She looked maybe 8 or 9 years old. Her brown hair reached her shoulders. She wore a frilly blue dress and a white pinafore. She looked like John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland, on her way to a tea party.
But she wasn’t in Wonderland.
A man in his thirties jumped out from behind a twisted thick rubber pole and with no warning fired three shot’s at Alice’s small chest.
“Good hit!” praised the mechanical voice from the man’s shoulder pads.
The man moved on to find his next victim. Alice looked uncertain, not sure what to do next.
Welcome to laser tag.
Last Saturday a friend and his fifth grade son invited me and my fifth grader to have pizza and play laser tag at a local entertainment center. I’d heard the words “laser tag” before but I hadn’t paid much attention to what they signified. If I thought of it at all, I would have thought tag is tag. No biggie.
I was not socialized in a gun culture so I default to a mild “that’s a bit weird” internal reaction when I hear about people and their affinity for shooting guns. I respect, however, that people who grew up with guns have a different response than I do. Some of my best friends, as the old saying goes, have dozens of guns.
I live in a rural part of western Oregon, and guns have a different meaning to people here than they do to people in urban areas. At least I think so. In my part of the rural west, firing guns is a hobby. I believe in cities some people still call the police when they hear gunshots.
While we were eating pizza, my friend explained what laser tag involved. That’s when I realized we would be shooting people.
All the “players” would receive a gun and a vest. The gun fired a beam of light called, for game purposes, a laser. The vest was the target. Hit someone’s vest and you’d hear “Good hit!” from shoulder speakers. Get hit, and you’d hear small explosion sounds.
There’s a little more to laser tag, but that’s basically it. Oh, and ear draining overdrive guitar music fills the room during the laser battles.
Before the game started, 31 players – men, women, boys, girls brought together by randomness – selected code names. No point telling people who you really are.
Then we went into the briefing room to learn the rules of engagement: no running, no cursing, no physical contact with another player, and some other rules I do not remember.
“No running,” emphasized our briefer. “I won’t say it again, but any running and out you go.”
Next an unseen master computer divided us into the Red Team and the Blue Team. Then we each received a gun and vest.
The object of the game was to score as many points as possible by shooting the enemy and blasting the enemy’s base camp. The team with the most points wins.
“Any questions?” asked our briefer?
Hearing none, the digital guitars started blaring, and the battles began.
Social identity theory hypothesizes that — as a largely unreflective part of normal cognition — we tend to divide various parts of our world into “them” vs. “us”: Yankee fans vs. Red Sox fans, liberals vs. conservatives, democrats vs. republicans, feds vs. locals, middle class vs. working class, the 99% vs. the 1%, Hutus vs. Tutsis, Bosnians vs. Serbs, Israelis vs. Palestinians, Christians vs. Muslims.
Social identity is created by putting people into categories (the red team vs. blue team in laser tag), adopting the identity of one’s group (red team wears the red vests, blue team has the blue equipment), and then comparing one’s group with the “other.”
The in-group (that would be “us”) is superior in important ways to the out-group (“them”). Those in the in-group seek — and easily find — the negative aspects of the out-group, and by doing that, further build their superiority.
About halfway thorough the first laser tag battle, Alice came around a corner near my position. Without thinking, I pointed my “gun” toward the ground. Like me, Alice was on the Red Team. She was one of us.
A few seconds later, I saw Alice get shot by the Blue Team man.
“How could you shoot a little girl?” I immediately asked him in my imagination. “Are you really that slimy?”
Suddenly the game got serious. I started hunting Blue Team.
I was surprised how quickly and automatically I adopted a shared social identity with 15 strangers, and how easy it was to consider 15 other strangers as the “them” who needed to be “tagged” with my laser gun.
Unlike the laser tag fantasy, us vs. them became reality.
“Perhaps it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be,” says one of the characters in a book I’d read years ago, called “Ender’s Game.”
In the novel, the government trains a new generation to defend Earth from attack. Ender, the hero, is sent to a military training facility. He believes he is playing training games. Unknowingly and unwittingly he is actually fighting and destroying Earth’s enemy. If I recall correctly, the enemy is a race of insects.
Unlike laser tag, Ender’s Game is fiction
I have another friend who lives in a south western state. He is a gentle man devoted to protecting the nation. I haven’t talked with him for a while. I remember one of our last conversations. He told me what a normal day was like for him:
“I’m up by 6 and get ready for work. My wife and two daughters get up around 7 and get ready for school. I kiss them goodbye and go to the office. I fly a couple of missions, and on a good day I’m home by 4 or 5. The family has dinner together. We do homework; maybe watch a little television. I usually read my girls a bedtime story or two before they go to sleep. I’m in bed by 10, ready to do it all again tomorrow.”
My friend flies drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — for one of the military services. The drone takes off from one country. He controls it from this country. It kills people in a third country.
Unlike laser tag, the drone attack is real.
Phil Palin posted Pratap Chatterjee’s story last week about how 16 year old Tariq Aziz and his 12 year old cousin Waheed Khanwas were killed, apparently by a Hellfire missile launched by a drone.
Ethicists have spoken and written about the morality of drone warfare that cannot distinguish with precision combatants and innocents living among “the other.” Scholars have described the expanding moral pitfalls created by technologies that promise precision, security, and user anonymity.
But technology does not wait for debates to be resolved.
The Air Force is developing drones that look to the naked eye like small birds. The Navy is planning to add refuelling capabilities to its X-47B drone, intended to be the first drone to take off and land from an aircraft carrier. The Navy is also studying what fish can teach us about creating more effective drones.
In a moderately disturbing precursor to Ender’s Game, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is exploring the use of insect as weapons. Mary Shelley anyone?
That’s the world of homeland defense. What about homeland security?
DHS presently has seven drones, used primarily to monitor the US borders. According to Danger Room’s Katie Drummond, however, the DHS drone program is running into budget problems.
“Officials acknowledge that [DHS is] short on pilots and maintenance — right now, they can only pay to fly the drones five days a week.”
Drummond’s story notes that Congress appropriated 32 million dollars this summer to buy 3 additional Predator drones for DHS, drones no one at DHS asked for. According to Drummond,
The appropriation was the result of ongoing lobbying from the so-called “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Caucus,” a group of several dozen congressmen, many of whom hail from Southern California — a hot-bed of drone development and home to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the company that makes the Predator drone in question.
“This is a symptom of how surveillance technology is spreading around the U.S.,” Jay Stanley, a senior privacy and technology analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said [in the story]. “A lot of times it is not being pulled by people on the ground. It is being pushed from above by people who want to sell it.”
A recent military test demonstrated that maybe drones don’t need people to be effective. They can locate targets without human “interference.” The test suggests a future time “when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans.”
The tests were preliminary. I don’t know how fast this particular technology will develop, but as machines get “smarter” in the sense that word is used in the technium, I hope smart does not include a cognition that considers machines the in-group, and humans as dangerous as a little girl in a party dress, carrying a gun.
If it’s anything like laser tag, the insight can happen very quickly.