A Letter on Technological Maintenance from the Army

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by contromal

In What is Media Archaeology, a quote from Kittler outlines how the military has set trends for “contemporary media technological culture” in motion:

“Phase 1, beginning with the American Civil War, developed storage technologies for acoustics, optics, and script: film, gramophone, and the man-machine system, typewriter. Phase 2, beginning with the First World War, developed for each storage content appropriate electric transmission technologies: radio, television, and their more secret counterparts. Phase 3, since the Seccond World War, has transferred the schematic of a typewriter of predictability per se; Turing’s mathematical definition of computability in 1936 gave future computers their name.'” (Kittler qtd. Parikka loc 1805)

This week, I (and a thousand others with my technical job in the Army) received an unclassified email from a General in the Logistics Corps (which is attached to the end of this blog post). The author of this letter discourages soldiers from attempting to maintain or repair two pieces of their equipment, for which the maintenance is being outsourced through civilian contracts. This letter signals, to me, the necessity of adding a Phase 4 to Kittler’s observations about the relationship between the media and our culture’s resultant technological culture. Phase 4 would focus on the inability of the individual to understand, maintain, or tinker with developing technologies. It separates man from the understanding the machine and cultivates his role as consumer alone.

Although I am incredibly familiar with how the maintenance system in the Army works, I did not question why the maintenance system works like it does, until I received this email. When the Army purchases new technology, it primarily awards contracts to the “lowest bidder.” The Army’s “Bottom Line Up Front” answer is that they choose the the most affordably priced product from the vendor, which can meet the needs of the Army. But what I question is the cost of extended warranties and the effect of relegating the soldier to the role of consumer.

The Army will argue that it is better served by building its maintenance on this model of disconnect. The Army does not have the proper parts, particular training, or sufficient time. It will say that military manpower is better utilized by evacuating specialty items to be worked on at a centralized location, developed for the precise purpose of specialty repairs. It will cite the importance of a warranty repair and the availability of civilian personnel to complete this maintenance. It will laud the hired technical experts it employs. It will assure the public that the soldier can be a more competent, focused, and efficient war-fighter, because he or she is not distracted by menial maintenance tasks.

But warranties only last for awhile and much of the military’s equipment sticks around for decades. Someone must continue to ensure that technology does not fail, so someone must be paid to complete essentially eternal repair contracts. More importantly, the creativity of a soldier, who has been scolded for trying to solve his/her own technological malfunctions, plunges. Instead of being an active problem-solver with the ability to control his equipment, he/she becomes subjugated to the never-understood complexities of mandatory technological advancement. Freud’s hypothesis about dreaming parallels the fourth phases’s control of technological creativity. Freud “famously designated dreaming as a cordoned-off arena of primitive irrationality: ‘What once dominated waking life while the mind was still young and incompetent seems now to have been banished into the night… Dreaming is a piece of infantile mental life that has been superseded.'” (qtd. in Crary 107). So, too, has creative repair been discouraged. The soldier has been denied access to the physicality of his machine. The soldier’s skills have been deemed “crude,” “unsophisticated,” and “futile no matter what the talent level of
the maintainer.”

This crushing of creativity can be seen in various artifacts outside of the military, especially since the personalization of the computer. It is obvious in the ways that Apple has shut off access to their products. It is apparent in cars, which have moved increasingly towards governance by onboard computer units. Phase four replaces the tinkerers and thinkers by stealing away their reasonable ability to mess with the machine. The sellers have taken away the tools.

I wonder, then, which came first? Did Phase 4 surface in the civilian sector or the military first? Are these moments of influence, continuing to trend in the direction Kittler assumes?

***********
“On 5 February members of PM SMS traveled to the OEM’s facility for the
AN/PSQ-20 and AN/PSQ-20A (5855-01-534-6449 & 5855-01-603-0489 respectively)

Enhanced night Vision Goggles (ENVG). During our visit the PM was invited
into the repair and maintenance shop of that facility. The OEM teamed showed
the PM several goggles that had obviously been opened in an attempt to
repair them. The attempt to repair or maintain the goggles was obvious as
some of the work was quite crude. Unauthorized and unsophisticated
soldiering techniques were used that were quite visible and resulted in
additional damage to the goggles.

As you know these two particular ENVGs are largely supported by
CLS, which is accomplished through the OEM. Any repair or maintenance task
that requires the housing to be breached shall be done by the OEM and if
performed by the Soldier will void the warranty. Additionally there are no
internal parts or components that are stocked in the Standard Army Supply
System and no TMDE or Test Sets are available to the Soldier so any
maintenance at that level will be futile no matter what the talent level of
the maintainer.”

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