Tech Wars in Meat Space

Protest Goes ‘Star Trek’ With Nonlethal Weapons

An outfit called HSV Technologies in San Diego claims it's developing something more benign and truer to the spirit of a Star Trek phaser set on stun. "We're on the verge of changing the world as we know it," says Eric Herr, HSV vice president for research. The company's real-life phaser would shoot two weak ultraviolet beams at its target, ionizing two channels through the air. A small charge of electricity at a pulse rate that mimics nerve signals would trace them as if they were wires, in fractions of a second. A person struck by the beams would complete a circuit with the phaser and be instantly immobilized as the skeletal muscles froze up, tricked into reacting as if the brain were ordering them all to contract at once. Whole crowds could be stilled by a beam from a hovering helicopter, he notes.

"No pain, no shock, no sensation whatsoever," Herr says. Power would have to be increased 150 times before the phaser could induce a fatal heart attack, Herr says. "I would be disappointed if it were used as a means of killing other human beings, but we cannot control how governments behave."

Even if the technology isn't perverted into a lethal tool, it might be exactly the kind of convenient weapon that would make it all too easy for cops to quell justifiable unrest in the name of maintaining cosmetic order.

Illustration by George Bates

Colonel Mazzar dismisses that worry, saying nonlethal weapons don't threaten the right to protest. "It is the exploitation of perceived civil liberties which extends into violence and puts innocent lives and property at risk that ultimately leads to such hindrance," he says. "I would trust the judgment of trained law-enforcement professionals trying to maintain public order and public safety over that of a younger, immature, less circumspect agitator." In other words, the kids aren't all right.

Captain Heal used to think the same way before he started boning up on sociology, especially the work of Clark McPhail, author of The Myth of the Madding Crowd. Now Heal fears that a "dream" weapon like the phaser might ultimately lead to greater bloodshed. With an eye to '60s-era civil rights protests and today's Palestinian struggle, Heal asks, "Are we sealing off the safety valve? Riots tend to bring issues to the forefront that would have become the cause of a full-blooded revolution. If there's no riot, the safety release is not there."

The idea of giving protesters leeway was hard for Heal to swallow. "For me to shift my paradigm after 25 years in law enforcement was almost a nervous breakdown," he reflects.

Protesters aiming to give politicians a nervous breakdown are turning increasingly to new technologies, beyond the hacktivism of defacing Web sites and e-bombing a corporation's inbox. The Institute for Applied Autonomy makes robots to stage protests where a human might be in danger or too restricted. The collective also has an anthropomorphic pamphleteer called "Little Brother" that hits passersby with protest literature. It's intentionally designed with a disarming cuteness that George Lucas or Steven Spielberg could love. All that's missing is a "We Shall Overcome" MP3 file.

At the last Davos, Switzerland, economic meeting, protesters projected their sentiments in laser light across a mountain face by typing messages into

Remote-controlled flyers like the saucer-shaped Draganflyer made in Canada have been eyed as vehicles for toting banners, projecting images, and carrying wireless cameras. That would make it a good platform for what activists call "digital witnessing," sending images via satellite to webcasters for worldwide viewing, bypassing corporate media. The human and environmental rights group AmazonWatch says the tools it has given native peoples for digital witnessing may already be restraining companies and governments in the region, but can do little against secretive vigilantes.

The Ruckus Society is opening a Tech Toolbox Action Camp in October to train activists in new technologies and to pool together experts. But program director Han Shan warns against developing a fetish for electronic toys. Basic things like text messaging, micro-radio broadcasting, and e-mail to Palm Pilots have already made street organizing far more effective, he observes.

Still, one can take technology so far that protests become a bloodless ritual, a meaningless Kabuki. Imagine the Washington Mall filled with angry citizens shoulder-to-shoulder, fists raised high with righteous anger—all holograms projected by people safely in their living rooms. Think that's absurd? The folks at will, for a fee, carry your banner and chant your slogan in the capital, and send you a photo of the day's events.

"Robots and flying machines are fanciful and interesting, but there's simply no replacement for human bodies on the street to show our power in numbers and for being radically nonviolent. The purest way of people communicating their outrage is putting themselves in harm's way," Shan says. You have to be willing to "throw [your] body like a monkey wrench into the machine to say, 'No more!' "

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