Tech Wars in Meat Space


When Carlo Giuliani’s rage at the new world order turned violent during the recent G-8 summit in Genoa, he was hit with an old-fashioned response: two bullets that ripped through his head. Police forces are asking themselves if that kind of death is an inevitable part of street clashes, or if high-tech nonlethal weapons could offer a way out.

Police in the future may be armed with energy beams that inflict a burning sensation on skin without causing permanent damage, or even painlessly and temporarily immobilize a rioting demonstrator. Waves of sound and light could disorient mobs, and sticky foam could trap them like flies on a strip.

“As things stand, if you dropped Wyatt Earp into today’s world he’d be pretty comfortable,” says Captain Charles “Sid” Heal, a nationally regarded nonlethal-weapons guru with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. But Earp’s bullets aren’t the answer to every breach of code, he says. Save them for a time when inaction will cost a life, and consider even that a failure for not acting nonlethally, sooner.

Activists worry that cops with gentler means of crowd restraint will be more likely to nip protests in the bud, preventing any message from getting out. Already, demonstrations have been wrecked and people injured by tear gas and rubber bullets.

“The increasing popularity of less lethal weapons is a two-edged sword,” says David Jackson, a spokesman for, a Web site dedicated to tracking police abuses. “On the one hand, their use causes far fewer deaths than the use of traditional firearms. On the other hand, the perception that they are ‘nonlethal’ results in their indiscriminate or improper use to a far greater degree than such use of traditional firearms.”

That’s not a bad thing, according to Colonel Andrew Mazzara, director of the U.S. Marine’s Institute for Emerging Defense Technologies at Pennsylvania State University. “I would assume and hope that the ‘trigger’ would be pulled sooner than a lethal weapon,” he says.

Faced with that hard line, rabble-rousers are piling gadgets into their own box of tricks. Protesters now have robots that can graffiti public spaces at lightning speed. The technology exists for real flying saucers to project laser messages onto the sides of buildings or display text on their underbellies with light-emitting diodes.

The Institute for Applied Autonomy, the techno-artist collective that makes the remote-controlled GraffitiWriter, sees nothing ahead but growth. “[T]he IAA has identified the already emerging market of cultural insurrection as the most stable market in the years to come,” says their Web site. “IAA research has examined the primary behavior patterns of this market and is developing technologies that best serve the needs of the burgeoning market.”

The term “nonlethal” is a goal, not a guarantee, because these weapons can be deadly if used carelessly. Heal counts 11 deaths from bean-bag rounds in North America alone. That’s what scares activists. “Ill-trained, overzealous, angry cops frequently use pepper spray as an impromptu, ‘officially sanctioned’ form of torture,” says Jackson of Likewise, firehoses and truncheons have broken bones.

Modifications to these weapons on the Penn State radar include a water cannon made by Jaycor that can deliver an electric charge. New sensors on muzzles can slow projectiles when a target is too close for safety. Another new projectile is the Sticky Shocker, a battery-powered device that clings to its target’s clothing with glue and barbs, delivering an incapacitating electric charge. There are even billy clubs that fire soft projectiles and ensnaring nets.

Streams of gluey foam, like a souped-up version of the party favor Crazy String, can also immobilize suspects or create barriers. That was done by marines in Somalia, who created perimeters of the foam to block mobs as UN forces withdrew. Problem was, those barriers were easily bridged by laying down planks of wood and sheets of plastic.

Small explosives that deliver a burst of shockwaves can be used to disorient an entire crowd, as can LE Systems’ handheld “Laser Dazzler,” which is essentially over-stimulating rave gear that could have been designed by Dr. Evil. Some speculate that infrasound assaults of low-frequency waves could confuse people and if applied in greater doses will produce vomiting, diarrhea, deafness, and death.

A nonlethal-weapons laboratory may sound like another Tower of London, but any of these ideas might have spared Carlo Giuliani’s life. “The standard is not perfection,” Heal says. “The standard is the alternative”—death by gunshot. “Our immediate retort is, What would you rather be shot with?”

Still, he knows that standards within police forces don’t match the layman’s ideal. “Everything changed on a Thursday night in 1966,” he says. “When Star Trek first aired and the phaser entered the public psyche, it set the standard whether we liked it or not.” He’s serious. “The phaser as conceived on Star Trek is portable. It discriminates, meaning you can target one individual without affecting another. It’s reusable and environmentally benign. It defeats the will and the ability to resist, and the guy recovers with no aftereffects. It just makes people after nonlethal tools drool,” says Heal.

The federal government has Kirk envy, too. Air force research labs announced in March the creation of a beam weapon that caused a target to feel burning pain—as if one had touched a hot light bulb—but without causing permanent damage. Only the top 1/64th of an inch of the skin is affected, according to the air force. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is developing another beam that goes to the core, raising body temperature and provoking a debilitating fever of up to 105 degrees. Other national labs have worked toward developing beams that induce grogginess or small seizures.

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.

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!’ “