999,” Public Law 106-38, 106th Congress, July 22, 1999,

[xii] National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD-23, December 16, 2002,

[xiii] Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, Executive Summary, Pursuant to Public Law 106-65, (Washington D.C., January 11, 2001).

[xiv] Johnson, Nemesis, 210.

[xv] United States Space Command, Vision for 2020 (Peterson AFB, CO: U.S. Space Command, 1996).

[xvi] William L. Shelton, “The Value of Space to the Warfighter,” (speech, Air Force Association Mitchell Institute Friday Space Group Forum, Washington D.C., February 7, 2014), Air Force Space Command,

[xvii] The White House, National Space Policy of the United States of America, June 28, 2010, 3.

[xviii] Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Security Space Strategy Unclassified Summary, January 2011, 11.

[xix] Bruce Berkowitz, The National Reconnaissance Office at 50 Years: A Brief History, National Reconnaissance Office (Chantilly, VA: Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, 2011).

[xx] Barton Gellman and Greg Miller, “‘Black Budget’ Summary Details U.S. Spy Network’s Successes, Failures and Objectives,” Washington Post, August 29, 2013,

[xxi] National Reconnaissance Program, FY 2010 Congressional Budget Justification, Volume IV, May 2009, 1.

[xxii] Berkowitz, The National Reconnaissance Office at 50 Years, 11.

[xxiii] Steve Schofield, Lifting the Lid on Menwith Hill: The Strategic Roles and Economic Impact of the US Spy Base In Yorkshire, Yorkshire Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, (The Russell Press Ltd., 2012).

[xxiv] Mark Corcoran, “Drone Strikes Based On Work At Pine Gap Could See Australians Charged, Malcolm Fraser Says,” ABC News, April 29, 2014,

[xxv] Alan Yuhas, X-37B Secret Space Plane’s Mission Remains Mystery Outside U.S. Military,” The Guardian, October 27, 2014

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Surplus Populations: A Draft Bibliography (7 June 2018)

Surplus Populations: A Draft Bibliography (7 June 2018)

Alves, J. A. (2014). From necropolis to blackpolis: necropolitical governance and blackspatial praxis in São Paulo, Brazil. Antipode 46 (2):323–339.

Baptist, E. E. (2014). The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Breman, J. 2016. On Pauperism in Present and Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cowen, Deborah, and Amy Siciliano. 2011. Surplus Masculinities and Security. Antipode 43(5): 1516–41.

Davis, Mike. 2004. “Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat.” New Left Review 26 (Mar Apr): 5–34

Davis, M. (2006). Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Denning, Michael. 2010. “Wageless Life.” New Left Review 66(Nov Dec): 79–98.

Evans, Brad, and Zygmunt Bauman. 2016. The Refugee Crisis Is Humanity’s Crisis. The New York Times, May 2.

Gidwani, Vinay, and Rajyashree N. Reddy. 2011. The Afterlives of ‘Waste’: Notes from India for a Minor History of Capitalist Surplus. Antipode 43 (5): 1625–58.

Gillespie, Tom. 2016. Accumulation by Urban Dispossession: Struggles over Urban Space in Accra, Ghana. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41: 66–77.

Gilmore, Ruth W. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Giroux, Henry A. 2002. Global Capitalism and the Return of the Garrison State: Rethinking Hope in the Age of Insecurity. Arena Journal 19 (Fall 2002): 141–60.

Glassman, Jim. 2006. Primitive Accumulation, Accumulation by Dispossession, Accumulation by ‘extra-Economic’ Means. Progress in Human Geography 30 (5): 608–25.

Hudson, Laura. 2011. A Species of Thought: Bare Life and Animal Being. Antipode 4 (5): 1659–78.

Lapavitsas, C. 2013 Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All. London and New York: Verso.

Lebaron, Genevieve, and Alison J. Ayers. 2013. The Rise of a ‘New Slavery’? Understanding African Unfree Labour through Neoliberalism.” Third World Quarterly 34(5): 873–92.

Li, Tania Murray. 2009. To Make Live or Let Die? Rural Dispossession and the Protection of Surplus Populations. Antipode 41: 66–93.

Marx, K. 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. (B. Fowkes, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture 15 (1): 11–40.

McIntyre, Michael, and Heidi J. Nast. 2011. Bio(Necro)Polis: Marx, Surplus Populations, and the Spatial Dialectics of Reproduction and ‘Race.’ Antipode 43 (5):

Mitchell, Katharyne. 2009. Pre-Black Futures. Antipode 41: 239–61.

Neilson, D., and T. Stubbs. 2011. Relative Surplus Population and Uneven Development in the Neoliberal Era: Theory and Empirical Application. Capital & Class 35 (3): 435–53.

Neocleous, Mark. 2011. War on Waste: Law, Original Accumulation and the Violence of Capital. Science & Society 75 (4): 506–28.

Nevins, J. 2017. The right to the world. Antipode, 49(5): 1349–1367.

Philo, Chris. 2005. “The Geographies That Wound.” Population, Space and Place 11 (6): 441–54.

Pratt, Geraldine. 2005. Abandoned Women and Space of Exception.” Antipode 37: 1052–78.

Robinson, Cedric, J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Rehmann, Jan. 2015. Hypercarceration: A Neoliberal Response to Surplus Population? Rethinking Marxism 27 (2): 303–11.

Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stanley, A. 2015. Wasted Life: Labour, Liveliness, and the Production of Value. Antipode 47 (3), 792–811.

Shaw, Ian G. R. 2016. The Urbanization of Drone Warfare: Policing Surplus Populations in the Dronepolis. Geographica Helvetica 71: 19–28.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2014. “How Will Capitalism End?” New Left Review 87 (May Jun): 35–64.

Tyner, James A. 2013. Population Geography I: Surplus Populations. Progress in Human Geography 37 (5): 701–11.

Tyner, J. A. 2016. Population Geography III: Precarity, Dead Peasants, and Truncated life. Progress in Human Geography, 40(2), 275–289.

Therborn, Göran. 2014. New Masses? Social Bases of Resistance. New Left Review 85 (Jen Feb): 7–16.

Wacquant, Loic. 2009. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Watts, Michael J. 2011. Planet of the Wageless. Identities 18 (1): 69–80.

Wright, Melissa W. 2011. Necropolitics, Narcopolitics, and Femicide: Gendered Violence on the Mexico-U.S. Border. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36 (3): 707–31.

Yates, Michelle. 2011. The Human-As-Waste, the Labor Theory of Value and Disposability in Contemporary Capitalism. Antipode 43 (5): 1679–95.


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9 things I learned striking…

9 Things I learned Striking…


1. The importance of the strike itself—as a tactic, a tool, a space, for challenging conditions of precarity. As someone that’s relatively early career (I’ve been a lecturer for 5 years), a strike was something I’d read about but didn’t think I’d ever perform. In doing so, I confronted myself as a worker amongst workers. And realized the long-held power of withheld labour.

Even amongst the most privileged of us, it was important to strike. To actively disavow the strike, in the name of complacency, comfort, or embarrassment, only undermines the potency—and visibility—of striking from the toolkit of progressive politics.

2. The importance of the picket line. Lots of you will have felt joy, anger, sadness, happiness, and the biting arctic cold, at the picket line. But this space was the frontline of the strike, what Hannah Arendt might call a space of appearance. I didn’t appreciated, ahead of time, how important it was to have bodies on the street. But it did. Bodies of all shapes and sizes. Abilities and ages. Bodies whose very presence articulated—and signified—a demand. A call. The picket line was a lively, affective space of difference and demand—where our appearance itself was both a signifier and a corporeal power. Where bodies affected and impressed themselves in and against the flesh of the world.

For many of us the picket was a transformative space.

3. We found each other. We found students and colleagues that existed but did not appear to us. It’s easy to become alienated in our offices—lost at our keyboards, lost in conferences, lost in bureaucracy. But on the street, we found each other. We found new friends. We forged new assemblies that cut across hierarchies, disciplines, and entrenched daily routines. Bubbles were burst.

4. The strike expanded beyond a pension dispute. It lifted the lid on an ugly can of worms. Obscene VC pay. Authoritarian mangers. Deadening and overwhelming work routines. Gender disparities. Mental health crises. It became a lightning rod against the marketization of everything: pensions, universities, students, futures, bodies, minds.

5. Social media solidarity. Twitter was vital in sending messages of support and solidarity, coordinating action, and synchronizing student occupations. And I learned so much about the pension dispute through this medium—and with the release of USSBriefs it became a vital beacon for educating ourselves.

6. Education beyond the syllabus. Teach-ins and teach-outs were inspiring and beautiful. We learnt that education is, was, and always will be, bigger than university.

7. The importance of connecting to people beyond the university. This one is particularly important to me. Glasgow members gave blood at a local NHS donation centre. And many of us strikers went to volunteer at local foodbanks (and subsequently signed up afterwards). The strike reaffirmed how our little lives are always folded into a larger life. The life of the world.

8. Student-staff solidarity. The support from our students was the lifeblood of the strike and enabled us to keep going for 4 weeks. Student occupations affirmed who the university was for, and whose futures depending on it. Not managers. Not VCs. Not overpaid security staff. But students. It’s their house. And we are lucky to be a part of shaping their future.

9. Legacy: social spaces. There’s an opportunity to build upon our momentum to create a union that is a progressive, creative, anti-marketization space for student-worker solidarity. One suggestion is a UCU social space that meets regularly in campuses across the UK—to break bread, laugh, joke, and hold an always fragile assembly together. At Glasgow, we’ve started just that—with weekly lunchtime meetings.

I want to finish by reading out a statement from two Glasgow undergraduate students–David Hanson and Agnes Berner. They wanted me to read it out, on behalf of Glasgow University Strike Solidarity

We came together from a wide range of backgrounds: marxists, anarchists, feminists, faith organisations, activists involved with tenants’ rights, human rights, environmental and LGBT+ issues; some had been politically involved for years, and some had zero experience. One word tied us together: Solidarity. We recognised that although this was not about our pensions, the strike was a part of our struggle. As the strike progressed, the picket lines became not only a physical space, but an intellectual space rarely seen at the university. The strike was an opportunity to develop relationships with our lecturers outside the confines of the classroom. At heart, students and staff want the same thing: an open, democratic, and fair university that puts people ahead of profits.

It also made us look to our fellow students across the UK. We inspired, taught and encouraged each other. Social media made our actions visible and connected us despite being hundreds of miles apart. As more universities were occupied, the more it strengthened our resolve. The last week of the strike had seen an unacceptable proposal by UUK. As students, we knew our presence and outreach had been appreciated by the strikers, but senior management continued to avoid their responsibilities to students and staff. We had to make a show of force to demonstrate that the end of the strike was not the end of our fight: so we decided to occupy.

Occupations were orchestrated by very few people at some 20 universities. But by acting simultaneously and in unity, we had strong visible impact on fellow students, staff, and management, ultimately creating enough disruption to reach the media. As politicians started to reach out and respond, we realised the efficacy of our actions and how we could push for changes beyond the scope of the pensions dispute.

The fight against the marketisation of higher education and the neoliberal agenda that are eroding our universities begins now.


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Education is Liberation

Education is Liberation

I am 33 years old. I am 17. I am retired.
I am a Pakistani girl that refused to be scared.
I am students occupying a university.
I am a library volunteer.

Value me or I am forgotten.
Cherish me or I become fake news.
Love me or I turn into a product.
Challenge me or I calcify to dogma.

I scare you.
I dare you.
I whispered into your ears that you could be better.
I painted you a picture of a world different.

I am the astrophysicist smiling in the stars.
I am the nurse holding your hand.
I am the teacher that saw past your anger.
And instead wiped your tears.
I am the mother who worked 3 jobs,
So you would not have to.

Read me in books.
Hear me in songs.
Breathe me as you fly.
Whisper of me to your children.

I founded your cities.
I laid your roads.
I ploughed your fields.
I fixed your bones

Why did you hate me?
Why did you forget?
Why did you let others pollute me?
Why did you say nothing?

Blood is still spilled in my name.
Many fear my power.
For I am the world creator and the world destroyer.
Gold into ash, ash into magic.

Who am I?

I am revolution.
I am the voice inside your head. Pushing you. Always pushing you.
I am liberation.
I am education.

By Ian Shaw, 2018




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The Politics of Austerity: Fighting for the World

Public Lecture at the Main Gate of the University of Glasgow, 27 February 2018, 11:00am

Written in a couple of hours! So, apologies for any typos, missing citations, errors

Ian Shaw @ianshawz


A decade has eclipsed since the global financial crisis—the worst of its kind since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The damage inflicted by a cabal of bankers still festers in the world. Many individuals, families, and communities, simply never recovered. Part of the reason for this is the UK government’s policy of austerity.

The term austerity crested in popularity after the financial crises of 2007-2008. Public monies were used to buy private banking debt, leading to soaring national deficits. Soon after, this form of disaster capitalism (Klein 2007[1]) was translated into political currency for a Conservative party keen to slash and burn the welfare state.

Yet the case for austerity was always ideological. Even Paul Krugman, a Nobel-winning economist, argued that “Harsh austerity in depressed economies isn’t necessary, and does major damage when it is imposed” (Krugman 2015[2]). Austerity in the Eurozone between 2008 and 2012 typically had a negative effect on economic growth.

The reality that we were sold was different. The problem was not bankers and fat cats. It was the poor and the precarious. And so began the great robbery of the twenty-first century.

Like neoliberalism, austerity was thus a class project (Harvey 2005[3]). Selling public assets, slashing benefits, and shrinking the state, not only redistributed capital to elites— it also accumulated their political power. Lest we forget, austerity was nearly always accompanied by corporate and capital tax reductions.

So-called “quantitative easing” transferred wealth upwards while pushing downwards the burdens of austerity—leading to asset inflation and wage deflation. Austerity was a case of regressive redistribution.

And young people feel this most acutely. EU youth unemployment (below 25) is 18 %. In Greece it’s 40.8 %, Spain 36.8 %, and Italy 32.2 % (Eurostat 2018[4]).

Moreover, in 2017, “vulnerable employment,” represented 42 percent of all work in the world—or 1.4 billion people (International Labour Organization, 2017[5]). Those are jobs marked by precarity with no guarantees of your next paycheck.

The class war is very real. And most of us are losing.

Financialization plays a key role in this class war. The real wealth in this world is difficult to see. It’s not always located in fat-cat salaries. No no. It’s in stocks and shares, offshore accounts, and empty houses. But its effects are easy to see. Unemployment. Homelessness. Social unrest. Riot. And death.

The net result: obscene wealth accumulation and poverty now sit together. Globally, eight billionaires own as much wealth as half the world’s population (Oxfam 2017[6]). The richest 10% of UK households hold 45% of all wealth (The Equality Trust 2018[7]). The poorest 50%, by contrast, just 8.7%.  One in three British children now live in poverty (Butler 2017[8]).

In 2017, one study claimed that 30,000 excess deaths in the UK during 2015 were a result of austerity-driven cuts to the NHS and social care (Siddique 2017a[9]). Put simply: the age of austerity has shortened people’s lives and their life chances.

Too many of us are falling into a category that should have been left in the Victorian Era: surplus populations. People whose lives are made redundant.

Austerity is structural violence. It is felt in our bodies and also our minds.

The World Health Organization anticipates that depression will be the largest global health problem by 2030. One in four people are affected by a mental illness, according to the NHS. (Siddique 2017b[10])

Austerity makes us sick. It alienates us from our world and our brothers and sisters.

In 1972, here at the University of Glasgow, Jimmy Reid, a trade unionist from Govan, became Rector. In his address, he talked about alienation:

“Alienation is [a] major social problem in Britain today.. Let me define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of [people] who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control… The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies…

As he continues,

“…anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else”

“It is my earnest desire that this great University of Glasgow should be in the vanguard: initiating changes and setting the example for others to follow”

Clearly the bite of austerity is raw. More surplus populations. More mental health problems. More inequality. More frustration. You don’t have to travel long here in Glasgow to see social apartheid written on the streets.

So how do we change a system of structural violence that seems everywhere and nowhere?


Here’s the big problem: despite these wretched conditions, worlds beyond austerity are struggling to breathe.

More dangerously: galvanized white supremacists, and fascists, are exploiting the toxic collision of austerity, nationalism, and racism. Some sit in the White House.

But as more of us find ourselves surplus to the economy, there is an opportunity to reimagine what constitutes a “good life.”

For the obstacle we face is big. Our streets, jobs, bodies, and minds are so colonized by what Mark Fisher (2009[11]) terms “capitalist realism” that its suffocating power can be difficult to see. For even in the direst of circumstances we still cling to the world we have, rather than the world we want.

The psychologist Wilhelm Reich put it as follows:

“what has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike.”

I think our task as intellectuals, and as students of the world, is to research, teach, and support practices that re-enchant our imaginations with alternative worlds.

This requires decolonizing our minds of the entrenched common-sense of what is meaningful work, and its connection to happiness, identity, and self-worth. It asks: what the hell are we doing?

Education is liberation. Liberation of our minds from a system of structural violence that lets thousands die, millions suffer, and keeps us trapped in cycles of precarious work and unemployment.

Emancipatory politics must address the imagination. It is love, dreams, passion, and the desire for alternative-worlds that opposes the bitterness of austerity. This struggle must expand beyond the exploitative, alienating, and oppressive conception that work can only be waged labor.

More than ever, in age of austerity, cutbacks, and the slow march of the coming robots, we must think through practical supplements, and alternatives, to wage-labor: to bold worlds with decommodified economic exchanges, social configurations, ecologies, and subjects.

For example, a universal basic income (UBI) is generating renewed interest. The premise of UBI is that the state should provide a certain amount of financial support to each citizen, regardless of employment.

But what about political autonomy? Even existential autonomy?

Many strands of the autonomous Marxist tradition (see Henri Lefebvre on autogestion), anarchism (see the work of Simon Springer), and diverse economies literature (e.g. the work of Gibson-Graham) detail important political alternatives. Temporary and permanent autonomous zones, worker’s councils, cooperatives, community gardens, free schools, pirate radio stations, squats, collectives, communes (see especially Invisible Committee 2009[12]), LETs, diverse economies, and other parallel institutions are vital spaces of refuge. Consider the pioneering success of the Black Panthers’ successful survival programs in the 1960s.

What I want to a stress, and perhaps this is unsurprising as I am a geographer, is the importance of working for the world. Not working-for-a boss, or just ourselves, but working-for-the world. Working for a good life, a dignified world. Most of us sell our labor to survive. I know I do. But work spans beyond this capitalist definition to encompass a care for the space that surround us (on this see Hannah Arendt).

This kind of work spirals outwards: from the individual, to the street, to the neighbourhood, extending to new social formations. Local communities become spaces for budding new worlds: spaces that “protect individuals from becoming isolated, lonely and withdrawn (Gorz 1989: 159[13]).

Working for better housing, better parks, better infrastructure, better transport, better oceans, better rivers, better cities. We must see in the world the very fabric of our own existence. We are not separate from the world: physically, mentally, or emotionally. We are one.

There is so much sadness, loneliness, and anger that swells from having so little invested in the world. Austerity poisons our minds and our landscapes. Ruining social housing. Taking away life opportunities. And slashing our healthcare.

But we can undermine austerity by building new worlds. And the first step is education—an emancipatory practice that is always under threat. It is not separate from the class war. It is just another battleground.  It’s why we are assembled on this picket.

So, to finish: wherever we find ourselves, our task is to unite and work for a different world.

These worlds are always bubbling into being. They are here in Glasgow. They are community centres. They are acts of kindness. And these blueprints for alternative worlds require us—whether students, academics, activists, artists, or teachers—to build them with our minds, bodies, and spirit.

Thank you.

[1] Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2] Krugman, P. (2015). The austerity delusion.

[3] Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] Eurostat (2018).

[5] ILO (2017). World Employment Social Outlook.—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_541211.pdf

[6] Oxfam (2017).

[7] Equality Trust (2018).

[8] Butler, P. (2018).

[9] Siddique, H. (2017a).

[10] Siddique, H. (2017b).

[11] Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: O Books.

[12] The Invisible Committee. (2009). The Invisible Committee: The Coming Insurrection. Milton Keynes: Lightning Source.

[13] Gorz, A. (1989). Critique of Economic Reason. (G. Handyside & C. Turner, Trans.). London: Verso.

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Readings on Urbicide

Readings on Urbicide

Abujidi, N. (2014). Urbicide in Palestine: Spaces of Oppression and Resilience. Oxon: Routledge.

Adams, N. (1993). Architecture as the target. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 52(4): 389-390.

Berman, M. (1987). Among the ruins. new internationalist, available at

Berman, M. (1996). Falling towers: city life after urbicide. In: Crow, D. (ed.) Geography and Identity: Exploring and Living Geopolitics of Identity. Washington: Maisonneuve, pp. 172–192.

Bevan, R. (2005). The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. London: Reaktion Books.

Bogdanovic, B. (1993) ‘Murder of the City.’ The New York Review of Books, 40:10. Available:

Campbell, D., Graham, S. and Monk, D. B. (2007). Introduction to urbicide: the killing of cities? Theory and Event 10(2),

Coward, M. (2006). Against anthropocentrism: the destruction of the built environment as a distinct form of political violence. Review of International Studies 32: 419-437

Coward, M. (2007). Urbicide reconsidered. Theory and Event, 10(2),

Coward, M. (2008). Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction. Oxon: Routledge

Dudley, M. (2007). Revisiting cold war ideology in the secure city: towards a political economy of urbicide. Theory & Event, 10(2),

Fregonese, S. (2009). The urbicide of Beirut? Geopolitics and the built environment in the Lebanese civil war (1975–1976). Political Geography 28(5): 309–318.

Graham, S. (2002). Bulldozers and bombs: the latest Palestinian-Israeli conflict as asymmetric urbicide. Antipode, 34(4): 642-649.

Graham, S. (2003). Lessons in urbicide. New Left Review, 19,

Goonewardena, K. and Kipfer, S. (2006). Postcolonial urbicide: new imperialism, global cities and the damned of the earth. New Formations, 59(23-33).

Hanafi, S., 2013. Explaining spacio-cide in the Palestinian territory: Colonization, separation, and state of exception. Current Sociology, 61(2), pp.190–205.

Herscher, A. (2006). American urbicide. Journal of Architectural Education, 60(1): 18-20

Herscher, A., 2007. Urbicide, Urbanism, and Urban Destruction in Kosovo. Theory & Event, 10(2).

Hewitt, K. (1983). Place annihilation: area bombing and the fate of urban places. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 73: 257-284

Hewitt, K., 2009. Proving grounds of urbicide: Civil and urban perspectives on the bombing of capital cities. Acme, 8(2), pp.340–375.

Huxtable, A. L. (1968). Lessons in urbicide. New York Times, December 22.

Huxtable, A. (1970). Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? A Primer on Urbicide. New York: Collier Books.

Kipfer, S. and Goonewardena, K. (2007). Colonization and the new imperialism: on the meaning of urbicide today. Theory & Event, 10(2),

Mostar Architects Association. (1993). Mostar ’92 – Urbicide. Spazio e Societa/Space and Society, 16(62), 8–25.

Ramadan, A. (2009). Destroying Nahr el-Bared: sovereignty and urbicide in the space of exception. Political Geography, 28 (3): 153–163.

Safier, M. (2001). Confronting ‘urbicide’: crimes against humanity, civility and diversity, and the case for a civic cosmopolitan response to the attack on New York. City, 5(2):416-429.

Sharp, D., 2016. Urbicide and the Arrangement of Violence in Syria. In D. Sharp & C. Panetta, eds. Beyond the Square: Urbanism and the Arab Uprisings. Terreform, pp. 118–141.

Shaw, M. (2004). New wars of the city: relationships of ‘‘urbicide’’ and ‘‘genocide’’.

In S. Graham (Ed.), Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics (pp.

141–153). Oxford: Blackwell.

Simmons, C. (2001). Urbicide and the Myth of Sarajevo. Partisan Review, 68(4), pp.624–630.

al-Sabouni, M. (2016). The Battle for Home: Memoir of a Syrian Architect. Thames & Hudson.

Stanley, B., (2017). The City-Logic of Resistance: Subverting Urbicide in the Middle East City. Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, 12(3): 10–24.

Tyner, J.A, Henkin, S., Sirik, S., Kimsroy, S. (2014). Phnom Penh during the Cambodian genocide: A case of selective urbicide. Environment and Planning A, 46(8): 1873–1891.

Watson, I. (2013) (Re)constructing a world city: urbicide in global Korea.

Globalizations, 10(2): 309-325.

Zaprianov, D. (2012). Is the destruction of urban structures a form of violence? E-International Relations,

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Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age

My latest open-access paper has just come online over at Security Dialogue.


How will the robot age transform warfare? What geopolitical futures are being imagined by the US military? This article constructs a robotic futurology to examine these crucial questions. Its central concern is how robots – driven by leaps in artificial intelligence and swarming – are rewiring the spaces and logics of US empire, warfare, and geopolitics. The article begins by building a more-than-human geopolitics to de-center the role of humans in conflict and foreground a worldly understanding of robots. The article then analyzes the idea of US empire, before speculating upon how and why robots are materializing new forms of proxy war. A three-part examination of the shifting spaces of US empire then follows: (1) Swarm Wars explores the implications of miniaturized drone swarming; (2) Roboworld investigates how robots are changing US military basing strategy and producing new topological spaces of violence; and (3) The Autogenic Battle-Site reveals how autonomous robots will produce emergent, technologically event-ful sites of security and violence – revolutionizing the battlespace. The conclusion reflects on the rise of a robotic US empire and its consequences for democracy.

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Read this rest of the paper here.

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Remote: a Documentary about Drones and Humans

This is a 33-minute documentary I produced about drone warfare. It covers a lot of ground–from the history of air power, to signature strikes, miniaturized swarming, the future of policing, the role of autonomous AI, and what it all means for us – humanity.

My ambition for this video was always to situate drones within a deeper (philosophical) consideration about the human condition. For this reason, the title of the documentary–Remote–plays on the the ideas of remote violence but also a remote society.

The documentary draws from my 2016 book, Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance, published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The documentary is entirely for educational, non-commercial purposes, and no copyright infringement intended. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the ESRC, the Urban Studies Foundation, and the University of Glasgow. The content of the video represents my views, and not necessarily any of these organizations.

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Policing the Future City: Robotic Being-in-the-World

Below is my contribution for the recent collection published in Antipode on Algorithmic Governance.

Policing the Future City: Robotic Being-in-the-World

Sensor Prison

Ripe was the time for a revolution in police surveillance. The Vietnam War served as a laboratory for cybernetic experiments in the management of state power and violence. During the 1960s, the US Department of Defense began to automate warfare with the aid of computer algorithms. What became known as the “electronic battlefield” was a networked system of acoustic and seismic sensors, airplanes, and IBM super-computers that detected enemy movements in the forest and automated the US military’s kill chain (Dickson 2012). This vaulted apparatus of Technowar (Gibson 2000) revolutionized how the US military conducted the age-old art of killing. By the end of the conflict, the electronic battlefield was the object of fervid speculation, excitement, and anxiety. In a 1975 article, The New York Times prophesized: “Wars fought by planes without pilots. . . Guns that select their own targets. Missiles that read maps. Self-operated torpedoes on the ocean floor. Laser cannons capable of knocking airplanes out of the sky. Satellite battles on the other side of the moon” (Stanford 1975).


Figure 1: A U.S. computational surveillance centre in Thailand monitored ground sensor information during the Vietnam War. Photo credit: Project CHECO Report, Igloo White, January 1970- September 1971, U.S. Air Force.

Decades later, wars are now fought by planes without (onboard) pilots, although lunar conflicts have yet to materialize. But the real revolution of the Vietnam War was always more insidious: during the 1970s, the electronic battlefield snaked back to the homeland. Sensor technology was used by domestic law enforcement for policing, prisons, and border control. Under Operation Intercept—the anti-narcotics search and seizure operations that fueled President Nixon’s war on drugs—the US-Mexico border was converted into a testing ground for the domestication of the electronic battlefield. Buried seismic sensors were deployed by Border Patrol in the summer of 1970. Only the imagination limited how the electronic battlefield could be used for policing.

In 1971, Joseph Meyer, a US engineer who worked for the Air Force and National Security Agency (NSA), published his vision for a Crime Deterrent Transponder System. This futuristic blueprint detailed a new method for policing crime in the city: attaching millions of American parolees, recidivists, and bailees with small radio transponders. These would continually broadcast the location of tagged individuals to police sensors, creating an immersive public surveillance network. “As a consequence, the system of confining criminals in prisons and jails, to punish them or prevent them from committing further crimes, can be replaced by an electronic surveillance and command-control system to make crime pointless” (Meyer 1971: 2). Replacing carceral enclosures, the city itself would be reengineered into a boundless radio prison.

Meyer’s city of sensors would envelop “the criminal with a kind of externalized conscience—an electronic substitute for the social conditioning, group pressures, and inner motivation which most of the society lives with” (Meyer 1971: 17). Decades later, reality has caught up with Meyer’s design: police regularly use GPS devices on convicted criminals, sealing them inside an externalized conscience. More generally, the electronic battlefield, born in the mud and blood of Vietnam, has seeped into the bedrock of the modern smart city—which now seeks to sense and track our intimate mobilities. Algorithmic forms of governance have revolutionized who watches us and how we are watched.

Deterritorializing Algorithmic Policing 

The algorithm, defined broadly “as both technical process and synecdoche for ever more complex and opaque socio-technical assemblages” (Amoore and Raley 2017: 3), has shifted the conditions of possibility for mass surveillance in our dense technical environments, enchanting the anonymous surfaces of the city and the intimate interfaces of habit. To extend Meyer’s turn of phrase, the algorithm not only produces an externalized conscience, but also, an externalized consciousness. The algorithm performs something of an electro-neurological continuum—a univocity of being in which calculation and thinking, consciousness and conscience, cause and effect, the biological and digital, and proximity and distance collapse into uncertain circuits.

Inwards, ever inwards, trickles the flow of who we are into distant clouds (Amoore 2016). The mass centralization of (big) data performed by the algorithm is inseparable from the technological prostheses that cocoon and extend human subjectivity: cell phones, automatic license plate readers, credit cards, facial recognition technologies, computers, and good old-fashioned CCTV. These background apparatuses perform an ambient, territorial intelligence: sending data onwards, altering (non)human mobilities, opening and closing, archiving and cross-referencing, enabling and constricting. The footprints of our lives echo in anonymous government buildings and shiny corporate hives.

For most of its early history, the algorithm was entombed in static shells, a ghost in the machine, patiently watching. Now, no longer: escaping from remote clouds, the algorithm has discovered new robotic bodies to enchant and awaken. Released from the background, liberated from inertia, algorithms are emancipating technics in new lines of flight. In an era of deep learning and swarm intelligence, the algorithm is enabling the deterritorialization of multiple vectors of algorithmic governance. And pivotal to this process is the robot, which fuses sensors, algorithms, and motors together. Algorithms are translating state power into not only more intelligent technics (which has always been their function) but perhaps more significantly, mobile technics.

Rather than enabling, restricting, and conditioning other (non)human bodies, algorithms now find themselves inside of robots capable of conditioning the world directly themselves. The question then becomes: what is at stake when self-learning algorithms propel robots that can move, sense, think, act, and react in the social spaces of human coexistence? Does the autonomous robot, big or small, materialize new modes of algorithmic being-in-the-world?

Robotic Being-in-the-World

Robots have long produced disruptive geographies. Yet autonomous robotics—as opposed to automatic robots complicate the who, the what, and the how of these spatialities and temporalities. Whether a swarm of micro drones flying with advanced sense-and-avoid algorithms, or Boston Dynamics’ BigDog, an advanced four-legged ground robot that mimics the gait of a dog, these kinds of robots pose interesting problematics. By being actors very much in the midst of the world— alongside us in physical co-presence, our alien coexistents—such robots will be productive of space-times that extend and rework current understanding of algorithmic governance. Indeed, consider the Pentagon-financed Atlas. The future uses for this humanoid robot range from aiding humanity in natural disasters to caring for the elderly. The New York Times described Atlas as “a striking example of how computers are beginning to grow legs and move around in the physical world.”


Figure 2: First-generation Atlas, a humanoid robot created by DARPA and Boston Dynamics. Image credit: DARPA (2013), available at Wikimedia Commons.

Algorithms, of course, are always-already worldly. They are embodied (Wilcox 2017), performative, world-making forces, existing across the interfaces of human and nonhuman. As Amoore and Raley (2017:5) write, “it is not merely that algorithms are applied as technological solutions to security problems, but that they filter, expand, flatten, reduce, dissipate and amplify what can be rendered of a world to be secured.” Accordingly, rather than ask the “how” of the algorithm, we must also ask: “what kinds of perceptions and calculations of the world, what kinds of geographies, become possible” (Amoore 2016:9). Understanding the worldliness of algorithms is to view them as forces embedded in the flesh, texture, steel, stone, and undulating atmospheres of our more-than-human co-existence.

The military applications for robotics are already vast. Drone warfare has installed remote power topologies that collapse human pilots with targets thousands of miles away (Shaw 2016). Future autonomous drones (such as the Anglo-French Unmanned Combat Air System) will collapse these targets in entirely robotic topologies, materializing an electronic battlefield in which humans are on the loop, but not necessarily in the loop. This has already contributed to growing anxiety surrounding the rise of so-called killer robots.


Figure 3: BigDog quadruped robot, developed by Boston Dynamics with funding from DARPA. Image credit: DARPA (2012), available at Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the battlefield, the potential uses of autonomous robots for policing—and predictive policing—is similarly wide-ranging. Law enforcement in the US and UK already use algorithmic systems to direct police officers to geolocated crime “hotspots.” These programs model vast sums of data to seize the future. And advances in AI are priming—but not determining—the conditions for robots themselves to occupy algorithmically generated hotspots. Whether in the form of flying swarms or humanoid robots, this artificial being-in-the-world complicates the consciousness and conscience of police power.

Closing Thoughts

Decades after the electronic battlefield introduced ground sensors and computer algorithms into the orbits of state violence, advanced robots now collapse sensors, algorithms, and motors inside a single animate shell. The robotic condition, as uncertain as it remains, will surely require us to consider the impact of these deterritorialized technics upon the conduct of state power. While the spaces of algorithmic authority are currently located in cloud-based data banks that “defy conventional territorial jurisdictions” (Amoore and Raley 2016: 4), how might autonomous robots—as “walking computers”—disclose new algorithmic sites, subjects, and being-in-the-world?


I would like to thank Jeremy Crampton and Andrea Miller for organizing the 2016 AAG panel (Algorithmic Governance) that this paper is based on. I’d also like to thank the ESRC.


  • L Amoore (2016) Cloud geographies: computing, data, sovereignty. Progress in Human Geography, online first, doi:10.1177/0309132516662147.
  • L Amoore and R Raley (2017) Securing with algorithms: knowledge, decision, sovereignty. Security Dialogue 48(1): 3-10.
  • P Dickson (2012) The Electronic Battlefield. Takoma Park: FoxAcre Press.
  • J W Gibson (2000) The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (2nd ed.). New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
  • J A Meyer (1971) Crime deterrent transponder system. IEEE Transactions on Aerospace and Electronic Systems 7(1):2-22.
  • Shaw I G R (2016) Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
  • P Stanford (1975) The automated battlefield. New York Times, February 23.
  • L Wilcox (2017) Embodying algorithmic war: gender, race, and the posthuman in drone warfare. Security Dialogue 48(1): 11-28.
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Intervention Symposium: “Algorithmic Governance”; organised by Jeremy Crampton and Andrea Miller

The following essays first came together at the 2016 AAG Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Jeremy Crampton (Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky) and Andrea Miller (PhD candidate at University of California, Davis) assembled five panellists to discuss what they call algorithmic governance – “the manifold ways that algorithms and code/space enable practices of governance that ascribes risk, suspicion and positive value in geographic contexts.”

Among other things, panellists explored how we can best pay attention to the spaces of governance where algorithms operate, and are contested; the spatial dimensions of the data-driven subject; how modes of algorithmic modulation and control impact understandings of categories such as race and gender; the extent to which algorithms are deterministic, and the spaces of contestation or counter-algorithms; how algorithmic governance inflects and augments practices of policing and militarization; the most productive theoretical tools available for studying algorithmic data; visualizations such as maps being implicated by or for algorithms; and the genealogy of…

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