Digital Warfare, a Global Project Considered: An Interview with Scott Timcke

Digital Warfare, a Global Project Considered: An Interview with Scott Timcke

In a first blog interview for UWP Scott Timcke author of Capital, State, Empire: The American Way of Digital Warfare talks to us about his intellectual influences, developments in the USA in  since the book was recently published and some of his recent and current reading.  Scott’s research has taken him from South Africa to Canada to Trinidad and Tobago where he is Lecturer in Communication Theory in the Department of Literary, Cultural and Communication Studies at the University of the West Indies. Capital, State, Empire is the 4th title to be published in UWP’s open access series Critical Digital and Social Media Studies edited by Christian Fuchs

UWP: Thanks for volunteering to be the UWP’’s blog first interviewee as well as one of its first published authors in the Critical Digital and Social Media Studies Series. Capital, State, Empire is a book with many big themes, one of which might be said to be the global project of American power, militarily and economically. Has working in the West Indies given any new perspectives on how that power is felt in different parts of the world outside of the USA itself?

ST: Thanks for the invitation, I am really looking forward the impact of the series. Its mandate for open access scholarship is so valuable in this day and age, certainly one that helps students and scholars in the Global South and elsewhere gain access to books that are otherwise prohibitively expensive.

But to your question. It is a good one, in part because of the central role the Caribbean has played in the development of the modern world. As the famous anthropologist Sidney Mintz observed, the Caribbean is the cradle of modernity, the surpluses from this region funding the creation of the modern European society. Working at The University of the West Indies it is near impossible not to see the legacies of imperial encounters and oppression. Several empires expanded and fought one another, each seeking regional supremacy, from the Spanish and Dutch to the British and the American. Unlike, say South Africa and Canada, places where I have previously studied, in the Caribbean you see how peripheral territories are used and then discarded without a second thought. So it a reminder about the effects of raw power.

UWP: One of the minor surprises of working on a book in a series focused very much on the contemporary was to alight upon your second chapter which takes a very long historical view of the development of the US State prior to the 2007/8 financial crisis. Do you think it is easy for students and early career researchers not studying history to be able to take that kind of long view or even sometimes understand that it is missing in discussion?

ST: I think the virtues and vices of Communication and Media Studies more generally comes from our attention to new and interesting technological or cultural developments. I mean, that is somewhat the point of the discipline and what makes it unique and attractive in the broader university. You can see this dynamic at play in undergraduate classrooms; students take media history begrudgingly to get to the parts of the curriculum that focus on big data and social media analysis. This isn’t a new problem. Paul Gilroy was motivated to write The Black Atlantic precisely because of this difficulty. Still, he suggests that history and theory are inseparable if one wants to understand patterns of ‘movement, transformation, and relocation,’ topics that are core to the discipline today.

Granted, it takes some time and persistence to achieve historical consciousness, but I do think that it is a valuable exercise as that knowledge permits a range of conversations and observations might not be seen otherwise. Gilroy provides a great example for emerging career researchers to try explain to their students how the problems they study and lecture about even came to exist in the first place.

UWP: It is not fair to ask, but could you name 3-4 major intellectual influences on your work in the book and the direction it eventually took? Have you found these influences have changed significantly since the financial crash?

ST: I’ve spoken before about some of the books that influenced me during my undergraduate and early doctoral studies, so I’ll talk about more recent influences. First, I’ve been greatly influenced by the faculty and graduate students at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication. Although there are too many to list here, Rick Gruneau and Gary McCarron are outstanding scholars whose conversations had a lasting impact. But there are many others who I have learnt a great deal from.

On that note, I started graduate school in September 2008 and the effects about the recession were ever-present. I don’t think I put too much thought into it, but if you want to understand capitalist crises, you study Marx. So that’s what many of us did and continue to do. Along the way I got a healthy dose of Western Marxism and then read a lot from G.A. Cohen, John Roemer, Erik Olin Wright. At the moment, I am reading a lot of Black Radicals, from C. L. R. James to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor because this is an area in which I require much needed supplementation.

At the same time, I’ve been returning to C. Wright Mills’ work. His insights into the domestication of social critique through bureaucratization of research with mass surveys, I believe, is even more relevant now than in the early post war period, in part because of the sheer scale, scope, and promise of computational social science. This is a development that several Communication scholars talk about because of how easy it is encode instructional bias into digital platforms.

UWP: As the book neared completion and with the election of Donald Trump it became increasingly difficult editing the book to keep a track of references to appointments made to the White House and then the departures. As the anniversary of the election approaches, do you feel the fundamentals have changed with American military and foreign policy or are things a little more business-as-usual than we might like to think?

ST: I think the American military will continue to fulfil their functional role, so I don’t expect too many changes on that front. What is worrying about Trump is how he will deploy this military power, by for instance in escalating conflicts in Yemen or on the Korean Peninsula. By contrast with Barack Obama’s Administration, like others before him, there was a consistency and predictability to foreign policy, what American analysts call ‘credibility.’ Trump, of course, is an unknown variable, and so it can appear like that predictability is gone. What is certain is that he has stoked domestic white supremacist violence and that is of grave concern especially as his administration has restarted formal police-militarization programs; but as to whether he has the clout to alter the Pentagon, I’m not so sure.

At the moment, I think the security state is robust and will weather the Trump Administration. If anything, they might use him to advance their interests by using the rhetoric of American decline to sway Trump et el to increase spending on the American arsenal. Already there are reports from US military research centres that in order to stall this decline, the US must recapitalise their weapons and armaments, items that have been neglected as the military has been deployed non-stop for nearly two decades.

UWP: Social inequality is a significant theme in the book and in some of your earlier research. In our transnational and globalizing world, is there a way of talking about class or stratification that does not sound as if it were from another era – say the 1970s – that can actually resonate within and without the academy?

ST: In some ways I think that the older language like stratification helps researchers and students cut through the current policy platitudes, so I am reluctant to dismiss it. Watching from afar, it seems like Jeremy Corbyn has had great success with this kind of political language in the UK; that many British people felt it best captured their lived experience.

The next step I think is connecting one country’s success with another’s exploitation. Without essentializing, it seems to me that because of their migrations, diasporic communities have encountered these inequalities and so are able to articulate those connections in ways that jar neoliberal narratives. Also, recent discussions of reparations have helped advance the broader understanding of global inequality and capital accumulation. A decade ago I would have thought that this idea was indicative of the 1970s and 1990s, but due to hard work, it is back in discussion.

UWP: Since the book has been published we have seen altercations in Charlottesville and over the NFL US national anthem protests. Have these developments suggested any new interesting lines of enquiry for future research to you? Or perhaps instead some technological or military development?

ST: A couple years ago I bought Ben Fountain’ Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; entirely because of the title and cover I might add—knew nothing else about it. In addition to Fountain being a wonderful writer, the book was a precise dissection of the relationship between media, sports, and war. On those topics, I can’t think of a single book that surpasses it. (I still have to watch the movie.)

My thoughts for future research are tentative at the moment, but the ideas I am jotting down tend to all pull towards AIs in military decision making. But again, these are just initial thoughts.

UWP: Could you expound on any policy or campaigning responses you would like to see in the face of the increasing strength of the surveillance-industrial-military complex?

ST: Two fronts are important, I believe. Campaigning for nuclear disarmament must continue as that is the highest priority. On the surveillance front, I think genuine democratic oversight, can, at the local level nix automated and real-time identification projects. That small achievable step shows a pathway to substantial democratization over all parts of government which can in turn lead to more restraint or projects entirely being defunded. New networking tools could also be invented, but I don’t think it is wise to put faith in technological salvation.

UWP: There seem to quite a few debates about the shape and direction of the field of communications and media. What areas would you like to see the major associations and figures in the field encourage and develop the most and not necessarily in your primary research interests but more generally?

ST: Hmm, tough question. As you know I speculate a little about this in the early part of the book, there is a critique of communicative idealism, a development that unnerves me more generally because of the past two decades of economic turmoil, rampant war, and ecological crisis. In that light, I admit that I don’t have much time for celebratory fan-, game-, or platform-studies. This isn’t to say these topics aren’t important. They are, and when done in a genuinely critical manner greatly advance our knowledge. So I would like to see new scholars nurture the radical spirit that the discipline has re-cultivated in the last decade or so.

UWP: And if UWP could offer you another chapter to add to the book now [we are not offering by the way], what might you want to discuss in that?

ST: I spoke about state based violence, but I would like to see this theme of violence extended to American arms-manufacturing and domestic gun sales. (We can leave that for a second edition.)

UWP: Lastly if you could or had to take three books to the putative desert island and one LP what might they be? At least one of the books has to be an academic work!

ST: I suppose I had a similar challenge when I accepted my position at UWI. Book selections had to be made and the library trimmed down! The first book to be set aside for safekeeping were Tom Lodge’s South African Politics Since 1994, a book I bought just before commencing my undergraduate studies. A few others followed, including Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. As for LPs, it would have to be Simon & Garfunkel’s  ‘The Concert in Central Park

UWP: Thank you.


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