The value (and danger) of ‘shock’ in regulating new technology during armed conflict

Humanitarian Action / New Technologies 10 mins read

The value (and danger) of ‘shock’ in regulating new technology during armed conflict

When used effectively, shock can galvanize a humanitarian campaign. When used carelessly, it can help undermine one.

The rules and standards of war are not self-correcting. Contradictions, gaps, and ambiguities often endure until an external pressure makes them salient. This is particularly true of the laws governing military technology. In order to regulate new weapons, ‘shock’ is sometimes needed – a practical demonstration of harm that clarifies the morally and legally problematic status of the technology, and the urgency of a regulatory response. When used effectively, shock can galvanize a humanitarian campaign. When used carelessly, it can help undermine one.

In this post, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, Neil Renic, explores the difficulty of using without abusing shock in the context of emerging military technology. 


Humanitarian organizations, NGOs, and civil society play an essential role in the regulation of armed conflict. These actors, and the advocacy networks they establish, catalogue and assess existing and emerging challenges in armed conflict, and develop policies for States to effectively deal with them. They create and diffuse regulatory and prohibitory norms, stigmatize problematic technologies and behaviour, and make salient previously under-examined issues of concern on the battlefield.

In the pursuit of these legal and normative goals, actors will often draw upon ‘shock’ – the outrage generated in response to the more problematic aspects of a weapon or practice of war. This post explores this resource, and specifically, the challenge of properly harnessing shock in the context of emerging and evolving military technologies.

Military regulation and the necessity of shock

Regulating emerging military technology is a complicated process. The controls created must be technically sound and comprehensible, morally and legally robust, enforceable, and at least somewhat future-proof. Preceding this, however, is the urgency challenge – the critical task of clarifying precisely why policymakers should expend the time and resources necessary to pursue new regulation. The urgency challenge also extends to the public. Within the laws of war, the ‘public conscience’ is an important barometer for appropriate conduct and an exploitable resource for regulatory efforts.

To attract and maintain the support of policymakers and the public, proponents of regulation will often draw upon particular episodes of controversy. This may involve weapon malfunction or misuse, battlefield misbehaviour; or alternatively, ‘normal’ action that exposes the inherently problematic status of the technology or practice in question. These moments highlight, in often visceral detail, the urgency of the challenge at hand and the consequences of regulatory inaction. Skilled individuals and organizations can leverage these episodes of ‘shock’ to create, or intensify, a stigma around a weapon or practice, opening up a space for modes of thinking and action that might not otherwise be viewed as feasible.

Shock, it must be recognized, no matter how offensive to public sensibilities or disruptive to the policy status-quo, is not sufficient by itself to guarantee regulatory action. At most, it creates a window of opportunity into which new ideas can emerge or existing ideas can find new purchase. Navigating shock is an interpretive exercise – different organizations will use different messaging for different purposes.[i]

The effectiveness of shock will also, at times, be contingent on a different audience. Anti-personnel (AP) landmines were no more nor less harmful to civilians in the 1990s. What had changed was the normative landscape. Strengthening norms around human security and the protection of the individual had created a more ‘shockable’ public and policy community, conducive to persuasion from a well-organized campaign. The prohibition against AP landmines, argues Price, ‘confirms the oft-argued thesis…that the perception of a crisis or a shock is a crucial factor in precipitating ideational or normative change’.[ii]

Shock and timing

The importance of shock speaks to the difficulty of pre-emptive regulation. At this stage, the full effects of the technology or practice under review are unlikely to be fully known. Even when an assessment of foreseeable impact can be made with some precision, the lack of a practical demonstration of the problem at hand can complicate efforts to regulate. Importantly though, this does not preclude success. To make the case that an emerging or evolving technology is unacceptable, and create the support needed to do something about it, would-be regulators can ‘borrow’ or ‘construct’ shock.

In cases of ‘borrowed shock’, the novelty of the weapon or practice is downplayed, with urgency instead generated through historical analogy. If a parallel can be effectively established between a now-regulated and yet-to-emerge problem, the shock associated with the former can serve as an effective stand-in.

The prohibition on blinding laser weapons offers an instructive lesson in borrowed shock. Early ICRC and Swedish efforts to ban the technology struggled to overcome the ‘general indifference’ of key actors towards ‘a potential problem the urgency of which had not [yet] been proved’.[iii] To overcome this, the ICRC drew a direct link between the potential harm of anti-personnel lasers and the blindness caused by gas weapons during the First World War.[iv] The horror invoked through historical analogy, coupled with legitimate fears that the deployment of such weaponry was imminent, helped convince hitherto reluctant States of the need for a pre-emptive ban.

Borrowed shock is not always a viable approach, however. In some cases, new law or treaties are sought because the weapon or technique under review is qualitatively distinct from its antecedents in a way that matters. In these circumstances, proponents of regulation will need to ‘construct’ shock; supplement their evidence-based forecasting with imaginative leaps to clarify the harm likely to emerge. This is no simple task. Shock too little and policymakers and the public may be unmotivated to act. Pre-emption is likely to be dismissed in such cases, in favour of a wait-and-see approach.

Excessive shock must also be avoided, however. If would-be regulators fail to align their concerns with the technical characteristics, and limits, of the technology in question, or needlessly catastrophize,[v] the credibility of their cause may suffer. Avoiding this entirely can be difficult in today’s media environment, given as it is to sensationalization.[vi]

The cyber realm provides a stark warning in this regard. Too often, sober appraisals of risk are jettisoned in favour of histrionics; references to cyber-triggered global warfare, ‘Cyber 9-11’, or ‘Cyber Pearl Harbour’ (for the traditionalists). Such warnings, intended to catalyze action through shock, often achieve the opposite, inducing a general complacency towards concerns understandably derided as fanciful.

Like cyber, the campaign to regulate autonomous weapons has had its own problems with excess. Advocacy against this technology is extensive, comprising a transnational network of scientists, ethicists, NGOs, and States. In working towards their goal of a complete ban, shock has played an important role. Mary Wareham, coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, makes this clear when explaining the decision to include the term ‘killer robots’ in the title of the influential 2012 Losing Humanity report:

We put killer robots in the title of our report to be provocative and get attention … it’s shameless campaigning and advocacy, but we’re trying to be really focused on what the real life problems are, and killer robots seemed to be a good way to begin the dialogue.

For some, this pursuit of shock has come at the expense of technical accuracy. Chris Jenks argues that the campaign to prohibit lethal autonomous weapons systems has exaggerated both the novelty and danger of this technology, generating a moral panic in the process. Even those of us who disagree with this critique should reflect upon it, and particularly on the ease with which the construction of shock can drift into gratuity. If nothing else, we can surely agree that the invocation of bipedal terminators takes us no closer to (and possibly further away from) an internationally recognized legal prohibition on this technology.

Regulating war is never easy; regulating it pre-emptively is more difficult still. In order to secure effective controls over a (likely) problematic innovation, humanitarian organizations must not only inform, but also discomfort. Shock can be drawn upon in service of these efforts to clarify the urgency of proposed action. Shock can also, however, be overdrawn, particularly when individuals and groups become unmoored from reality and confuse the yet-to-be with the never-to-be problems of emerging military technology.

The best way to mitigate against poorly or excessively constructed shock is technical literacy. Humanitarian campaigners must educate themselves on what emerging technologies are likely (and unlikely) to do in battle, and when. Industry experts – defence and civilian – and other qualified practitioners can help with this forecasting, and their experience should be more readily sought.[vii]

Humanitarian/industry partnerships of this type can also help address some of the problems that afflict the latter group in relation to shock. Too many within the defence industry, influenced by their own fetishization of science fiction, exaggerate the anticipated benefits, military and moral, of technological innovation. Dialogue between these industry optimists[viii] and those more attuned to the potential downsides of emerging technology can help restrain the worst excesses of techno-hype.

In the quest to regulate war, shock is an invaluable resource. When properly harnessed, it is a call to action; a signal that the status-quo is intolerable and reform essential. Its potential, however, may be easily squandered, particularly in the context of emerging military technology. Campaigns to regulate pre-emptively must find the right balance, clarifying the urgency of a yet-to-emerge problem, without drifting into the fantastical. Technical literacy is an important check against such drift.

We must also not forget that shock, no matter how alarming, does not, by itself, translate into regulation. Humanitarian organizations are engaged in a political contest and must demonstrate not only that the technological challenge is profound, but also that their proposed remedy is morally and legally appropriate and practically achievable.

[i] These purposes will not always be worth the harm that may come from the utilization of intimate moments and images of suffering.

[ii] Richard Price, “Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines,” International Organisation 52, no. 3. (1998), p. 622.

[iii] Louise Doswald-Beck, “New Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons,” International Committee of the Red Cross 36, no.312 (1996), p. 277.

[iv] International Committee of the Red Cross, “Blinding Weapons: Gas 1918…Lasers 1990s?”, International Committee of the Red Cross (Geneva, 1994).

[v] Lee Vinsel terms this “criti-hype.”

[vi] For all the problems with media, norm scholarship correctly regards it as an essential resource in campaigns to legitimatize and delegitimize practices and technologies in war.

[vii] Some humanitarian organizations, like the ICRC, already do this well, and in fact, are themselves drawn upon for their technical and legal expertise.

[viii] There is of course a cynical dimension to much of this techno-optimism. The pursuit of lucrative military contracts has motivated many within the defence industry to radically exaggerate the battlefield potential of some new technologies.

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