N.B.: This post is now published at Metaphor and Symbol.
The scandal about Cambridge Analytica’s theft of Facebook data for political marketing is often described as the “weaponization of social media.” On March 25, 2018, Meet the Press‘ Chuck Todd asked Senator Mark Warner if Steve Bannon’s company was designed “to weaponize something that we weren’t aware of when you throw a media company [in] with this political consulting firm.” Senator Warner then used the metaphor in a widely quoted remark to describe Russia’s “weaponization of information.”
There has been a proliferation of things that have been weaponized in recent years: Federal prosecutions, artificial intelligence, nuclear technology, health care, the entire internet, information, ignorance, the construction industry, Gianni Versace-assasin Andrew Cunanan, awkwardness, even even director Christopher Nolan’s “awareness of time.” It’s logical, then, that a March 14 essay in the New York Times asked, “If everything can be ‘weaponized,’ what should we fear?”
A different question is: what work does the metaphor perform if it can be applied equally to everything? Metaphors gain their power not only through the link they make between two concepts, but also through the social contexts in which those meanings are embedded. As my friend Lisa Stampnitzky, author of Disciplining Terror, comments, “this assumes that the normal state of affairs is peaceful and that war /use of force does not already pervade every realm.” The proliferation of “weaponization” thus begs the question: what is our shared social context that makes weaponization the metaphor of the moment? “Weaponization,” it turns out, expresses a nostalgia for an imagined time when there were no politics, a nostalgia that forgets the struggles of the past.
Unsurprisingly, the word first appeared in defense and military contexts. ‘Weaponization’ first appeared in print in the periodical Aviation Week in 1957, and was explicitly defined for readers who were not expected to be familiar with it:
Weaponization is the latest of the coined words generated by missile scientists. It refers to the process by which a tested missile prototype is integrated into a complete weapon system with all its necessary handling, servicing, transporting and maintaining gear. Chronologically, weaponization occurs during the latter phases of the development test program, although planning and designing for weaponization begins—or should begin—almost at the start
In its original coinage it was not a metaphor, but a literal description that recalls the post-War rage for cybernetics and systems-thinking: weaponization is the logistical process of deploying a new weapon throughout a complex organization.
From there, the word spreads within the defense community. The Army Information Digest of 1965 described “Aircraft Weaponization” as the adaptation for aerial deployment of stocks of existing artillery bombs, swapping out the fuses and explosive charges so they would not bury themselves without detonating in the soft soils of Vietnam. This preserves both the context and the meaning of the original: taking something that was always meant to be a weapon, and making it effective, as understood within and among a professional community of munitions experts, Generals, and government officials.
From the weaponization of artillery bombs, the term was then used to describe both the act of placing an explosive fuse next to the fissile materials of a nuclear warhead or “package,” but also the logistics of deploying it, as in this 1981 example:
The package then has to be incorporated into a given warhead; this process is commonly referred to as ‘weaponization‘… Weaponization involves the development of the warhead arming, fusing, and firing
In all of these early examples, weaponization describes the systematic readiness of something designed to be a weapon, in the social context of professionals who oversee weapons systems. A bomb is just a bomb; the logistical apparatus putting fuses into bomb and bombs into airplanes is weaponization.
A twist on the nuclear context marked the debut of the contemporary metaphor. A 1980 U.S. Foreign Policy Conference included a discussion of the question of “whether the ‘weaponization’ of space is inevitable.” That the word was put in quotes indicates that it may have been unfamiliar to participants, or that this context was novel. The new concept was also distinct from space’s militarization: it was not merely the placement of weapons in space that marked its weaponization, but the transformation of space itself into a weapon where it previously had been neutral ground. While the context is similar to earlier uses, the implication is different: outer space was a thing that was not intended to be used for warfare and was now being illegitimately implicated. Weaponization thus acquired its contemporary meaning as the improper use of something inherently peaceful or neutral, making it an instrument of war. The concept became a metaphor.
The use of things other than bullets and bayonets in war is not new: “politics is war by other means” is a 17th century formulation of an ancient truism. What was new in this 1980 coinage was the implication that “war by other means” was itself a danger that must be prevented. In other words, during the waning years of the Cold War, only hot wars and real weapons were legitimate, and previously untouched realms should remain neutral or peaceful, overseen by scientists or diplomats, not soldiers. Weaponization thus also marked the expansion of military expertise–any thing can now be weaponized–and perhaps also the loss of expertise by others, such as the foreign service or astrophysicists.
This is ironic because the history of the Cold War is the history of politics by other means, thought at the time it often went by other terms: piano diplomacy, radio wars, charm offensives, disinformation or, less elegantly, propanganda.
Were we to use contemporary coinage to describe these struggles of the past, we would say that the radio, cultural exchanges, or information was weaponized. When today we describe the weaponization of the construction industry, it implies that large contracts were not always the objects of adversarial struggle, and should not be. Criticizing Federal prosecutions as weaponized suggests that they used to be impartial and now have been tainted by ulterior motives. And the weaponization of the internet implies that it was once an even playing field of ideas that is only now being used against us–as if the corporate titans to whom this public good was bequeathed have always had our best interests at heart.
The metaphor of ‘Weaponization’ is thus an act both of nostalgia and amnesia. It rejects all politics of the past, turning that 17th phrase “politics is war by other means” into a description that is always and only about the unhappy present. And by focusing only on government actors as the source of unsavory politics, “weaponization” allows corporate power to continue unmarked and unchecked.