Over the last couple years, I’ve followed with intense interest the growing use of robots in war and tried to document some of the dangers (and ethical problems) of going down this path. On this site we’ve also looked at the growing resistance to this trend in war.
One thing I have never thought about, however, is the potential for activists to use robots to further their work. Over at Glocal Christianity, Matt Stone has a post today about the Pamphleteer, a “propaganda robot which automates the often dangerous practice of distributing subversive literature to the public,” created by an anonymous group of artists and activists called the Institute of Applied Autonomy (IAA). At first I thought this little robot, which can be seen in the video above, was some kind of joke. But after perusing their website and doing a little outside research, it seems they are legit.
According to their website, the mission of the IAA – which was founded in 1998 – is to “to study the forces and structures which affect self-determination and to provide technologies which extend the autonomy of human activists.”
On top of the Pamphleteer, the Institute has developed several other robots and initiatives that are quite interesting, including a programmable bot that can spray paint graffiti on the ground and i-See, a “web-based application charting the locations of closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras in urban environments,” which allows users to “walk around their cities without fear of being ‘caught on tape’ by unregulated security monitors.”
Long before the advent of Twitter, the group also created TXTmob – a free service allowing texts to be sent to hundreds or thousands of people at once – that was widely used during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York to alert protesters of the police crackdown. In 2oo8, according to the New York Times, “the New York City Law Department issued a subpoena to Tad Hirsch, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote the code that created TXTmob.” Pretty interesting stuff.
From a purely nonviolence perspective, my gut reaction to this is that we can’t lose the human element to our activism. Yes, using a robot to distribute fliers may initially attract more folks to check out the message, but the opportunity to engage those passersby in real conversation is totally lost. And while some of our work may put us in harm’s way or land us in jail, advocates of principled nonviolence, like Gandhi and King, believed that it is that willingness to suffer for what we believe is right that has the power to convert an opponent into a friend.
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Non-violence is not always possible, or the right choice. Even in the case of India, independence was not achieved through non-violence alone. In WWII, Gandhi told the British and the Jews to let themselves be slaughtered rather than fight back. I’m going to assume this isn’t something you would support?
I agree that nonviolence isn’t always possible. But there’s really only one situation where that’s ever the case and it’s when the oppressed person or group doesn’t know anything about nonviolence. For instance, Gandhi considered the violent resistance of the Poles against the Nazis as noble, if only because they knew nothing of nonviolence and it was better than not acting at all.
The Gandhi quote you are referring to was meant to alert the Jews to the possibility of nonviolent action. It is certainly one of his most controversial and misunderstood statements. His suggestion that the Jews willingly submit themselves to death IS in line with nonviolence. For some reason people overlook the rest of his statement:
“It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany.”
Yes, Gandhi was in fact suggesting that Germans, even Nazis, had souls and could be moved by such a powerful gesture. Here’s what he said:
“If the Jews can summon to their aid the soul power that comes only from non-violence, Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he has never yet experienced in any large measure in his dealings with men.”
This is a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow. We have been conditioned to think that the Nazis were raving psychopaths, hell-bent on world destruction and the slaughter of innocents. They were completely irredeemable and only violence could defeat them, we are told. The article you linked to makes such a claim by mentioning the failed resistance of the White Rose Movement.
Yes, it’s true, nonviolence doesn’t always work. But it did work against the Nazis, several times in fact. I refer you to the Rosenstrasse protest in Berlin, which saw a few thousand Berlin housewives bring the Gestapo to a standstill and save over a thousand Jews from being shipped to concentration camps.
There are other success stories, such as the Danish evacuation of its Jewish population under Nazi occupation, which saved almost 8,000 lives. Or the story of Le Chambon, a small French village, which saved between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews throughout the war.
These stories show that Gandhi was right to believe the brutality of the Nazis could be melted by nonviolence. We may not like the idea that nonviolence may require us to risk our lives, or willing give them up, but is that really any different than what the military and war expects of us? The difference however is that far less lives need be risked or taken in nonviolent action than in war.
Brian, Gandhi made that statement about the Jews in 1946, *after* the war was over and people knew about the Holocaust. I agree that in many cases nonviolent resistance can work, and that’s great. But in some cases it cannot. This is why it is wrong to take an absolute position on pacifism.
In the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Jewish groups managed to stop people being sent to death camps for several months. Because of that many more survived the war than would have otherwise. And even though many of Jewish resisters were killed, as Derrick Jensen points out, they had a higher rate of survival than those who just went along.
I see nothing morally wrong with fighting back against evil, either on the large scale (Facism) or on the small scale (a man raping a woman). At the same time, the vast majority of wars are wrong and unnecessary, and I would definitely oppose the use of violence in these cases.
Great post and comment discussion, but I’m amazed that none of you seem to get how completely hilarious that video is. Laughter can wage nonviolence too!