asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia

Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.

Experimenting with “New Model Army”

Some time ago, I had the pleasure to listen to a vivid, passionate and very entertaining talk Adam Roberts gave on ignorance, giants, and democracy, at the Leiden University College in The Hague. In contemporary democracies, says Roberts, the basic structure is that representatives (the head) are performatively elected by the necessarily ignorant people (the body) to make informed decisions. While the latter are informed and thus can always turn out wrong, Roberts claims that performative statements are acts and thus cannot be right or wrong. From this starting point, his book “New Model Army” is an attempt to conceive of a “total” democracy within a “headless” army (the giant) based on performance.
The book itself tries to convey that such a democratic giant without a head is much more effective than state-bound, hierarchical armies that exist today, because it facilitates a truly democratic mode of knowledge aggregation and decision-making. Roberts' “playful collective headlessness” that is the democratic army “Pantegral” is hired by the Scottish government to fight for the liberation of Scotland against the English army.
While the book surely is mind-blowing and highly recommended, because it outlines a very radical and profound form of democracy in one of the most violent situations imaginable (maybe it is this combination, that makes the project so fascinating) it also threw up some questions concerning the central role of technology in Roberts' concept, which I would like to address here.
In order to facilitate the democratic distribution of knowledge and decision making, Roberts introduces a multifunctional online network consistent of a “wiki” and a “wifi”, which are used by the soldiers to communicate, find information, and to vote on strategic decisions. The wiki is updated constantly by all soldiers who have updates and everybody is heard—at least, if the majority of listeners think the comment is relevant. It is guarded against enemy attacks by semi-intelligent protection software and connects the soldiers without demanding for any physical presence. This communication network further influences the ways in which the army acts and moves, and enables it to gather its forces or disperse, to form units of variable size and with different objectives all at once, with decisions made by all soldiers via vote. It is also the wiki, which serves as a platform for all necessary information accessible to all soldiers any time and, for Roberts, it follows that specialization (like medics, etc.) is not necessary any more, since everybody takes care of their gear and body themselves, and may ask for help via the wiki any time.

The human vs. the machine
The idea of a headless democracy is very appealing and seems to me somehow “more democratic” than its alternative. But given the description above, I am wondering whether the computed network system Roberts army relies on, might not have to be considered as another kind of head, although not one that takes direct action by deciding, but rather in the sense that this system serves as the central organ—the nervous system, without which everything breaks dow–of the giant and is limited by the information it contains through its databases or its members. These members of the army, it might be added, at some point have to make more or less informed decisions, and my guess would be that, as a tendency, “better” decisions keep the individual soldier alive longer. Leaving this last point aside, the question I would like to ask is, whether the “wiki” system is not itself an organizational principle that dictates interpersonal relationships via rationality of algorithms. Doesn't this make the giant somewhat techno-democratic? Exaggerating a little, one could say that the soldiers submit their “humanity” to the dictum of measurability. The book itself, where it describes the formations of small units of soldiers, or the love the narrator feels for one of his comrades whose death disturbs him considerably may hint at this tension and even serve as a counterargument. But this implies that true equality (in love, friendship, work) on a personal level may only be achieved, if the “human factor” is first short-circuited with the machine. But even with such measures taken, I would argue that, as long as discussion and interaction relies on oral or written language, such equality can never be achieved—precisely because it does not abandon all human-human interaction.

Science Fantasy?
The second question is more concerned with the genre of Science Fiction itself. Roberts novel draws on (social, political, and computer) science in its imagination of a (future) society, and thus is rightly called Science Fiction. But at the same time, I couldn't help wondering how the “wired-up” soldiers can update the wiki, talk to their comrades, kill several enemies while bombed from above, and make decisions on votes more or less at once. While aware of the potential science fiction has precisely due to its fictional, not yet scientific character, I admittedly kept asking myself, how alien a technology has to seem in order to be perceived as “super-human” or “magic”. That is, if the gap between the present and the fictional world is expressed through one or several unknown elements or artifacts and their effects on a society or an individual, my question would be, whether the label of technology is enough to make something “science” fictional as opposed to “fantastic”. In his “Short History of Photography”, Walter Benjamin (2002: 303) claimed that photography, because it can show what was hitherto hidden from the view by means of slow-motion and zoom, reveals the difference between technology and magic as profoundly historical variable. Turned around, I would argue that in fictional works, this variable represents a gap to the present—some kind of simulation gap “between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity”, as game scholar Ian Bogost (2006: 107) conceptualizes it—that always opens a space for imagination and may be interpreted differently, thus leaving the decision between science fiction and fantasy to the reader, who may either work it out cognitively, or simply solve this question performatively without having to stick to what the majority has decided.


Benjamin, W. (2002). Kleine Geschichte der Photographie. In D. Schöttker (Ed.), Walter Benjamin - Medienästhetische Schriften(pp. 300-324). Frankfurt (Main): Suhrkamp.
Bogost, I. (2006). Unit operations: an approach to videogame criticism. Cambridge/London: The MIT Press.
Roberts, Adam (2010). New Model Army. Gollancz.