Cybernetics of the LRAD

May 17, 2012

The LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, is an extremely loud speaker—loud enough to damage hearing—that is marketed to militaries and police forces for both communication and “escalation of force.” It was first deployed in the United States at the Pittsburgh G20 protests in 2009 and will likely again project orders and siren sounds this weekend in Chicago during demonstrations prompted by NATO’s summit meeting. It also embodies a logic which has pervaded American thought since World War II, a logic which conflates communication and control.

As Aaron Bady points out, the LRAD brings together violence and speech. “To ask the question of whether an LRAD is designed to hurt people or designed to communicate across long distances with people,” writes Bady, “is to mystify its central design function: It is a technology whose purpose is to FORCE you to listen and obey, and one which is less interested in the difference than you’d think.” The LRAD makes it impossible to think of policing—particularly the iconic “order to disperse” delivered to political demonstrators from Chicago in 1886 to Pittsburgh in 2009 (shown above)—as a process in which orders come first and force follows only in the case of disobedience. The medium through which orders are communicated is itself forceful; the LRAD is a weapon, which is why the LRAD Corporation sells it, according to their fact sheet, “only to qualified government agencies and commercial entities that are fully trained in the device’s operation.” Bady concludes, then, that the LRAD demonstrates policing is “simply about power. Communication is a means of making you obey,” and, from the perspective of the LRAD, nothing more.

The LRAD conflates communication and force not only conceptually but materially: The same sound serves both purposes. It thus taps into a deep seam in twentieth century science and philosophy that is concerned precisely with the relationship between communication and action. It could be interpreted, for instance, in terms of speech act theory: A loud LRAD order to disperse is both a threatening speech act and itself an act of force.

Since the use of violence to establish control is intrinsic to the LRAD, though, its collapsing of communication and force resonates less with speech acts than the mid-century science of cybernetics. As MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener subtitled his 1948 book in which he named the discipline, cybernetics involved the study of “control and communication in the animal and machine.” The field developed in the late 1940s through collaborations between scientists interested in understanding minds, societies, and machines in the same terms—collaborations such as the Macy Conferences—and cyberneticians conflated control and communication in part to establish parallels between these different entities. This collapsing of categories also owed something, though, to the origins of cybernetics in military research.

Wiener did much of his thinking about analogies between humans and mechanical control systems during World War II while designing an “antiaircraft predictor,” designed to aim a gun in order to shoot down a maneuvering plane. Such a predictor was necessary because during the twenty seconds a shell took to reach its target, the pilot would maneuver, apparently unpredictably. In his article “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision” and a followup interview in Cabinet, historian of science Peter Galison argues that Wiener conceived of the enemy pilot as essentially mechanical, and his predictor as a machine that mirrored its behavior. “With no access to anything in the enemy plane,” he says, “Wiener simply treated the pilot-plane assembly as a complex machine—a servomechanism—that once characterized could be simulated in order to predict what it would do. And then it could be blown out of the sky.”

Although Wiener’s work stood in a long tradition of control engineering—since his goal was simply to control a gun—his system also relied on interpreting the plane’s motions as communication to the predictor, which then “learned” its patterns by observing with radar. Even though, “because of the antagonistic relationship between attacker and defender, the anti-aircraft operator was obviously in no position to talk to or even see the pilot,” the latter’s movements still revealed—communicated—his intentions. From Wiener’s perspective as an engineer, though, there was no distinction between control and communication in this system; both were simply messages. There were messages conveyed by the pilot to the plane (through a joystick, say), from the plane to the predictor (through radar), from the predictor to the gun (through a mechanical connection), and from the gun to the plane (through a shell), but each relationship was one of both control and communication, of both force and speech.

The U.S. military also embraced this conflation. During the decades after World War II “command and control,” previously two competing models of military management, became a single practice. Command traditionally involved an officer giving an order which was then interpreted and implemented by those below him in a hierarchy, often as more specific commands to their subordinates. It involved the ambiguity we expect from human communication, if not the dialogue. Control, on the other hand, was direct and (at least ideally) unambiguous. Nuclear weapons, which had to be deployed rapidly and only upon the decision of senior commanders, were subject to control rather than command. This distinction collapsed, though, as nuclear weapons were integrated into conventional military tactics. “By the early 1960s,” writes historian of technology Paul Edwards in The Closed World, “military parlance treated the two as virtually identical. A decade later, ‘command, control, communications, and information’ (C3I) had become a single unified process.”

It is from this postwar military ideology that the LRAD and its inventor Elwood Norris emerged. According to his speaking bio, Norris served in the Air Force as a nuclear weapons specialist in the 1950s before becoming an independent inventor. He was hired by the Navy to design the LRAD in 2000 after the U.S.S. Cole bombing, and the original purpose of the device was to deter guerrillas from U.S. warships. It has since been used to deter Somali pirates from commercial ships and “to blast a series of Arabic phrases, such as ‘Go away or we will kill you,’” in Baghdad and Fallujah.

The LRAD, then, is a military technology that has come home to U.S. soil as a command-and-control system for conveying both orders and force from police to civilians. Its erasure of the distinction between control and communication is not a unique phenomenon that emerges when you build a very loud speaker; rather, its inventor designed a speaker loud enough to “influence behavior and create safety zones” because he and his employers already conflated force and speech.