The terror of transparency

As I exit customs and walk into the concourse area of the airport I am greeted by familiar sounds and images. The departure terminal appears in front of me as a patchwork of restaurants, cafés and shops. Walking towards the duty free area my body absorbs the sounds of carts, moving walkways, boarding calls and passengers in transit. This could be any major international airport. I glance at the blue sky through the transparent ceiling while moving towards a virtual map. The map plots out the terminal in detail: anodyne shops and restaurants, kid’s lounge areas, a yoga studio, prayer rooms, a barber shop, and other amenities filling every digital interstice. I view myself (“you are here”) in relation to the display. The self-referential and sterile terminal-world that unfolds is structured according to the logic of algorithms and indexes of consumer patterns. It is a microcosm surrounding me, in which everything is visible, tangible, interconnected and given.

Being at the airport reminds me of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s insistence that the global subject lives in an era marked by a “terror” of transparency. As he wrote on Centre Pompidou, its see-through interior and interactive flowchart milieus indicate a space of control articulated by total visibility. Arguably, his critique precedes our era: from GPS to Google maps, from TripAdvisor to Instagram surveillance; from Tinder-dating to the biopolitics of MyFitnessPal, the world we live in is gradually losing whatever veil it once had. The students in my war studies courses speak nostalgically about the 1980’s, an era they take as indicative of a world that was not comprehensively mapped up and known – a world in which travel implied the possibility of getting lost. As I stare at the interactive terminal map at the airport I can see their point: we live in a world of measurability and predictability. Thanks to technology, we struggle to get lost.

I stroll past World Duty Free to the sound of news imagery from last night’s US strikes in Syria. Footage of the aftermath of cruise missiles tearing up Syrian army bases pulsate alongside commercials. There are significant differences between the interior ambience of an airport and the logics of war but there are also common denominators. Much like the airport, war is socially invested and coded. If we take the time to read military doctrines we notice organisational practices aiming to create war as an operational and efficient microcosm. The military architecture, much like the flowchart of the airport, helps to socially construct the world around us. As the footage from Syria illustrates, this is not a discrete battle-space. Rather, the military microcosm impinges on our world as an ever-expanding ‘area of operations’ demarcated and striated by military camps, lines of communication, ideas of range, trajectories, and logistics. In so doing it unfolds according to the duration of a predictable “battle rhythm” that strives to coordinate, prepare, and execute warfare in a universal military time-zone (“zulu time”).

As the bombings in Syria indicate, ours is a time characterised by ‘Global Strike’ – the military capability to strike wherever, whenever – from a distance. The military architecture is an embodiment of the hunter’s view; an ever-increasing visibility and better and better imagery of the future battle-field. War is all about fantasies of transparency. Its microcosm is controlled according to strict logics that analyse when “something is out of the ordinary”, monitors and deduces large-scale patterns of life, enters them into plot-sheets so as to anticipate actions and erase future threats in real-time.

The path along the airport is predetermined and fulfilled. The interior that surrounds me has no potential for becoming differently There is no wondering what will be around the corner. Thanks to the “terror” of transparency and total visibility, we might never get lost again. I stare indifferently as the imagery of Tomahawks replay once again on the screens next to me; a feedback loop. “You are here” the digital map at the airport tells me.

Dan Öberg is Associate Professor of War Studies, Department of Military Science, Swedish Defence University, Stockholm, and a STINT visiting professor at Tokyo University. His current research and teaching focus on war and warfare from a critical perspective. His recent publications include research articles in Millennium Journal of International Studies, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, and Journal of Narrative Politics.

His recent article ‘War, transparency and control: the military architecture of operational warfare’ was published online by CRIA here

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