[43.0] the gamification of war
a dispatch from weapons-tracking Twitter
There’s one thing Elon Musk and I sorta agree on, and it’s that we live in a simulation. And the reason I sometimes think so is that Elon “Apartheid Money” Musk himself has his fingers in too many pots simultaneously for me not to suspect we’re already in some sort of STEM-induced hell.
(And what in the name of blasphemy is this???)
If simulation theory isn’t your thing—which I get—either meditate on theodicy or think through the lens of racial capitalism to make sense of how Musk has his eyes set on colonizing Mars, builds cars that kill people easily, digs big useless holes, catalyzes the collapse or atrophying of a public forum (Twitter), leans into eugenics, and also contributes substantively to Ukrainian war efforts????
It’s tempting to overlook that last one given how enrapturing and terrifying and entertaining Twitter’s current collapse is. tl;dr, to communicate among themselves, Ukrainian armed forces have relied upon Starlink, Musk’s satellite-based internet infrastructure and hardware service, since the early weeks of Russia’s invasion. The US and other countries provided Ukraine with thousands of Starlink devices, which have played a keystone role in secure coordination and, by extension, the underdog’s relative successes against a much larger military.
But, in October, after a Starlink outage and because he’s a chode, Musk threatened to suspend the use of Starlink in Ukraine unless the Pentagon or some other entity footed the bill to continue providing Starlink service to the embattled country. He suggested Ukraine should accept the permanent loss of Crimea and declare nonalignment in exchange for the end of the war. Once he got pushback on Twitter, Musk backed out of that Starlink-based threat, and then tweeted a little with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about iconic British Prime Minister Liz Truss as well as the latest developments in Bakhmut, a town on the front lines in northeastern Ukraine.
There’s a lot to make sense of in that singular frenzied episode. The need for Musk to log off and roll around in grass, say, or the geopolitical dangers of oligarchs’ whims. But concomitant with those other truths is that Twitter—which is now also Musk’s—shapes public perception around what war is and how it should be fought. As a central forum for sharing videos and dispatches from the war in Ukraine, Twitter has deputized an armada of mini-Musk-esque reply guys who think their armchair analyses of the war matter, and, even for less unbearable users who run into this content, war has become an ongoing spectator sport you can check into like one would a livestream or TV show.
A pantheon of reluctant influencers lead the charge. Researchers like Rob Lee (unfortunate name), a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, diligently archive and taxonomize the latest war-related media. Russian-language updates on troop losses, drone footage of artillery salvos, pictures of destroyed armored vehicles, and the like.
Other accounts abound, like Ukraine Weapons Tracker and Oryx. Lee stands at the helm, imo, and carefully avoids saying that the footage he catalogs in any way represents a complete reality.
Yet his most vocal virtual disciples don’t appear to care about his theses, instead drawing meaning from the aesthetics of the media he and sibling accounts post.
(“Battlefield” is a video game this person thinks the real-life war clip looks like it’s from.)
There’s a life-imitates-art-imitates-life truth here. Video games have, in fact, functioned as recruitment tools, as training programs for enlisted personnel—and today, video-game hardware (viz. Xbox controllers) is used by drone operators to control their flying death machines. Gaming technologies, aesthetics, and war all shape each other—a tripartite force enacting, recording, and moralizing conflict as ways to gain an upper hand in the battlefield and in the arena of public opinion. This includes the sounds of war and gaming’s dovetailing. Ukrainian war footage often is accompanied by like heavy-metal folk music or something more hardcore, sometimes it has tongue-in-cheek music like a Super Mario cut as its soundtrack.
And across it all a seeming counter-effort to the technological sublime or to the apotheosis of power qua power. Showing the supply chain of power’s omnipotence rather than its transcendence. Proving the thousand asinine actions that lead to the death of an “enemy” or the loss of a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment. Emphasizing machinations over divine deliberations. Though immensely useful to highlight how agency and power in war is at once individual and collective/distributed, it also makes war an informational, logistical topic rather than one to be feared and discussed in human terms. And while we sit here contemplating reconciliation or the politics and technics of war, Twitter’s new Apartheid-diamond-money manchild-owner’s temper tantrum continues unabated, yeeting his new $44 billion acquisition, and the information and truths living in it, into a buggy abyss.
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.