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Cold War Atavism – Skewed Clues For An Uncertain Future

Politics / New Cold War Mar 28, 2014 - 03:24 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Skeuomorphic Culture

According to ethnologists and anthropologists who specialize in the subsector of primitive and ethnic technology, that is pre-modern non-western technology, a skeuomorph is a part or whole of a design or an artefact made to resemble a previous and different material or technique. Ancient potters who had moved up to wheel-throwing and kiln baking continued designing and making wooden-like or woven rope-like handles on their solid, one-piece wares. A simple example for Western culture's technological and cultural skeuomorphism are estate wagon cars with light-colored plastic “wooden” framing, or garden chairs made of extruded aluminium with PVC seats, which are produced with “screws and tenon joints” for the fake-wooden chair parts, and printed “handwoven raffia-style” plastic seats and chair backs. Coloring of the aluminium and plastic to mask their real nature, can include elaborate tinted and printed wood grain effects.

The skeuomorphs are deliberately used to reassure and familiarize today's consumers, enabling them to ignore the change, or in many cases the saltation leap of technology that relegated the previous design or build features “to the trashcan of Technological History”, but remain critical for the perceived and virtual world of society. More deeply, the presence of skeumorphs in our culture, society and politics is more than simply for making the new look seem comfortably old and familiar, but translates habits that are too deeply ingrained to wash away.
Anthropologists and sociologists go on to say that skeuomorphs are essential to society, materializing the social habit of rejecting the present while transforming the past. Cultural constraints and interactions within any social system can only be learned by cultural transmission techniques and rituals, and this is facilitated by skeuomorphs which always dominate,and are an integral but major hidden feature in religious and political ideologies. For our consumer society where perceived reality is usually more important than reality itself, especially in politics, we find that consumers, users, and voters will migrate to what some political scientists and sociologists call “perceived affordances”. The skeuomorph becomes more than a simple reassuring prop, and the “handwoven” plastic seat on the garden chair becomes the essential social artefact or basic social reality. In our political culture, voters react to policies and programs by choosing their preferred political stances based on their appearance, which is made more “consumer-friendly” by skeuomorphism, or the ritual use by our politicians of completely outdated concepts and rationales – including war.

Cold War Atavism

The period of about 1948-1991 featured what later became a skeuomorphic “final struggle” between the Soviet Union and  the West. This struggle was in fact modeled on previous epic cultural and social conflicts, for example the Europe-wide struggle opposing Catholics and Protestants for over 250 years, and European-versus-Muslim conflicts which continued, with varying intensity from about 700 AD to 1500 AD and reached a peak during the 200-year-long Crusades. This particular epic cultural struggle was later imperialized, in the conflicts opposing the Turkish Ottoman empire against other empires.

The Cold War can be called a period of conflict featuring opposed cultural and political imperialisms rather than a hot military conflict. Battlefield conflict was outplaced and delocalized as so-called 'brush fire wars”, often for decades, to the then-Third World. One example was the Angolan civil war of 1975-2002. This “local theater war” served as a surrogate for the already outdated Cold War opposing the US, west Europe, Japan and South Korea which backed Apartheid South Africa, against the Russian-dominated USSR and its locally active surrogate in Angola, Cuba.

The longevity of skeuomorphic imprints on later technology, and therefore on society and culture is noted by specialists. These cultural hangovers often last – and are themselves skeuomorphized – for centuries rather than decades. Simply for that reason we should not be surprised, and can expect leading western war hawks such as US senator John McCain and the Nato hierarchy to call with decreasing ambiguity for military strikes and ripostes against Vladimir Putin's born-again Soviet Union, or its Kremlin surrogate of a large but shaky Russian Federation with “associated states”. Exactly the same model is pursued by the EU in eastern Europe, and in central and southern Asia. The previous political ideologies in play have been skeuomorphized, that is the key relic feature of armed conflict from past ideologies is maintained, today, to “reassure the public”.

Despite any type or form of classic military operation opposing major developed countries with technologically advanced weapons being technologically impossible today, before the threshold of nuclear war is attained, Cold War atavism asks us to imagine it is possible. Excluding asymmetric and terror war by surrogate forces, theatrical setpiece battlefield encounters including massed infantry assaults, tank movements and artillery duels are however impossible to sustain for any length of time.

For this to be possible a “freeze frame” on weapons technology setting a limit on the possession and use of weapons dating from at latest 1945 would be needed, and have to be accepted by all parties.

Would-be belligerants would also obligatorily exclude the use of current and available “dual use” technology, by written agreement. For example large or wide-body civil jetliners would not be treated and used as large drones, to be electronically or physically hijacked and then “flown by wire” by military AWACS-type aircraft to be crashed into the nuclear power plants of the enemy, thousands of kilometres away from their intended civil flight plan and path. Likewise, enemy targets would necessarily exclude a very large range of “dual use technology” installations and facilities such as Seveso-type pesticides and chemicals factories. Concerted attack on such installations, in enemy countries by any belligerant “not wanting to play the game”, would drastically shorten the lifespan of classic skeuomorphic war games.

The Dangerous Game of Virtual Reality

Computer programs have GUIs or graphical user interfaces which skeuomorphically emulate objects in the physical world. Music synthesizers closely emulate physical musical instruments and previous audio equipment, including features like virtual knobs, push switches and buttons of the original or “archetype” object. Electric car design and development includes the production of recorded “car-type noise” to be emitted by the essentially silent vehicle. The claim for intensifying the use of skeuomorphic features in computer-related applications, like cell phones, is that they make it easier for users who are familiar with the original device to use the virtual emulation and the surrogate can be made very attractive and colorful. The main problem is that interactions with computer devices are purely cultural and learned, and skeuomorphic interfaces rarely incorporate systems for accurately setting a fixed value, made especially troublesome when users have no experience with the distant original device which is emulated.

Mal-use and misuse therefore become endemic, as the “desktop metaphors” incant a symbolic or ritual past that is unknown to the actual user of today, leading to errors of perception, operation, or in both primitive technology and computer-related parlance, to errors of path dependence. Depending on the rapidity of skeuomorphic generational change, a layer-by-layer accumulation of increasingly virtualized reality operated and interfaced by skeuomorphs, the entire technology path can be lost. The same can be applied to political and ideological skeumorphism, when subsequent and secondary rationales are applied to the distant original ideology – transforming it while also making it meaningless - and potentially very dangerous due to the misleading actions it rationalizes.

One almost inevitable result in Europe today, is the renewed quest for “energy security” reducing dependence on Russian energy, but using rationales that even in their original format were misleading. Thus the renewed call for restarting nuclear power programs and intensifying the development of nuclear power in Europe on the one hand claims atomic energy will reduce or free Europe from dependence on Russian energy – and on the other hand includes the argument that Russia fully supports and develops nuclear power itself!
Lady Barbara Judge, a Former Chairperson of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, writing 'in 'Wall Street Journal' 28 March, firstly said: “Energy is essential to national security..... Nuclear power is a critical resource that provides economical, carbon-free base load energy regardless of oil or gas embargoes, transportation disruptions or severe weather—with virtually zero emissions. That's why so many countries want to preserve the civil nuclear-power option”.

She then went on to say: “The Putin regime knows this, as evidenced by its enthusiasm for exporting its nuclear technology and providing the financing to go with it. Recent agreements with the governments of Turkey, Vietnam and Hungary are proof of this strategy”.

So we are invited to believe a number of illogical, even self-contradicting rationales, starting with the  present day near-100%-dependence of European NPPs (nuclear power plants) on imported uranium, evidently able to suffer supply embargoes or transport disruptions. Next, “the Putin regime” would on the one hand utilise Europe's dependence on Russian energy exports to cripple EU and US attempts to “anchor Ukraine to Europe”, but on the other would export nuclear technology, and supply NPP financing to make countries less dependent on Russian oil and gas exports. The confusion is perfect.

Civil-Military Nuclear and Virtual Reality

The functional and basic, inescapable link between civil and military nuclear is less and less easy to deny or brush aside, but at times of political and ideological stress, like the present, this denial is wheeled back on stage to support outdated and confused policies and programs of all kinds. In the case of the standoff between Russia and the EU and USA on Ukraine and Crimea, a total of 4 out of the 5 Declared Powers (declared military nuclear nations) of the UN Security Council are implicated. Only China is absent!

Nonetheless, daily news published by mainstream media showcases “massive build-ups of Russian troops” on Ukraine's eastern frontier, tank movements, naval force movements, the deployment of Nato member country fighter jets to airbases in “frontline EU states”, such as Poland and Lithuania, and strident calls by the self-elected Kiev Flash Mob government for military support “from the West”.

The pre-1945, highly skeuomorphic concept of and rationale for conventional military conflict is being deployed with all its primitive force. This transmits, from generation to generation, the ideological desire for battlefield heroism and death. The long Cold War era was not culturally satisfying due to the near-absence of war, except in chosen victim Third World surrogate nations. The approximate 25-year interval between major and midsized military conflicts between the so-called advanced nations themselves, that operated from the 1870s until 1945, has been largely exceeded. The call for war “to defend Ukraine” – despite it being impossible is therefore a key example of political and ideological skeuomorphism – and apart from being primitive, is very dangerous.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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