BLOCKCHAIN – another dull explanation

A blockchain is a distributed, expandable computing architecture on the internet where records of assets or exchange are stored. It combines the BitTorrent protocol, which allows peer-to-peer (P2P) networking, and public-key cryptography. It was first introduced as the underlying technology of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which launched in 2009, serving as its digital cash account book. Hence initial attention was drawn to the presumable impact on the financial world as it renders intermediaries, such as banks, between transactions obsolete. But not even after a decade of introduction the vast scope of application has yet to be seen and development is still in an early stage. The potential of blockchain technology is disputed, some say its mode of decentralization is destined for becoming the next milestone after the semantic web, others may grant it a less significant role. However, enterprises, government agencies and non-profit organizations equally show great interest in this new organization paradigm, which allows for tamper-proof registry or transfer of any type of value. The original script is open-source and grants access to everyone, a project aimed to foster democracy, but beside public blockchains such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, permissioned blockchains emerged. Those are managed by solution providers and restrict participation in a blockchains consensus mechanism.
The data embedded in the source code of the first block, called genesis block or block #0, defines the parameters of a blockchain, which all succeeding blocks rely on. These are time-stamped and added in chronological order and contain encrypted data of completed processes, the transactions, along with the determination data of the previous block. All consecutive blocks are linked by a combination of their particulars back to the outset of a sequence, which renders manipulation impossible, as any deviation would imply the recomputation of the entire blockchain. A ledger is collectively established by its participating users or implemented devices, called nodes, all of which storing a record of the blockchain on their computer system, that automatically updates each time a new block is added. Each node is assigned a pseudonymous identity, a public key address of 27-32 alphanumeric character strings.
The prime revolutionary aspect of blockchain technology is, that its design solved the double-spending and Byzantine Generals problems for distributed systems after decades of cryptographic research. Any digital object, for instance a musical piece, is made of a string of zeros and ones, which can be infinitely reproduced and passed on. Previously this could be only prevented in a hierarchical system, where an authorized and trusted source encrypts data of copyright material and issues decrypted copies for purchase.
The encryption method of blockchain technology is the hash function. It converts data of assets or exchange into a unique code of a predefined fixed length, called the hash (short for hash value), which also constitutes the identifier of the block. It is easy to compute the hash, but virtually impossible to reverse it back to the original data. In order to commence a transaction on a blockchain, each party needs to generate public and private keys by means of hashing. Public keys are shared, private keys are kept personal, and only the combination of both allows to create a digital signature, by which an owner confirms the transfer of a digital object, whether asset or service, to another one.
In order to clear the process without a central administrating body, a minimum number of other nodes, so-called miners, must trace the transaction and reach consensus over its liability. This is achieved by solving a mathematical puzzle, which is so complex, that its solution serves as the cryptographic proof of validity of the transaction, known as ‘proof-of-work’. It also confirms that a specific value, identified by a 64-character hash, has left the wallet of the previous owner, thus preventing double-spending. The blockchain is also a system with high byzantine fault tolerance, as ‘agreement between good actors’ is reached by the majority of a pool of miners, who work on a solution and compute the same result. At this point the transaction is ready to be bundled with others, until issued within a new block. As of end of December 2016, the average period of time between blocks been issued on the Bitcoin blockchain was just under nine minutes. Mining is necessary to keep the blockchain running, growing and updated but requires significant computational effort and computing power. In order to generate proof-of-work, Bitcoin’s mining industry performed six hundred trillion SHA256 computations per second (number from 2013). Experimentation with transforming all or parts of this useless computation into practical or scientific value, for example cancer research, did not provide satisfactory results.
Additionally specific hardware is needed, which is often kept secret due to the increasing competitive pressure. Hence creators of new blocks are rewarded with an incentive, which consists partly of yielded tokens in correlation with the generation of a block (as specified in the blockchain protocol) and of transaction fees, a small percentage of the exchange value, paid by the transaction owner. Unlike the beginnings, when individuals mined more or less as a hobby, labour is now performed in big data centers, many of them based in China, where energy is still cheap.
Development & Application
Person(s) under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto conceptualized blockchain technology for Bitcoin in a White Paper in 2008, also referred to as Blockchain 1.0. Although it appeared with the sole aim of decentralizing money and disrupting the banking system, Nakamoto wrote in June 2010, that development and forking of Bitcoin’s source code was anticipated in order to enable the support of every possible transaction type. As of 2013 a new tier of blockchain technology, termed Blockchain 2.0, emerged. It is built on the Bitcoin Core template but features new applications, decentralized applications (Dapps), which go beyond plain buy/sell models of cryptocurrency, such as smart contracts, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and decentralized autonomous corporations (DACs). Any value, whether hard assets like land, house, car, etc., soft assets like documents (birth certificate, passport, driving licence, etc.) or intellectual property such as copyright, patent or trade name, can be transformed into smart property by providing it with blockchain-encoding, and further processed for registry, inventory or exchange via smart contracts. Smart contracts are computer protocols that act like analogue contracts. It is basically the definition and settlement of an agreement between two or more parties, albeit with the difference of being self-enforced by code, provided that pre-formulated conditions are met. Once network nodes across the blockchain reached consensus, the subsequent mediation or annulment is theoretically not possible, one of the reasons why smart contracts are not covered under the current legal framework.
The largest proportion of development can be attributed to Ethereum, the second prominent public blockchain after Bitcoin, initiated by Vitalik Buterin, a former Bitcoin researcher and developer. It serves not only as a mining network for its already successfully established cryptocurrency Ether, but provides a platform for developing dapps and generating blockchains by facilitating a decentralized, turing-complete virtual machine, the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM), which exists on every user’s computer that is part of the network. The initial version Frontier (Beta) launched in July 2015. The first stable release, Homestead, at the beginning of 2016 was marked by a hard fork in order to eliminate security risks and implied technical upgrades such as further development of Ethereum’s most applied programming language Solidity, which is designed for writing smart contracts. The rapid rise of Ethereum came to a momentary halt by the ‘DAO hack’ in June 2016. The DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) is an investment firm, which operates within the Ethereum blockchain. Its management structures are solely determined by smart contracts and transactions are settled automatically, thus operating autonomously without the need for human intervention. An unknown party exploited the vulnerability of a smart contact and managed to drain about one third from the by then estimated 50 million USD worth Ether fund. The Ethereum community needed a swift response to stop the hackers from withdrawing Ether, so the most vocal majority decided to hard fork, which voided the original theft. Many others felt betrayed by that action, as it violated the ethos of community consensus, and proceeded with the original branch, named ‘Ethereum Classic’, which is ever since in use alongside the newer chain.
Besides securing a strong business partner with Microsoft, Ethereum is setting the stage for the last two phases to complete its blockchain ecosystem. The next version Metropolis, expected release in 2017, is going to provide a user-friendly interface to enable access for the end consumer, which means a tap into the mainstream market. The final version Serenity will present the most challenging hard fork by replacing proof-of-work with a more decentralized proof-of-stake (PoS) algorithm. The cryptocurrency Peercoin was the first to implement proof-of-stake, using a hybridized version in combination with proof-of-work. Although PoS looks like the next most promising consensus mechanism it still shows a number of weaknesses. In this approach new blocks are forged, metaphorically in the sense of blacksmithing, instead of mined and their creators are determined on the basis of their proportion of wealth (stake) they hold within the blockchain network. As this would imply the risk of centralization, various ways of randomization are in testing. For example ‘coin age’, where the credit amount of the stakeholder gets multiplied by the amount of time since last credit movement. The major benefit of adopting PoS is the elimination of the energy waste factor mining. Generating new blocks will become much more environmentally friendly and without the need for heavy calculation, the cycles of block creation will accelerate from minutes to seconds.
The next generation blockchain, Blockchain 3.0, addresses applications beyond currency, finance, and markets. An unlimited number of application possibilities will unfold, if we understand transactions more like a natural process, that is the acquisition and discharge of resources.
Examples of Use
Big companies and government agencies show growing interest in blockchain technology and put it into practical use for example as a registry or notary service. Unlike in the US and Western Europe, far more than the majority of the world population does not have legal titles to their assets, so is up to 90% of land in Africa not registered (as of 2016). Without any recorded recognized proof of ownership, landowners are vulnerable to land title fraud and unable to mortgage their property. Blockchain technology can not only provide security for the less privileged but also minimize prolonged and costly registration processes, which could be handled by using a smartphone. This means no travel or waiting periods at the registry and an immediate visible titling by real-time audits at a fraction of regular costs. States such as Ghana, Greece, Honduras and Georgia have asked companies such as Bitland, BitFury and Factom to provide blockchain-based land titling technology. Some governments already tried to stall the projects due to their political nature.
Also intellectual property can be protected on the blockchain, so people can demonstrate ownership of ideas, patents, writings or artworks. For example on Proof of Existence.
The UK government has commissioned blockchain infrastructure provider Credits to redesign data management in the public sector, such as of the National Health Service (NHS). Medical institutions cannot easily and securely share sensitive patient data, as digitized Electronic Medical Records (EHR) are organized differently by different health providers. On a shared ledger however, patients complete medical history, including demographics, medication, allergies, laboratory results, etc. can be stored in a uniform way, which may result in making more accurate diagnoses and saving lives, as there will be no time waste by sending data back and forth. According to officials, public keys only grant access to metadata and location of personal files, thus peoples most private data is protected.
In the agriculture sector, which constitutes 40% of the global workforce, both farmers and consumers can benefit from blockchain technology. Filament for instance creates concepts for smart farms by connecting and decentralizing physical objects (IoT) and communications within wide networks and facilitates the tracking of stock, machinery, weather conditions, etc. and promises lower costs, efficiency and conflation of the global market. Provenance allows consumers to verify information on origin, ingredients, dates of events within the food supply chain, etc. This transparency allows for making choices to foster sustainability and can help to secure the existence of smaller businesses in organic farming or fair trade.
In general the current WWW infrastructure is not designed to meet the requirements of future highly complex structures, regulating whole environments such as smart grids (power grids) or smart cities in real time. The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing continuously, experts estimate that the number of connected smart devices will rise to 50 billion by 2020. Managing this enormous quantum with traditional methods will become unfeasible, even the maintenance of centralized servers to execute most fundamental tasks such as distributing regular software updates. Each device will need a unique identifier but the internet protocol IPv4, which routes most of the traffic (90%) today, is becoming scarce of available IP addresses. IPv6, developed in the late 1990s, can allocate those, however it shows significant security issues as its integrated Internet Security Protocol (IPsec) is not automatically enabled and the impracticability of monitoring the forthcoming countless number of IP addresses and eliminating corrupt devices is apparent. Devices further require a frequent replacement of sensors or batteries, but human intervention, especially in remote areas, is not always or immediately possible, and does not comply with the overall aim to reduce it to a minimum level. Over time it is becoming more economical to fit even simple controls, such as doorknobs and lightbulbs with general purpose computing rather than embedded applications, so that processing capabilities are powerful enough to facilitate the interworking of software and hardware, rendering devices self-sustainable. A blockchain along with smart contracts will enable nodes to marshal their own resources, for instance paying for electricity- or storage use in exchange for providing services or issuing equity.
Virtues & Perils
The emergence of blockchain technology at the depths of the global financial crisis of 2008 gave rise to new hope for a democratic project, a free mode of peer-to-peer exchange, which operates beyond the control of government agencies, banks or private corporations and their powerful interests. The intended role of the internet was similar, but as clearly evident in the post-Snowden era, reversed. Although immediate access to universal information is at the touch of a button, the general public is left in uncertainty about implications of their own being and action. User data is hoarded and exploited by a concentrated few as the only solution to make the internet work seems the deployment of centralized systems of allegedly trusted partners, which grants them a significant advantage in knowledge over the monitored citizen and consumer. Big data and the interpretation of it provides insight into any conceivable human activity and its probable development, and thus increasingly becoming the most valuable asset class. Without drastic systemic change, corporations and governments will presumably ensure that a more relaxed privacy protection also applies to a blockchain, as its individual rules are dependent on design and coding in the first place. So far a public blockchain is transparent yet grants anonymity. Only matters, not necessarily the parties involved, are disclosed and thus protects against censorship or repressive measures of regulative political regimes and capital controls. Public layers are traceable on the internet, for example on Any exchange to occur on a blockchain is based on proof rather than trust and without the option of dispute or reversal there is no need for participants to reveal too much information about themselves or be wary of their counterpart. The blockchain engine contains the transaction history of every item in circulation and provides proof of who, pseudonymously or not, owns what at any given time, which opens up the utopian vision of a transparent governance, for instance the revelation of arms trade, etc. Despite its openness, it proves to be secure, as a blockchain is distributed across all node’s devices, instead of having a central server as a vulnerable point of attack. Theoretically it is possible that a single entity takes control and thus be capable to compromise the ledger, given the rather unlikely case that ones computational power is vast enough to reach a majority (51%) of the mining hashrate.
Furthermore frictionless and instant transactions at a lower cost makes the technology a booster for the economy and allows for a greater amount of trade. Eliminating mediation promises substantial cost savings, as firstly only transaction fees apply, which are proportional to the amount or value of a transaction. Secondly there is the displacement of personnel by automation, so is reduction of mismanagement by human error.
On the downside, the currently most common mode of reaching consensus, proof-of-work, is not sustainable. The crunching of arbitrary numbers by the trial-and-error method consumes a massive amount of energy, which increases with the growing demand for transactions.
The fact that records, once stored in the blockchain are not modifiable rules out the possibility of changing one’s mind at a later time and clashes with the ‘right to be forgotten’.
Blockchain technology in conjunction with smart contracts is a paradigm for radical automation. It provides a technical solution for the “weakness” of the trust-based model, that is the possibility of betrayal, a risk inherent in any social practice since the onset of human interaction. Trust is replaced with airtight proof, executed by pre-programmed code. Once installed and running, it will be very hard to escape the system. The immediacy and rigidity of autonomous, self-enforcing smart contracts offers clear benefits over human, sometimes ‘irrational’, decision making but rules out any chance for individual consideration or negotiation. Usually pioneering technologies, such as the internet, evolve slowly from long-standing military and academic research and are only made public after careful consideration and revision. Given that, may make blockchain technology with its rather mysterious origin and sudden emergence appear risky. Even that it rose from an anarchistic root and goodwill protest against the banking system, it is fair to assume, that expected development will reverse and play into the hands of neoliberalism, as its anti-regulatory policy is destined to further privatization.

Further Readings
Nakamoto, S. (2008, November). Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash SystemRetrieved November 28, 2016, from
Raval S. (2016). Decentralized Applications – Harnessing Bitcoin’s Blockchain Technology. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.
Swan M. (2015). Blockchain – Blueprint for a new economy. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.
Tapscott D. & A. (2016). Blockchain Revolution – How the technology behind Bitcoin is changing money, business, and the world. New York: Penguin.

London launch/performance of Issue 02 Flee Immediately!

By courtesy of ©Yoshinari Nishiki

By courtesy of ©Yoshinari Nishiki

The long awaited launch of Flee Immediately! Issue 02: Dance and Code/Technology at Res. in London with founding editor Renee Carmichael. My piece of contribution Pogo as Warfare can be found here.

I chose pogo, as it’s my favorite dance, no anodyne agencies, nor rhythmic or social constraints can stop me from doing it. The writing reflects my split relation to contemporary culture & politics. I’ve placed pogo in the surrounding context of the industrial rather than punk genre and the gateway act, DAF’s Der Mussolini, gave clues to futurism and fascism. And so to the present, where technologies of automation form the socio-political horizon, exemplified by the homogenous culture in cybernetic systems. Only the purposeful creation or participation of/ in projects grants users full access to the system’s functionalities. The “creative constraint” (Yuk Hui) affects nonconform nodes, which are inapplicable for interconnection, as the achievement of efficiency is the sole and ultimate goal in the ever-expanding man/ machine reticulation. The technical/ cultural divide links the former with malignity although “algorithmic governmentality” is based on anthropogenic features. A new technicity freed from the restrictions of economic reasoning could offer unexpected manifold probabilities rather than a biased prediction of the future.
The code of practice Du mode danser le Pogo recommends embracing the arrival of the unknown and indicates that assigning flesh and consciousness to technology might – either way – is the passage to liberation.

The drawing illustrates a soldier throwing a drone (RQ-11 Raven) and my original intent to link pogo with my previous research in military science. Pogo dancing drones, a blend of organism and machine should form the backdrop of a sci-fi/theory hybrid plot and subsequently put into practice to enable quantum fiction mapping.
Quod hodie non est cras erit – What is not today shall be tomorrow

Renee advised me to write the animation(s) in CSS3 and to avoid unnecessary complexity. Keeping the code raw worked well.
The page is unintentionally optimized for Firefox and Google Chrome.

Protected: Fieldwork report on DSEI visit, 15th – 18th Sept 2015, London

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Naval mine: Weaponry in the Age of Technocapitali$m

The previous posts tried to erratically address some cybernetic paradigms, arising from the interaction of naval mine, environment and observer. The focus is now directed on the political and economical premises that pave the success of naval mine | autonomous weaponry in the technocapitalist era.

Every state is founded on force.

~ Trotzky

The fundamental question of what justifies mine warfare and its implicit acceptance by the population is elaborated by Max Weber in his essay Politics as a Vocation (1919) asserting, that “the state (…) has the (successful) monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”1, which also confines the state in political science from any other political association through its monopoly on violence.2

The modern state is a compulsory association which organises domination.
Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge.

~ Weber

The modern state is described as organised domination, and although igniting fear, either through sovereignty (e.g. police state) or external threat (e.g. terrorism), and raising the oppressed’s hope for reward (material reward/social honour) are current methods, Weber considers bureaucratisation as the most effective tool to gain subservience and consent. The control mechanisms of the bureaucratic state model, hierarchy, rigid processes and impersonal administration served also capitalism as a base to flourish, and it is noteworthy, that rationalisation measures, both on political and economic level, emerged at the same period of time. Weber even draws a parallel from the alienation of the worker from the material means of production in capitalist enterprise to the ‘traditional’ patrimonial politician, who has been stripped from political power by the denied direct access to crucial means of policymaking such as rights administration, warfare or financial organisation. Today, these tasks are distributed across numerous offices and carried out by a highly specialised political workforce, which is classified by Weber into two basic vocational fields, i.e. political and administrative officials. Although both types may blend, the former essentially represents the governmental policy and manages power relations, whilst the latter is identified, due to his expertise, as the most important power instrument in mass democracy, and thus politically decisive.3

The introduction of salaried politicians, which ideally act exclusively for the welfare and on behalf of society, was certainly indispensable as a byproduct of the democratisation process and for overcoming plutocratic regimes. However, the strive for influential power and financial gain is an inherent human trait, and although it should be assumed, that the transformation of politics into a bureaucratic organisation, where “the most efficient, the most inescapable form of rule” prevails and the imposition of strict regulation elicits the most mandatory behaviour,4 would serve to minimise corruption, but paradoxically reverts it. It needs to be considered that parties are merely interest groups, and that the successful enforcement of interests and elimination of opposing forces implies immense costs, especially during election periods. Weber exposed a circulatory system of financial support and personal favouritism, which keeps the governance ‘machine’ in motion, involving powerful agencies beyond the political stage, i.e. the industry, or termed by Weber “party entrepreneurs”. These invest in a party with a ‘charismatic’ leader, who, now able drawing on abundant sources and running a campaign to “enthuse and organise the masses”5 and thus having bright prospects to lead the party to victory, will in turn compensate the sponsors after a successful election either through offices6 or other advantages, e.g. the commission of contracts.

There are plenty examples for industry-serving behaviour, notably in the arms/defence sector, see The Triumph of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex by Ben Cohen & Winslow Wheeler.



It might be a bit misleading when Weber uses the term plebiscitary democracy to address modern politics7, surely, it depends on the population’s vote to bring their favourite leader8 into power, but if the rest of the government is appointed in a rather undemocratic fashion and devoted to approve any decision made by the ruling few, one might speak of a hybrid form of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. A “monopolisation of office”9 is yet inevitable to provide the necessary unity of direction to conduct the utmost effective realisation of a pre-given policy, hence parliamentary (US: congressional) influence and any regulation by legislative and judiciary branches on most sensitive matters such as foreign affairs, defence and national security are regarded as hindrance, as they pose a threat for the quest for rationalisation.10

The military-industrial complex would become increasingly malignant as it morphed into less obvious forms.

~ Cohen & Wheeler

A collusion between governmental and corporate interests has been always given, especially in fascism.11 In technocapitalism however, Suarez-Villa argues, that corporatism gains hegemony, essentially due to the aid of new technologies and their most contributory pendant, networks, the “mediating agents of technocapitalism”, which made globalisation possible in the first place.12 It is evident that merger led to a few but very powerful defence firms13 and “governments may be compelled to underwrite their activities”,14 yet a more detailed look reveals the actual power of network-based hierarchies and how their mechanisms can undermine established top-down hierarchies and thus permit to bypass governmental law. The advantage of networks in changing relations of power lies within their complexity and impression of lack of authority or direction, and although self-organising features might offer unpredictable outcomes, confusion is a proven policy to dilute control. Nowadays, potent networks unfold only from network extent, as contrary to industrial capitalism where affairs, i.e. the development, production and distribution of material goods, have been dealt with inside the company, technocapitalism’s most valuable resource, i.e. technological creativity, must be found and exploited in any possible area of research. Suarez-Villa terms this phenomenon Experimentalism, the omnipotent successor of the factory system and flourishing platform for the commodification and reproduction of intangibles. Corporatism and experimentalism are symbiotically bound, as the former is dependent on latest research in order to be competitive in the race for state-of-the art technology, whilst the latter is in need of funds. This would allow the conclusion, that the decision to experiment is merely conditioned to commercial ends and thus authoritarian control over technology is assigned to the financially strongest corporations.15
This applies to the current Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA) model,16 which comprehends mainly network-centric warfare (NCW).17 Naval mines, or in general (semi-) autonomous weapon systems and their infrastructures are based on a wide range and combination of technologies, e.g. information technology, biotechnology, robotics, AI, nanotechnology,18 and the rising cost of Research & Development (R&D) processes resulted in the formation of multinational corporations under the leadership of mainly US/Western defence firms. Such internationalised monopolism poses a threat to the autarky of smaller states, which do not have the economic or technological viability to keep up.19 However, Lock20 does not see a risk of [Western] states losing their monopoly on violence in favour for profit, arguing, that the characteristics of war will always depend on the prevailing social system, i.e. present neoliberalism, and that “new war”, which cannot be temporally nor territorially defined, and “chaotic” neoliberal economy politics complement each other. Many seemingly mere commercial companies, particular IT and communications ones, are now well interweaved with the defence industry, as their speedy research and the convenient use of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies allow for a rapid progress of otherwise protracted military projects. Another worrying factor is the increasing privatisation and outsourcing of services formerly provided by the military, especially in the security sector.21 Justified, as sporadic interventions are increasingly replacing front war (“Frontenkrieg”), and private enterprises are thus economical feasible, the commodification of security is at the expense of civilian lives in poorer countries.

Conclusive a listing why naval mine | (semi-) autonomous weaponry and the current political and economical climate are an ideal match. First and foremost, the mine is one of the most cost-effective weapons in the naval arsenal and together with its force multiplying qualities it makes a prime example of efficient weaponry.22 The ongoing trend in miniaturisation offers even more camouflage potential and integration of technological finesse.

They don’t get hungry. They’re not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.

~ Pentagon’s Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command

That a once laid naval mine requires hardly any maintenance is not only beneficial since recruitment for military service in Western countries became a challenge but also as military administration mainly links a soldier’s life to its expense factor.23 As aforementioned, the overall battle management system and logistics are nowadays quite automated and the analysis of the growing amount of data, which a naval mine system collects is too complex for humans to deal with and left to software capacity. In this way generated computer models facilitate planning and decision-making for the thus much less required personnel.

The quest to make war more »humane« … may, under certain conditions, paradoxically result in making it more possible, more imaginable, more frequent, longer and thus more corrupting. Regulating violence, the laws of war and other moral rules that societies may voluntarily impose on themselves, may end up legitimizing it.

~ Eyal Weizman

The removal of humans from the battlefield contributes to the authorisation of intervention in distant domains as governments rather gain acceptance for military actions if casualties amongst own troops kept low. This led to the false impression of “Humanitarian wars”, as deaths on the opposite side are justified as mere preventive measures against even greater “acts of evil”, and portrayed by the media as if the advancements in technology, i.e. the potential of precise targeting, would spare civilian lives. However, Weizman disclosed in the chapter Thanatotactics of his book Hollow Land, that the rate of civilian losses is still quite high.24 Contemporary naval mine warfare reflects the military’s focus on remote control and domination, and with sophisticated built-in sensing and executive capabilities, the mine can be classified as a weapon for “targeted assassination”.

  1. See Weber (1926), p. 1 []
  2. Weber can only identify one single feature, the legal assertion of violence, constituting a state, otherwise anarchy would be the correct definition. []
  3. Weber unveils another similarity to economic enterprise, shareholders (“the people”) and their elected business management (“the sovereign”), are ruled by expert officialdom. Ibid, p. 8 []
  4. See Titunik in Parsons (2003), p. 150 []
  5. See Weber (1926), p. 14 []
  6. See spoils system, introduced in US since Jacksonian presidency (1829-1837). Whimster (2007), p. 216 []
  7. A plebiscite is a referendum, at which the population has the right to direct vote. []
  8. Weber even uses the term “plebiscitary dictator” in this context. Weber (1926), p. 16 []
  9. Ibid., p. 3 []
  10. In Britain, the ‘royal prerogative’ is a possibility to bypass any Commons vote over acts of war. []
  11. See “Political Aspects of Full Employment” by Michal Kalecki []
  12. See Suarez-Villa (2009), p. 57 []
  13. The crisis of the defense industry in the post Cold War era of the 1990s saw the emergence of mega-corporations such as Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. See Bitzinger (2009), p. 4 []
  14. Via state ownership or preferred supplier arrangements. Ibid., p. 3 []
  15. See Suarez-Villa (2009), p. 8-9 []
  16. A RMA is not evolutionary, it is a “process of discontinuous and disruptive change”. See Bitzinger (2009), p. 7 []
  17. NCW connotes the complete informational capturing of the battlefield. []
  18. See Krishnan (2009), p. 3 []
  19. Whilst second-tier arms-producing countries (according to Krause), i.e. France, Britain, Germany, Japan, accepting their subordinated role in the globalised/interdependent defence industry. See Bitzinger (2009), p. 2 []
  20. See Dr. Peter Lock’s lecture “Parameter von Kriegen im 21. Jahrhundert oder die Unübersichtlichkeit sozialer Ordnungen unter Bedingungen von Schattenglobalisierung und neoliberalem Chaos” (online resource []
  21. See Dunne, p. 13 in Bitzinger (2009 []
  22. See Oceanography and Mine Warfare (2000), p. 9 []
  23. “A human soldier costs the Pentagon over their lifetime about $4 million. A robot would cost less than 10 percent of that and a robot can be scrapped once it is damaged or obsolete.” See Krishnan (2009), p. 2 []
  24. E.g. in 2006 the chief of the Israeli Air force “apologized and claimed that under his command the ratio between civilians and combatants killed in targeted assassination was reduced from one to one to now include merely twenty percent of »uninvolved civilians«.” See Weizman (2007) in Thanatotactics []

Applying Luhmann to Naval Mine Systems

Open/closed Systems
The concept of openness is Luhmann’s response to an influence in the early development towards a general systems theory, the attempt to apply the physical model of thermodynamics to social systems, such as economy or politics. Thermodynamics was introduced due to the prevalent emphasis on equilibrium, in which all forces, or systems, in this case the naval mine and the ecological environment are entirely balanced, hence warranting the functionality of the mine within its oceanic surroundings. The premise for this paradigm are closed systems, which, although determining each others state, reside in mere coexistence and thus putting the law of entropy1 into effect. Entropy is generated by the enduring effort of balancing disturbances, resulting from changes in the environmental system [see table 1], i.e. that all energy is solely spent on implementing a desired but unattainable equilibrium and maintaining the precedent structure of the mine.

Table 1: Important Environmental Characteristics that influence Mine Warfare Operations, National Research Council (2000), p. 28

Table 1: Important Environmental Characteristics that influence Mine Warfare Operations, National Research Council (2000), p. 28

Luhmann therefore questions, if the theory of equilibrium, based on mathematical equation, can be synonymous with a general theory of stability.2 At that, in this specific example one has to deal with “nature”, which, despite constant subject to change, produces no entropy, but rather embeds it in an open-ended cycle of energy supply and waste omission. This phenomenon, termed negentropy (negative entropy), has been introduced to explain stability in for humans seemingly chaotic living/biological systems, which conflicts with the physical principles of closed systems, and thus are identified as inherently open.3 Concluding that imbalance may constitute order,4 Luhmann suggests to adopt the biological model to systems theory and to place emphasis on distinction instead of enforcing equilibria, and invokes the epistemological argument, that any system can only define itself as such by distinction from its environment. Cybernetics have been developed to regulate these differences, which have increased with the rise of a global presence of US forces and the strategical importance of littoral warfare, as a majority of political sensitive areas have sea boarders and land-based operations are dependent on steady naval logistics.5 The nearshore environment is characterised by short-term spatial and temporal oceanographic and meteorologic variability, and the closer the adjacent landmass, the more extreme conditions get, pertaining to tide and current potency, wave modification and sediment resuspension.
Various mine types have been developed to adjust the ecological complexities of different water columns (fig. 1.2), but disturbances, e.g. the significant decreased explosive power of bottom mines due to burial by strong underwater currents or the easy detection of exposed moored mines during low tides still occur.6mine-environment
Such events are quite useful, as open systems react with disruptive information, so that naval mine evolution encompasses not only an advancement in sensor technology but also the emergence of a complex digital infrastructure, including the secure wireless transmission across mines, ships and shore, where collected data feeds into further processing to generate historical datasets, environmental assimilation models and graphical interpretations. These in turn, enter the cycle of a feedback loop, until prediction of atmospheric and oceanographic variability7 and target-detection is aligned to estimate the optimal time for detonation. Hence it may be assumed, that open systems rely on positive feedback, where the input signal adds but not corrects the output and thus leads to an overall modification of the mine, whilst feedback for the regulation of closed systems with specific purposeful behaviour must be always negative.8 This poses the question if the latter, the naval mine as a discrete mechanism, can be regarded as an open system and is actually affected by the environment. Referring to Luhmann, it is in fact open for the environment but only to extract certain selected data from it, upon which it may responds, and is therefore intrinsically autonomous. Such operational-closed system are the precondition for open systems, however, it must be considered, that it is always the observer and subjectivity, determining from the outside, where and when to draw a boarder between systems, as the naval mine per se cannot differentiate itself from the environment.9

Are sub-systems becoming increasingly self-organising/autopoietic?
Above, the mine is denoted as an operational-closed system, but correctly this must refer to sections of the communication and control system between the hardware of mine and target, a Wireless Sensor [and Actor] Network (WSN/SANET). Previous to the digital age, arming of naval mines was limited to either direct contact, the oldest technology, or remote control,10 but today the sensing and calculation of physical phenomena, such as fluid pressure, acoustic, magnetic and electric fields, shapes and quantities of passing vessels and submarines, or combinations of all of these is the most effective common method.11 A SANET may consist of hundreds or thousands of sensor nodes12 and numerous heterogeneous units (wireless links, routers, hosts, …), which interact and compete to provide the best possible situational structure for the coordination of sensors and actuators, by e.g. screening for appropriate links or the deactivation of corrupting network layers. Contrary to the classical conception of an organisation, where an infrastructure is pre-existent and persistent and operation(s) are ephemeral, a self-organising structure has a frequent and arbitrary changing topology and is only effective in the very moment the system operates.
Structure is installed by its own operations and vice versa, i.e. any further evolving actions are contingent upon structure, and the greater the richness of structure, the more autonomous a system will become. An autopoietic network must hold self-configurative, self-healing and self-optimising features, which can only be established by a constant review of existent information and a proximate generalisation of these indicators in order to e.g. identify a target with deviating specifics.13 Luhmann stresses the distinction between the concepts of self-organisation and autopoiesis [see table 2], autopoiesis serves as a mere descriptive model of a system, eliminating the subjective, observer dependent causal and temporal viewpoint, at which the outcome of its operations are irrelevant.

Table 2

Table 2

The coupling with the notion of ‘purpose’ and its accomplishment by the execution of a certain sequence of steps, might be useful to explain the overall eligibility of the naval mine, and, as production is dependent on human expectations, but internal processes differ from such, it must be identified as an allopoietic machine. The function of autopoietic systems within this machine however, is purely subordinated to the implementation and maintenance of their own organisations.14
Viability of a complex system15 such as the influence mine is only given by means of distributed control, as heterogeneous sub-systems act advantageous in relation to adaptability and interference, i.e. they coordinate easily with existing or newly integrated systems and dynamically reallocate faulty connections.16 Although human and causal dependence decreases in smaller systems, an increase of dependence on specific events in the local context occurs, as minimal changes in the environment significantly affect individual actions.17

Naval Mine < - > Countermeasure || Reentry ad infinitum?
It must be distinguished between active and passive countermeasures; the latter indicates a vessels camouflage tactics against getting struck, ranging from slow manoeuvring to minimise pressure fields to on-board mine-warning sonar or equipment to reduce acoustic signature. As the hull is most likely made of ferrous material,18 the defence against magnetic mines requires the elaborate measure of degaussing. This means the ship either carries its own degaussing unit, at which current in electromagnetic coils permanently flattens the ambient magnetic field,19 or undergoes the more economical but temporary protection method, the so-called ‘wiping’.20 This must be regularly carried out in Magnetic Silencing Facilities (MSF) as even changes of course might provoke the bias to be randomised.

Aerial view of degaussing facility on google maps.

Aerial view of degaussing facility on google maps.

Precautionary measures apply in particular to mine countermeasure vessels (MCMV), which are deployed for active minesweeping or more specific minehunting missions, equipped to perform two basic techniques. A contact sweep aims at moored mines, at which a towed sled fitted with a cutting machinery detaches the mine from its anchoring cables, so it can be subsequently destroyed. Influence sweeps by mimicking a potential targets signature (target simulation mode [TSM]) and thus forcing a mine to detonate are challenging as mines are initially programmed against getting ‘hacked’ and possibly only take effect if the input pinpoints size, shape, speed, magnetic- and acoustic signature of a watercraft or a multitude of combinations of these. If a mine is provided with an additional deactivation mechanism (self-sterilization), external stimuli during intended outage will also fail and thus endanger following vessels after rearming. Very common is also minesweeping from the air, i.e. a helicopter is towing equipment, the application of remotely controlled robots like the Penguin, a submersed mine-sweeping drone, or putting even animals like military dolphins into action.21
The dynamic interdependency of naval mine and countermeasure can be synonymous with any other spiral of conflict. The weapon is naturally ahead of its countermeasure, factors for sparking the momentum of the former will be addressed at a later point. However, it must be mentioned that Luhmann understands war as a communication system, at which the orientation on an already realised state of a system provokes further realignment.22 This proposition implies the crucial existence of the ‘other’, as without the adversary, weapons such as the naval mine would be entirely meaningless, hence it is necessary to introduce the friend/foe dualism, identified by Luhmann as “the universal code of war”. As aforesaid, distinction [from the environment] is the precondition for any system to form, but the fluidity of an open system, such as war, makes the detection of boundaries by the observer impossible.23 According to Luhmann’s analysis of [war] system as form, with reference to George Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form, the system consists of two sides24 (fig. 1.3).warsystem These are composed to illustrate both a distinction and the system of war, which comes into existence through its first operation, the offence, and the simultaneous indication of the counterpart. The insignificance of the executive factor is interesting, however, the system operates on its own terms and refers to itself, and is therefore autopoietic, which implies the observer’s exclusion from the act of process, whether he is part of system or of the environment.25 A communication system must feature connectivity, therefore the transmission of a message has to contain information to which an external recipient can refer to, who is at once distinct from the information provided but imported by the system with the request of response. This process is termed reentry, described by Luhmann as an “oscillation between external and internal reference”. Luhmann’s application of Spencer Brown’s concept is controversial, however, it allows for adding the temporal aspect to problem solving in mathematical equation.
Example in naval mine context:
1st operation → “naval mine hits enemy or not”
Import of link → “enemy employs countermeasure or not”
= re-entry → “enemy gets hit or not”
Distinction stays the same, but this time it is not dependent on naval mine but on employing a countermeasure.
“new naval mine ahead of countermeasure, hits enemy or not”
continued ad infinitum?

Physical & Psychic Damage | Structural coupling of individual psychic system[s] and social (war) system[s]
When dealing with destructive power, one cannot necessarily assume that direct contact of mine and watercraft is causing perforation of the hull and consequently flooding, as a large part of mines are submerged and fired at distant range from their targets. Underwater explosions differ from detonations in the air due to the elastic properties of the surrounding element, therefore a shock wave, whose strength is measured in “shock factor value”26, attenuates very quickly with range but has in turn a larger peak overpressure.27Even though ships and submarines are likely designed to overall withstand the resonating water force, diffraction loading28 causes the tossing and thus potential malfunction of internal equipment and bodily harm of the crew, affecting manoeuvrability and possible counteraction, which renders the watercraft vulnerable to natural forces and further attacks. Furthermore there is the utilisation of the bubble jet effect, as the underwater explosion forms a steam bubble, which eventually bursts and either creates a powerful pillar of water, that might crashes onto the vessel, or, if in close proximity attaches itself under the hull and oscillates a few times until the high energy jet of the collapse absorbs the watercraft into a void (fig. 1.4).29

fig. 1.4: Bubble Jet Effect, Hall (2006), Principles of Naval Weapon Systems, p. 298

fig. 1.4: Bubble Jet Effect, Hall (2006), Principles of Naval Weapon Systems, p. 298

Statistics issued by any Ministry of Defence generally cover the economical cost of war and present numbers of injuries and fatalities, whereas individual psychological suffering, impossible to be statistically measured anyway, gets either ignored or may falls into the category of ‘other’.30Although soldiers from western countries31 are more likely to end up as psychiatric casualties than being killed of enemy fire32, and psychological effects of combat stress, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been officially accredited, the military marginalises the problem33 and rather labels sufferers from combat stress reaction or PTSD as sissies or simulants, who merely intend to duck out of front missions or cash in on veteran pensions. In order to avoid horrendous costs for treatment and compensation and to prevent evacuation syndrome34, it must be made unmistakably clear to the soldier, that falling ill with neurosis will result in a no-win situation.35The unpredictability and perfidious characteristics of naval mine warfare even heightens the psychological strain on soldiers, as they find themselves in an endless loop of acute threat and imagined fear, dealing with state-of-the-art camouflage mines, which resemble seaweed or rocks or are self-burying, or, on the contrary, might be consumed by the illusion of a huge minefield, if confronted with dummies, nombos36 and rough seafloor. This deadly terror in combination with being confined on a vessel for weeks or even months, sleep deprivation and the constriction of personal space, sunlight and fresh air on a submarine, exposed to the ruthless oppression of superiors, who demand not only to possibly die but also kill fellow human beings, puts the soldier in an inexpressible state of physical and emotional exhaustion, manifested in symptoms such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, loss of fine and complex motor control and overall irrational behaviour.37Obviously, prolonged war accounts for ever more attrition of troops and mental dysfunction, but whilst classical combat promised a foreseeable end, the devastating impact on the soldier’s psyche in an era of total war, characterised by global never-ending conflict, has not yet been fully revealed.
Referring to Luhmann, structural coupling denotes the dealings of operational-closed systems with the environment or other systems and is the premise for a system’s autopoiesis to proceed and evolve. The introduction of this concept is necessary to ascertain, that not systems themselves, but their structures bond and allow for a reciprocal existence, for instance in this case, it is not the physical human, nor the war system, which make contact, but the interpenetration of thoughts of the former and communication of the latter. But how can two autopoietic systems with distinct modus operandi, i.e. consciousness and communication congress?38Luhmann suggests, that language serves both as structure, which is therefore their common mechanism of coupling, and also reinforces their inevitable dependency, when drawing on the phenomenology of Husserl and the statement, that communication derives from consciousness, but only consciousness applies meaning to communication.39Structural coupling furthermore responds to the problem of how interaction of system and its surroundings is possible, if the environment has no impact on the causality of a system, as its further progress cannot be predicted.40The system merely needs to keep autopoiesis going, and although it is highly selective when integrating system-preservative information, the sampling of contingency from the environment can only form as expectations, which in turn offer a range of possibilities to choose from.
For instance, the war system has expectations of the soldier to fulfil a specific role, hence recruitment can pick “the right man for the right job”, however, rationality is nowadays the number one decision-making aid.41The soldier as well has certain expectations in context with warfare and most obvious is the prospect for unharmed survival, but the more a soldier is confronted with his own death, the more complex internal psychic processes become, which Luhmann conceptualises as “the condensation of expectations into claims”, appearing as emotion.42The claim for unharmed survival is legitimatised by the war system, must be however balanced with merit, i.e. the soldier must always adhere to military conduct, no matter how a life-threatening situation may be, otherwise the communication system would be interrupted and anarchy would take over. Claim and merit find their synthesis in death toll, usually increasing towards the lower ranks, as commanding officers can offer a higher value of merit.43What does that mean for the thinking modern individual, who does not want to be killed or kill others? If admitting to external thoughts, which are incompatible with the demands of the war system, the retaining war system will consider his condition as an illness, or the psychic system might recognise the war system as ill.

  1. Entropy is the second law of thermodynamics and the criterion for disorder within a system, i.e. the more chaos in a system, the more entropy. []
  2. See Luhmann (2004), p. 43 []
  3. See Luhmann (2004), p. 45 []
  4. Luhmann refers here to Darwinism and exemplifies, that environmental disturbing stimuli may lead to structural improvement of the species. Ibid., p. 46 []
  5. See BOX 2-1 in Oceanography and Mine Warfare (2000), p. 10 []
  6. See Levie (1992), p. 97-98 []
  7. Humans still might be involved, but only with Tactical Decision Aids (TDA), where algorithms create e.g. interpretative models of the weather. []
  8. Machines with intrinsic purposeful behaviour must comprise a servo-mechanism, otherwise a mine could detonate randomly, and thus be regarded as purposeless. See Rosenblueth, Wiener, Bigelow (1943), p. 2 []
  9. See Luhmann (2004), p. 58 []
  10. Apart from exceptions, mentioned in the above paragraph of naval mine history. Another example was making use “of the solubility of salt washers to delay the arming and the buoyancy of the case to force the firing detonator into its active position”. See Levie (1992), p. 97 []
  11. See Oceanography and Mine Warfare (2000), p. 13 []
  12. See Dressler (2007), p. 45 []
  13. Luhmann (2004, p. 107) limits such behaviour to communication systems, and exemplifies this by means of language. Without identification and generalisation, humans would not be able to make sense out of word sequences in different contexts of meaning. []
  14. Purpose can neither constitute properties nor describe certain dynamics of interactions of/within the system. See Maturana and Varela (1980), p. 78-83 []
  15. Luhmann draws comparisons to the human brain, as it firstly features self-organising qualities, i.e. it does not work linear, as neural network nodes are interacting by cross-checking, but is simulated as following a certain sequence of steps. Secondly, it blends out autopoietic processes automatically, e.g. knowledge of gravity, atmospheric conditions etc, which are necessary but not perceived as such when accomplishing a task. []
  16. See Dressler (2007) on distributed systems, p. 11-14 []
  17. Ibid, p. 275; see Luhmann (2006), p. 117 []
  18. (In this context) Magnetic fields emerge from the immersion of the ferrous hull in an electrolyte (sea water), the interaction of the vessel within the geomagnetic field and emissions from electronic equipment. []
  19. With the development of High Temperature Superconducting (HTS), ceramic coils replaced the former heavy-weight copper coils. []
  20. More suitable for smaller ships and submarines; a charged cable around the watercraft adjusts the magnetic field. See Levie (1992), p. 107 []
  21. US Navy Marine Mammal Program []
  22. See Luhmann (2000), p. 304 []
  23. The abstractness of this issue uncloses further, when realising, that even though war can be determinated by the allocation of the antipode peace through language, the point of reference remains obscure, i.e. a state which would define war and peace simultaneously does not exist, it is only distinction as such. []
  24. Needless to say, that this serves only as a simplified demonstration; a system consists of a diversity of elements. []
  25. Luhmann exemplifies this with Saussure’s concept of language and the terminology of signifier and signified. See Luhmann (2004), p. 67 []
  26. Shock factor value combines the initial strength of the explosion with the distance between the target and the detonation. []
  27. See Hall (2006), p. 297 []
  28. The total force, which is exerted on the sides of a structure by the advancing shock front. []
  29. The latter can also severely damage submarines. []
  30. See for example []
  31. Information from non-western sources is extremely limited. []
  32. See Fink (2010), p. 442 []
  33. Possibly noticed in recent debates following cases of Gulf/Balkan/Iraq war syndrome, at which despite extensive research, causes for the various symptoms, similar to the effects of combat stress, have not been clarified, but officially declared as either matters of medical counter-measures (e.g. vaccinations) or nerve agents. See Fink (2010), p. 494 []
  34. Evacuation syndrome denotes the phenomenon of soldiers following suit comrades, who have been evicted from the battlefield due to mental illness. []
  35. In WWI, German soldiers suffering from “shell shock”, could choose between extreme painful electro-‘therapeutic’ (Faradisation) treatment or further war deployment. See Richter (2006), p. 38 []
  36. NOMBO, non-mine, mine-like bottom object, see Oceanography and Mine Warfare (2000), p. 10 []
  37. See Fink (2010), p. 445 []
  38. Previous sociological research considered individuals as mere components of a social system, with single behaviour offering conclusions about the collective conduct. []
  39. See Luhmann (2001), p. 356 []
  40. Previous theses, as the beneficial impact of environmental chance on a system’s evolution or natural selection have been proven insufficient. Maturana’s concept order from noise, at which a system produces information on its own terms, is plausible, however, it lacks the answer how it does it. See Luhmann (2004), p. 119 []
  41. See Luhmann (2000), p. 282 []
  42. See Luhmann (2001), p. 364 []
  43. Luhmann exemplifies this by means of the class system (2001), p. 365 []

Is the Naval Mine a Trivial or a Non-Trivial Machine?

Von Foerster’s concept of the distinction between trivial and non-trivial machines1, allows us a first insight into the problematic of analysing naval mine systems. The examination of a mine as a discrete concrete system according to first order cybernetics and the regulatory logic of Ashby2, would pose the paradox of machine functionality and at the same time its improbability, as it eliminates any human involvement within the process, although human self-referentialism in observing and reasoning is the premise for constituting meaning.3 The system of an acoustic mine for instance, can be described by means of an infinite number of variables, e.g. properties and range of audio activity, water depth, salinity degree, … all applicable in relation to mechanical components, which in turn can vary in size, shape and material. Randomly selected combinations would hold an endless array of possibilities, hence von Foerster proposes the inclusion of the observer, who, provided with prior knowledge and experience in regulating systems, has the ability to choose and match the right features. Putting aside the extensive issue of how to obtain this knowledge4, von Foerster’s constructivism and the claim of an observer-dependent ‘reality’ directs to 2nd order cybernetics and the unity of observer and observation. In short, instead of ‘objectively’ looking at the mine, analysis is subject to the overall organisation of regulating the mine, implementing 1st order cybernetics validation criteria, such as stability and feedback.

fig. 1.1

fig. 1.1

The determination of a system’s internal operating mode discloses yet another paradigm of cognitive behaviour, as the understanding and design of a mechanism requires once again observational research. Goal-oriented reasoning in mine development would presume predictability and constant results, and a fixed input-output relation, i.e. that a particular intervention from outside always leads to the same desired outcome, suggests to envision the acoustic mine as a trivial machine. According to fig. 1.1, input x is an acoustic signal, the function f closes the switch, which induces the detonation of the mine, output y. However, a single combination of on/off, or “0” and “1” in digital terms, is rarely applicable to real-world systems5, as they contain usually one or multiple machines within it, which in turn generate additional feedback loop[s], as illustrated by a basic model of a non-trivial machine in fig. 1.2.

fig. 1.2

fig. 1.2

If the parameter S represents a hydrophone, it is assumed that output y is constituted both by the value of external input x and the internal state of S. The coordination of a vast array of input (sound in relation to intensity and duration) with the internal conversion of sound pressure levels (SPL) into electrical signals generates variations beyond human comprehension6, hence Von Foerster condemns the illusion of identifying single-valued transformations within machines, as x cannot simply mapped on y. The basic characteristic of non-trivial machines is history dependence, i.e. the occurrence of deviations in the course of time, such as wear of the hydrophone or computational malfunctions, co-determines its functionality and reinforces its unpredictability. Von Foerster introduced this concept to counter the trivialisation of knowledge and to encourage open-ended experimentation, suggesting, that only unpredictable events precede novel findings. His theory is backed up by Wittgenstein, who claimed, that historical constancy does not verify any future trends.

  1. The notion of ‘machine’ in this context can be applied to any system, concrete machines as well as living systems [animals, humans], departments or organisations. (Achterbergh, 2010, p. 80) []
  2. Ashby tried to approach the machine “objectively” and his model of a functional system implied an already existent mechanism, whose transformations, affected by the selection of the “right” variables in relation to their parameters, would result in a predictable outcome. Any input of regulators, i.e. the selection and assignment of variables/parameters/values and the determination of effects are merely based on trial and error without reference to prior knowledge. (Achterbergh, 2010, p.71) []
  3. See Kleve, 2010, p. 69 []
  4. Von Foerster examines this question by means of applying first order cybernetics. “Eigenvalues emerging due to the closure of our cognitive system” is a phrase for preferences in dealing with systems. (Achterbergh, 2010, p. 75) []
  5. See Achterbergh (2010), p. 77 []
  6. According von Foerster, a machine with each four input and output states produces combinations within transcomputational scope. (Achterbergh, 2010, p. 79) []

The Naval Mine: From Antiquity to Autonomy

Fire ships, which operated as early as 413BC in ancient Greek naval warfare, and floating bombs, so-called “hellburners”, are considered to be the precursors of today’s conventional notion of naval mines and early weapons of mass destruction at sea. Records in the military doctrine “Huolongjing” trace the invention of the first sea-mine, a submerged and fully automated system, back to 14th century China. It already featured a delayed-action mechanism; timing until detonation was controlled by a glowing incence stick, which, when burnt down, ignited the fuse and activated the in ox-bladder wrapped blasting agents. Attempts in Western naval mine development are not significant until David Bushnell constructed the “torpedo”1, a contact mine, during the American Revolution in 1776. Despite its advanced mechanism2, it proved to be a failure due to difficulties to control the explosive device, which was considerably exposed to the drift.3 Testimonies on the origins of mine systems featuring electrical circuits diverge. While Robert Fulton worked on improving Bushnell’s concept and experimented with controlled electrical firing devices in the early 19th century, the Russians are accredited with underwater explosions triggered by direct [galvanic] current in 1812.4 Samuel Colt, a pioneering industrialist, refined the underwater electrical detonator and invented the waterproof cable, which enabled a stable connection between the mine and the onshore operator.5

The economic and social peripherals of the American Civil War (1861-1865), which can be regarded as the “first example of an industrialised conflict”,6 prepared the ground of success of the naval mine due to the increasing shift from reliance on human combat strength on to more efficient automated weaponry. Despite the common averseness to the application of mines, which was firstly regarded as unethical and secondly threatened man’s status as the decision maker over life and death, it did not go unnoticed, that the Confederacy managed to sink seven Union ships during the war.7 The nations of Europe made use of the weapon8 in several minor conflicts9, and meanwhile tried to regulate the conduct of war in the first Geneva Convention of 1864, disregarding the enormous pace of technological progress, including naval mine development.10 The next major improvement was the “Hertz horn” in 1868, which should become the dominant mine system in the following two world wars and beyond. The metal horn detonated on contact with the vessel, prompting an internal chemical reaction, which charged the battery and closed the electronic circuit. The Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) heralded the modern era of naval mine warfare, as both sides were similarly equipped with both technology and strategical know-how and the first to employ contact mines on the high seas. Significant post-war casualties initiated also a debate on restricting the comparatively novel weapon.11

seemineThe use of sea mines during the two world wars, introducing the submarine as an additional target, and the implicit demand for countermeasures, took on unprecedented dimensions. For instance, the Allies laid 70.117 mines within a 230-mile area in the northern sector of the English Channel in WWI, and “Operation Starvation” in WWII signified the deployment of over 11.000 in the Pacific, cutting off any seaborne supply to and from Japan. The latter also indicates the crucial strategic changes in the conduct of naval warfare, the henceforward frequent offensive use of mines.12 Further developments are the introduction of influence explosion mechanisms, i.e. mines respond to certain emissions of boats, such as magnetic-, acoustic-, or pressure fields, and the first use of aircraft as minelayers. By the end of WWII, the application of sea mines underwent an immense increase in efficiency, sinking one ship per every 35 mines laid, and thus became a significant parameter for the outcome of war.13 The relevance of the sea mine did not lessen during the Cold War era,14 important theatres of operation were inter alia Korea, Vietnam or Nicaragua during the Contra-War. Due to the low cost in relation to the destructive power, the sea mine became an attractive weapon for nations without any noteworthy naval forces and hence plays a decisive role in today’s asymetrical conflicts. The US Navy, for instance, had to face extensive damage to three of their warships in Gulf War I, caused by WWI vintage mines.15 [Underwater] improvised explosive devices (IED), low-budget mines, which can be built up of any sorts of materials,16 posing the latest threat to superior forces.

The plotted history of the mine does not only illustrate technological progress but also reveals the gradual migration of control from humans to machines. According to De Landa,17 three major steps constitute the gradual decline of human influence on military intervention. At the beginning we have the shift from humans to hardware, marksmanship already got replaced by the first ‘logical automata’, such as the Chinese invention of the 14th century. The later mechanisms with inherent production capability, or motors, outperformed humans in terms of efficiency and even started to determine their lives by the very production process itself. The system of “rationalised division of labour” was institutionalised in order to “centralize control of the production process by shortening the chain of command”,18 which meant in other words, the denial of any decision-making by the worker. Whilst machines dictated now pace and scope of productivity in the workplace, the market had to meet the demands of the war industry, as only technological advance guaranteed victory.

The second step was initiated by digitalisation and the interrelated development of programming languages. Transistors and electrical circuits, the previous agents of sea mine functionality, got superseded by microprocessors, which significantly changed the internal operations of the hardware. The exertion of software does not just simply imply the transaction of logical sequences, but intrinsically stimulates any procedure within the machine. The master program sequentially partitions task between various subroutines, which in turn respond back to the control source, eventually initiating events by utilising the hardware resources. Software deals with problems by performing one step at a time but in order to evolve into an intelligent system it has to simulate the human mind-like ability of considering various factors simultaneously. Artificial Intelligence (AI) research in the 1960s conquered this last obstacle by generating object-orientated languages, which legitimatise data itself to affect processes. The execution of tasks is carried out now with much greater flexibility, as numerous independent software objects respond directly to appropriate data input and interact among themselves without the need to recall a central master programm. Influence mines equipped with digital signal processing capabilities access external world data via sensors and trigger internal processes independently, as soon as changes in the outside world correspond to certain numerical values in a prefixed database. But to what extent can the naval mine considered as an autonomous weapon? AI is rarely associated with mines, and yet, already the earliest prototypes were controlled by the internal intelligence designers built into it. Naval mines can be programmed to wait idly for their prey for months or even years without any human intervention or actively perform the search and detection of a target and taking decisions with fatal consequences. Surely, the human factor is still indispensable in mine warfare, but the liability of selection and elimination of a target has clearly shifted on to the machine, accordingly it can be classified as an intelligent system.

  1. Torpedo was an early term for the naval mine. []
  2. Contact mines are still in use, they trigger when making contact with the target. []
  3. Levie (1992), p. 10 []
  4. Both Levie and Polmar point to difficulties in verifying early Russian naval mine development. Levie (1992, p. 11) claims that due to Soviet propaganda, documents have been edited to portray Russia as the first and only power to employ underwater explosives until the apparent use in American Civil War. Polmar (1991, p. 7) frankly argues that “The Russians generally tend to take all of the credit for the invention and development of naval mines.”, and supposes that records of Fulton’s achievements must have been circulating far beyond the borders of the United States by the end of the 18th century. []
  5. Colt conducted three successful blasts at the American East Coast in 1842. (Levie,1992, p. 10) []
  6. Ellis (1975), p. 47 []
  7. National Research Council (2000), p. 12 []
  8. It triggered a chemical reaction of potassium and water on contact. []
  9. Youngblood (2006), p. 63-64, Second Schleswig War (1864) and Austro-Prussian War (1866). []
  10. The first Convention dealt mainly with the handling of wounded soldiers, however, by 1868 the treaty implied the ban of “certain explosive projectiles”. (Youngblood, 2006, p. 63) []
  11. The issue of freefloating mines was discussed in the Naval War College’s 1905 International Law Topics but remained irrelevant in the drafting of the 1907 Hague Convention No. VIII. (Levie, 1992, p. 18) []
  12. The general distinction between offensive and defensive minelaying is, that in offensive use, mines are planted in adversary waters, in order to hamper enemy movement, whilst the defensive use should guarantee protection of own territory [e.g. harbours] and material assets. []
  13. National Research Council (2000), p. 12 []
  14. Since WWII, the sinking or serious damage of 15 (out of 19) U.S. Navy ships was caused by sea mines. []
  15. USS Tripoli, USS Princeton and USS Samuel B Roberts, National Research Council (2000), p. 13 []
  16. []
  17. See Chapter Two, “Bloodless Transfusions”, p. 127-178, De Landa (1991) []
  18. Frederick Taylor developed this system further. De Landa (1991), p. 154 []

The Question concerning Technology

Wherever ends are pursued and means are employed, wherever instrumentality reigns, there reigns causality. ~ Heidegger

Technology is commonly perceived as a tool, mastered and manipulated by man, and defined by an instrumental and an anthropological paraphrase, i.e. a “means to an end” or a human activity. (Heidegger, 1977, p. 1) Heidegger provides a thorough investigation of the man/instrumentum[1] relationship as he questions both technology’s status as a mere means and man’s initial position of the causal-effect-chain.

The definition for cause in Aristotelian thought is “to bring something about” and confirms man, the manufacturer (causa efficiens), superior to the other three causes material, form and aspect, as listed in the doctrine of the four causes[2]. This notion of hierarchy got replaced later on by considering the former causes as a system of interdependency, in which man is merely responsible for the “how” and “that” of making, and thus governs not technical process.

[1] Heidegger uses the term instrumentum as the correct or “true” definition of technology.
[2] see Heidegger, 1977, p. 3

Heidegger M. (1977), The Question concerning Technology, pp 3-35 [online resource]

Carsten Nicolai at Ibid.

Observatory is an exhibition of some of Carsten Nicolai’s recent works, which exemplifies a successful symbiosis of science, technology and art, as it allows each category its own intended equitable space within holistic inquiry and discourse. The minimalism of the exhibits questions the way we usually perceive reality and invites the observer to interpret the fragmentary information regardless of a preformed worldview. Nicolai visualises commonly unnoticed physical phenomena like thermodynamics  (thermic, 2011) and addresses the importance of ancient holistic knowledge, such as the macro- microcosm context (future past perfect pt. 04 (stratus), 2013). The installations are accompanied by several prints of micro-/macroscopic landscapes.1551_19

Due to a fascination with radioactivity, also lately provoked by Ele Carpenter’s work within the field of nuclear culture, the installation particle noise (2013) was greatly anticipated. The fluctuant radioactive particles in the environment are captured and translated into audible noise, and the observer is challenged to determine, if, or to which extent corporeal presence affects the sound output. Another interesting feature is the interaction of analogue and digital media, here two Geiger counters of each kind compliment each other and transfer their signals to either a radio receiver or a sine wave generator.

Observatory from 28 February – 20 April at Ibid, 35 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN


Telephonic Architectures

Before “The golden age of the ear [ca. 1750-1925]” (Alan Burdick), sound was not attributed its own ontological entity, certainly sensed but not observed. The first record of the term aural [“pertaining to the organ of hearing”] appeared not until 1860.

1876 Alexander Graham Bell invents the first conventional telephone.

1878 Thomas Edison invents the phonograph [record player], a device, which reproduced recorded sound.

1899 Guglielmo Marconi invents the wireless telegraph.

1906 First time radio was heard [by navy personnel].

In What’s New About the New Media?, Kittler provides a brief  overview of the historical development of informational architectures. It seems that all great technological inventions are rooted in the military sector, and their development is linked with the force of winning the next battle.

“Every great war has caused a push ahead in innovation, especially in the media of transmission.” (Kittler)

A progressive shift in conduct of war was heralded by the application of the optical telegraph during the Napoleonic Wars. Henceforth, modern strategic warfare, in its essence mathematics and technology, is the determining factor for dominating the battlefield.

Optical Telegraph [1]

  • Cursus publicus (Imperium Romanus 27 BC-476 AD), a strategic relay post system, established during the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BC- 14 AD).
  • Optical telegraph (Chappe telegraph) (18th-19th century), first technical medium of transmission, which conveys information by encoded visual signals.
  • Mobile field telephone (World War I, 1914-1918), constructed for the use in combat operations.
  • Encoded radio remote control (Wehrmacht, World War II 1939-1945), cracked by means of Turing’s achievements in computer technology, still prevalent for civil-use (RFID).

To emphasize on the scale of these inventions, long distance calls and recordings from the past [also: voice immortal], enabled mankind to overcome space and time. Furthermore modern sound-reproduction technologies like the telephone or phonogram altered human perception. One major factor is the incurring disaccord of vision and hearing, i.e. the mind has to assimilate that the ‘original’ sound source is no longer apparent. There are two terms denoting this phenomenon, acousmatic sound (acousmatique), coined by the pioneer of musique concrète Pierre Schaeffer and schizophonia. The latter was an investigation of the “split between an original sound and its electroacoustic reproduction” by R. Murray Schaffer and Barry Truax (Truax, Acoustic Communication, p. 120). Both also claimed that reproduction removes sound from its original context.


Sterne poses two interesting questions, firstly, why did inventions like the telephone just appear at the threshold of the 20th century, although knowledge of the technology was already existent for quite a long time? Secondly, what constitutes ‘sound reproduction technology’, shouldn’t the terminology for instance imply the ancient use of animal horns to amplify sound?








[2] Drawing of sound refraction from S. Morland, Tuba Stentoro-Phonica: An Instrument of Excellent Use, as Well at Sea, as at land; Invented and Variously Experimented in the Year 1670 and Humbly Presented to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty Charles II in the Year 1671 (London: Printed by W. Godbid and Sold by M. Pitt, 1672)

Kittler F., What’s New About the New Media?
Sterne J. (2003), The Audible Past – Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Durham & London: Duke University Press