The God trick and the administration of military violence

JOC staring at screen 24afghan-600

Here is the abstract for my keynote at the Lancaster symposium on Security by remote control next month; it’s a development from my presentation at the AAG in Tampa, and I’ll provide more details as I develop the argument.

The God trick and the administration of military violence

Advocates have made much of the extraordinary ability of the full motion video feeds from Predators and Reapers to provide persistent surveillance (‘the all-seeing eye’), so that they become vectors of the phantasmatic desire to produce a fully transparent battlespace.  Critics – myself included – have insisted that vision is more than a biological-instrumental capacity, however, and that it is transformed into a conditional and highly selective visuality through the activation of a distinctively political and cultural technology.  Seen thus, these feeds interpellate their distant viewers to create an intimacy with ground troops while ensuring that the actions of others within the field of view remain obdurately Other.

But the possibility of what Donna Haraway famously criticised as ‘the God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere in particular – is also compromised by the networks within which these remote platforms are deployed.  In this presentation I re-visit an air strike on three vehicles in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in February 2010, in which more than 20 civilians were killed in a helicopter attack prompted, in large measure, by video feeds from a Predator providing support to a Special Forces detachment in the vicinity.  Most commentaries – including mine – have treated this in terms of a predisposition on the part of the Predator crew to (mis)read every action by the victims as a potential threat.  But a close examination of the official investigations that followed, by the US Army and then the US Air Force, reveals a much more complicated situation.  The Predator was not the only ‘eye in the sky’, its feeds entered into a de-centralized, distributed and dispersed geography of vision in which different actors at different locations inside and outside Afghanistan saw radically different things, and the breaks and gaps in communication were as significant as the connections.  In short, much of later modern war may be ‘remote,’ but there’s considerably less ‘control’ than most people think.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

U2 (USAF photograph)

Rummaging around for more people working on militarized vision, I encountered a forum on Military optics and Bodies of difference held at Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender earlier this year, and through that the research of Katherine Chandler, who holds a Townsend Center for the Humanities Dissertation Fellowship in the Department of Rhetoric.  Her dissertation in progress is entitled Drone Flight and Failure: the United States’ Secret Trials, Experiments and Operations in Unmanning, 1936 – 1973, which promises to fill in a crucial gap in conventional genealogies of today’s remote operations.

As you’ll see if you visit her website here, Katherine is an accomplished artist as well as researcher and critic.  You can read her essay on ‘System Failures’, which includes a discussion of Trevor Paglen‘s Drone Vision and Omer Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is the Best, at The New Inquiry (August 2012) here, and find a fuller discussion of Fast’s video situated within what Katherine calls the ‘knowledge politics’ and political ecologies of remote operations on pp. 63-74 of Knowledge politics and intercultural dynamics here.

Here is the abstract for her talk at the forum, Unmanning Politics: Aerial Surveillance 1960-1973:

u2_spy_plane_incident_newspaper_clippingOn May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane was shot down over the Soviet Union while on a secret reconnaissance mission. The ensuing diplomatic fallout caused the cancellation of the Paris Summit between Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev. Less well known, in April 1960, Robert Schwanhausser, an engineer for Ryan Aeronautical, briefed the United States Air Force on the possibility that its Firebee target drone, used at the time for air defense training, might be re-engineered as an unmanned reconnaissance plane. In the weeks following the Powers incident, the Air Force began wholesale negotiations with Ryan Aeronautical to develop a pilotless spy plane and, on July 8, 1960, the company was given funding to begin the project. Among the noted advantages were: “political risk is minimized due to the absence of a possible prisoner” (“Alternative Reconnaissance System,” 1960). I investigate the resulting Lightning Bugs, flown for three-thousand reconnaissance missions in Southeast Asia between 1964 and 1973. 

Researching how aircraft were unmanned during the Cold War is instructive both in the ways they mimic contemporary unmanned combat aerial vehicles and trouble assumptions about them. I follow how unmanned systems operated within the logics of American Cold War politics and their perceived usefulness geopolitically – crossing borders as spy aircraft, collecting and jamming electronic signals, and gathering battlefield reconnaissance. I ask how conquest, and the ensuing assumptions of empire, colonialism and race, underlie the unmanning of military aircraft, even while these aspects were purposefully, although, unsuccessfully occluded through the idea that technologies could mitigate political risks. Moreover, unmanned reconnaissance projects were cancelled at the end of the Vietnam War and their failure provides clues about what might be left out of visions of aerial control and the ways politics, and human vulnerabilities, persisted in spite of efforts to engineer systems that would suggest otherwise.

The legitimacy of contemporary drone strikes relies on the ability of unmanned aircraft to “see” enemy targets. Yet, as Isabel Stengers has argued, any representation gives value. Looking at the few available images from these early unmanned reconnaissance flights, I move between what is seen and unseen to examine how values, particularly, secrecy and control, are formed through unmanned reconnaissance. Claiming to produce a mechanical, rather than political, view of the territories surveyed, I show how the supposedly apolitical lens of the drone occludes how politics, industry and military come together to privilege certain positions and target others.

Interesting stuff – especially that first paragraph linking ‘un-manning’ to the U-2.  There is a strange irony here, because until this year the US Air Force had in fact favoured its fleet of 33 U-2 (‘Dragon Lady’) aircraft [one of which is shown at the top of the photograph] over the high-altitude Global Hawk [shown at the bottom], so much so that it had asked for permission to cancel its orders for the new Block 30 Global Hawks and place others in storage.

GlobalHawk_USAFAirmanFirstClassBobbyCummings

You may be surprised to discover that the U-2 is still flying, but the airframe has been repeatedly modified and so too has the network in which it is embedded.  One pilot explained:

“The U-2 started out only carrying a wet-film camera. Now, with today’s technology, I’m alone up there, but I may be carrying 40 to 50 Airmen via data link who are back at a (deployable ground station).”

U-2 flying hours in Afghanistan and Iraq (New York Times)It’s important to remember that Predators and Reapers are not the only platforms streaming imagery to the Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System.  The U-2 was given a new lease of life by the Gulf War in 1991, when nine U-2s flying out of the UAE  provided 50 per cent of all imagery and over 90 per cent of all ground forces targeting imagery.  During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 U-2s flew only 19 percent of the air reconnaissance missions, but they provided more than 60 per cent of the signals intelligence and 88 per cent of battlefield imagery.  The continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq confirmed that the U-2’s original, strategic significance had been eclipsed by its new tactical role.  Chris Pocock explains:

“The U-2 today is more a tactical intelligence gatherer…  It supports ground operations on a daily basis, flying over Afghanistan, flying around Korea, flying in the eastern Mediterranean, doing all those things every day and it’s actually not only providing intelligence that is analyzed for the benefit of those ground troops, but it’s actually in contact with those ground troops in real time.”

And that close contact – akin to the intimacy remote operators in the continental United States claim when they say they are not 7,000 miles but 18 inches from the battlespace, the distance from eye to screen – takes its toll on the U-2 pilots too.  In addition to the extraordinary pressures flying the U-2 imposes on their bodies, one USAF physician insisted that ’emotionally… they’re wrung out from that… When you’re talking to somebody on the radio and there’s gunfire in the background… you’re not taking a nap while that’s happening.’

Writing in the New York Times, Christopher Drew provided a revealing example:

Major Shontz said he was on the radio late last year with an officer as a rocket-propelled grenade exploded. “You could hear his voice talking faster and faster, and he’s telling me that he needs air support,” Major Shontz recalled. He said that a minute after he relayed the message, an A-10 gunship was sent to help.

In fact, that last clause can be generalised; the U-2 has often been deployed in close concert with other platforms, including Predators and Reapers.  Drew again:

The U-2’s altitude [70,000 feet or more], once a defense against antiaircraft missiles, enables it to scoop up signals from insurgent phone conversations that mountains would otherwise block.  As a result, Colonel Brown said, the U-2 is often able to collect information that suggests where to send the Predator and Reaper drones, which take video and also fire missiles. He said the most reliable intelligence comes when the U-2s and the drones are all concentrated over the same area, as is increasingly the case.

Part of the reason for that is that the U-2 has such an advanced imagery system:

Even from 13 miles up its sensors can detect small disturbances in the dirt, providing a new way to find makeshift mines [IEDs] that kill many soldiers.  In the weeks leading up to the [2010] offensive in Marja, military officials said, several of the … U-2s found nearly 150 possible mines in roads and helicopter landing areas, enabling the Marines to blow them up before approaching the town.

Marine officers say they relied on photographs from the U-2’s old film cameras, which take panoramic images at such a high resolution they can see insurgent footpaths, while the U-2’s newer digital cameras beamed back frequent updates on 25 spots where the Marines thought they could be vulnerable.

U-2 preparing for takeoff 'in SW Asia' (USAF/Eric Harris)

For all that,  in the last two years the Air Force’s plan to cut the Global Hawk program was repeatedly over-ridden by Congress, in response to an extraordinary campaign waged by Northrop Grumman, which launched what Mark Thompson called ‘its own ISR – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – mission over Capitol Hill to decide where to strategically target cash-bombs to keep its plane, and more of them, flying for another day’: you can find a  full report at the Center for Public Integrity here.

The Air Force has now accepted the retirement of Lockheed Martin’s ageing Cold warrior, because (so it says) the cost per flying hour of the Hawk has now fallen below that of the U-2 ($24,000 vs. $32,000).  ‘U2 shot down by budget cuts’, is how PBS put it, while the Robotics Business Review triumphantly announced ‘Here comes automated warfare’.

Even so, cost per flying hour is not the whole story, as Amy Butler explains.  Part of the problem is logistical and, by extension, geopolitical: ‘Global Hawks based in Guam have to transit for hours just to reach North Korea, whereas the U-2, based at Osan air base, South Korea, has a shorter commute’ (details of the Hawk’s global basing can be found here).

A second issue is reliability, which bedevils all major UAVs and makes cost per flying hour a dubious index:

‘Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection is in high demand, and aircraft downtime is extremely worrisome for combatant commanders. In the Pacific, 55% of Global Hawk’s missions were canceled in fiscal 2013; 96% of the U-2’s missions were achieved. The U-2 was also scheduled for nearly three times as many missions. Global Hawk lacks anti-icing equipment and is not able to operate in severe weather.’

Finally, critics continue to complain that the sensors on the U-2 remain superior to those on the Hawk and provide a wider field of view.  According to a report from Eric Beidel,

The Global Hawk carries Raytheon’s Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite, which includes cloud-penetrating radar, a high-resolution electro-optical digital camera and an infrared sensor. But the U-2’s radar can see farther partly because the plane can fly at altitudes over 70,000 feet, about 10,000 feet higher than a Global Hawk. A longer focal length also gives the U-2’s camera an edge, experts said…

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has said that the drone’s sensors just weren’t cutting it. Further, the U-2 can carry a larger payload, up to 5,000 pounds compared to 3,000 pounds for the Global Hawk.

“Some of the most useful sensors are simply too big for Global Hawk,” said Dave Rockwell, senior electronics analyst at Teal Group Corp. He referred to an optical bar camera on the U-2 that uses wet film similar to an old-fashioned Kodak. “It’s too big to fit on Global Hawk even as a single sensor.”

All of these technical considerations are also political ones, as Katherine’s abstract indicates, and none of them answers the other questions she poses about what can and cannot be seen…

Biometric war

The US military’s obsession with biometrics is, in part, the product of its phantasmatic desire to make the battlespace fully transparent, as its incorporation within the targeting cycle makes clear:

afghan-biometrics-cycle-1

But it’s also a vital means of furthering the profoundly biopolitical project embedded in later modern war (something that intersects, in various ways, with Mark Neocleous‘s arguments about military violence – war power/police power – and ‘ordering’):

The stated goal of the Afghan effort is no less than the collection of biometric data for every living person in Afghanistan. At a conference with Afghan officials in 2010, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Task Force Biometrics Col. Craig Osborne told the attendees that the collection of biometric data is not simply about “identifying terrorists and criminals,” but that “it can be used to enable progress in society and has countless applications for the provision of services to the citizens of Afghanistan.”

CALL-AfghanBiometrics-1I touched on some of this in a different context in ‘The biopolitics of Baghdad’ DOWNLOADS tab), and Public Intelligence has just released the U.S. Army Commander’s Guide to Biometrics in Afghanistanfrom which I’ve taken the image above, and which provides a much more detailed accounting.

The release also includes an illuminating short essay, ‘Identity dominance: the U.S. Military’s biometric war in Afghanistan‘, that provides a gloss on and a guide to the program:

In a section titled “Population Management,” the U.S. Army’s guide recommends that “every person who lives within an operational area should be identified and fully biometrically enrolled with facial photos, iris scans, and all ten fingerprints (if present).” The soldiers must also record “good contextual data” about the individual such as “where they live, what they do, and to which tribe or clan they belong.” According to the guide, popuation management actions “can also have the effect of building good relationships and rapport” by sending the message that the “census” is intended to protect them from “the influence of outsiders and will give them a chance to more easily identify troublemakers in their midst.”

For a wider, wonderfully critical commentary on biometric war, see Colleen Bell, ‘Grey’s Anatomy goes South: Global racism and suspect identities in the colonial present’, in the Canadian journal of sociology 38 (4) (2013) 465-486 available open access here.

In media res

Two short essays that address the public circulation of supposedly secret information.  The first, “Collateral Murder and the After-Life of Activist Imagery”, is by Christian Christensen, and concerns the video clip released by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder in April 2010.  I’ve discussed this edited video of a US Apache helicopter attack in New Baghdad in 2007 before, together with the two documentary films that it provoked, and it forms part of my ‘Militarized Vision’ project (you can find links to the clip and to subsequent commentary in that original post).

CHRISTENSEN Collateral Murder

Christian doesn’t explore the content of the video so much as its inscription and re-inscription within public debates, part of the mediatization of later modern war.  He does make a sharp point about the status of the imagery:

One could argue that the repeated use of this imagery (and corresponding audio) has created an entirely new genre of military reporting. It is a genre with specific, often disturbing conventions: the grainy images of those on the ground, the flat, bland coloring, the “narration” of the aircraft operators which swings between the clinical and the cynical, the silence of those under surveillance or attack, the sound of the weaponry as it is discharged, and, importantly, the “overtness” of the technology, by which I mean the way in which the screen is filled with evidence of the technology being used in the form of the cross-hairs in the middle and data visible at the top and the bottom of the screen…

The Collateral Murder video not only shatters the mythology of humane warfare and benevolent US power, but also causes us to question the notion of neutral technology at the service of human development: a theme which has regained a central space in public debate in recent years.

But he also thinks there is another, no less sharp point to be made about the very act of reporting:

Within this context, the killing of two Reuters employees by the US military was particularly poignant. At the most basic level, this was the symbolic killing of Journalism (with a capital “J”) by a military unaccustomed to critical coverage or investigation at home. The killings, of course, then went unreported until Manning leaked the material and WikiLeaks published it: itself an act of journalism. With Collateral Murder, there is a layering and re-layering of meaning, and, for me, journalism lies at the heart of the clip. These are humans first, of course, and most of those killed or wounded in the attack were not journalists. But, in addition to the tragedy of human death, there is also the tragedy of what is symbolically destroyed: Transparency. Democracy. Knowledge. Critical thinking. And it took an act of journalism to bring these tragedies to light, an act of which has now itself been subjected to the full force of the state via the imprisonment of Manning, and the threat of criminal charges being brought against Assange in the US.

Incidentally, the essay is the text of Christian’s presentation to the ‘Image Operationsconference held at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) in Berlin earlier this month; the program is here.

Image Operations

The second essay is Adam Morris‘s wide-ranging review of ‘The geopolitics of the Snowden Files‘ at the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Its immediate provocation is the publication of the Obama administration’s self-serving ‘NSA Report’:

The-NSA-Report-243x366The NSA Report — commissioned by the White House in August, published on its website in December, and now available in print via Princeton University Press— was authored by the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. As suggested by its official title, “Liberty and Security in a Changing World,” the Report was intended to advise President Obama on how to reform the data collection practices of the Intelligence Community (IC), in particular the NSA. Its authors include such veterans of the US security sector as Richard A. Clarke, Michael J. Morrell, and Peter Swire. This insiders’ perspective, in theory, is balanced by the addition to the group of constitutional lawyers Geoffrey R. Stone and Cass Sunstein. The unofficial purpose of the Report, however, was the Obama administration’s attempt to put a lid on the NSA scandal by pretending to be interested in reform. As Luke Harding points out in The Snowden Files, the Review Group was working out of the offices of the Director of National Intelligence, currently occupied by the felonious General James Clapper, w _ho knowingly lied in Congressional testimony about the bulk collection of Americans’ communication data.

The essay provides a fine, critical reading of the Report –

‘The anodyne language of these and other recommendations signals the imperial agenda out of which they are born: The NSA Report is obsessed with framing the debate over surveillance around the neopositivist vocabulary of “risk management,” but we know from history that political liberty will always suffer when a dominant regime deems a nation, its leadership or its population a “national security threat”…’

– but it also spirals off into a vigorous mapping of the context in which the NSA set about its covert operations and Edward Snowden‘s principled decision to go public (Adam also provides a commentary on Luke Harding‘s The Snowden Files: for another review, see Daniel Soar at the London Review of Books here).  And here too, of course, investigative journalism is a vital, enabling and even empowering practice.

Casualties of war

As most readers will know, there has been a lively debate – at once profoundly philosophical and intensely practical – about what counts as a ‘grievable’ (and indeed survivable) life after military and paramilitary violence, and on the calculus of war-time casualties.

Two reports released yesterday conclude that recording and analysing data on the casualties of conflict and armed violence (both those killed and those who survive their wounds) can improve the protection of civilians and save lives.  The first, by Action on Armed Violence, is called Counting the Cost and surveys ‘casualty recording practices and realities around the world’:

Counting the costThe AOAV report shows that transparent and comprehensive information on deaths and injuries can protect civilians and save lives. The numbers of casualties have always been a contentious issue, generally dominated by secretive counting criteria, and public numbers that have been dictated more by political agendas than evidence. In other cases, the arguments have been dictated simply by the use of different estimating techniques. An example in this sense has been the debate on the total number of people that were killed during the Iraq War between Iraq Body Count and a survey published in the Lancet medical journal. The Lancet estimated over 650,000 deaths due to the war, more than 10 times the number of deaths estimated by the Iraq Body Count for the same period. A series of articles arguing for one or the other have highlighted how different systems to estimate number of deaths can lead to very different end results.

What the AOAV new report confirms is that when transparency both in the numbers produced as well as the techniques used to record them are clear and public, the debates around these numbers can be overcome. For Serena Olgiati, report co-author, “transparency makes it clear that this data is not a political weapon used to accuse opponents, but rather a practical tool that allows states to recognise the rights of the victims of violence.”

I have a more reserved view about a ‘transparent’ space somehow empty of politics – and we all know what the first casualty of war is – but the report is more artful than the press release suggests: it begins by invoking Walter Benjamin on Klee’s Angel of History:

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees on single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm1.

The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote these words in 1940 as he saw Europe engulf in flames. Within the year he had taken his own life on the French-Spanish border, the threat of deportation to a Jewish concentration camp seemingly too great for him to bear.

They are words that resonate as much today as they did then. Syria is engulfed in flames, Iraq descends back into the abyss and gun violence takes thousands of lives a week. The single catastrophe the Angelus Novus sees in the 21st century has to be the terrible harm caused by armed violence, a harm estimated to take over half a million lives a year.

Seeing this harm in its entirety is a gruelling task. Recording the true toll of armed violence reveals hard truths: it tells of underlying prejudices, of racism, of sexism: humanity’s ugliness. But only by turning behind us and calculating how many people have died and have been injured in a conflict, in a slum area, in a city in the grip of violence, can we ever begin to address the impact that armed violence has.

The report provided an analytical overview and a series of case studies (Colombia, Thailand and the Phillipines).

Counting the Cost Infographic

The second report is from the Oxford Research Group and is part of its Every Casualty program (see my post here).  In this report the ORG reviews the United Nations and Casualty Recording:

ORG-UN-and-CR Cover_1It concludes that when the UN systematically records the direct civilian casualties of violent conflict, and acts effectively on this information, this can help save civilian lives. However, casualty recording is not currently a widespread practice within the UN system.

The report recommends that the advancement of casualty-recording practice by the UN in conflict-affected countries should be pursued, as this would have clear benefits to the work of a range of UN entities, and so to the people that they serve.

This report looks at experiences of, and attitudes towards, casualty recording from the perspectives of UN staff based in New York and Geneva that we interviewed. It includes a case study of UN civilian casualty recording by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Human Rights unit. Finally, the report discusses challenges to UN casualty recording, and how these might be met.

Digital trenches

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I’ve mentioned the opening skirmishes for the centenary of the First World War before, and recommended europeana‘s curated website devoted to untold stories and official histories of World War I.  I’ve since also become entranced by the extraordinarily rich website developed by the University of Oxford:

World War I Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings is building a substantial collection of learning resources available for global reuse. A rich variety of materials, including expert articles, audio and video lectures, downloadable images, interactive maps and ebooks are available under a set of cross-disciplinary themes that seek to reappraise the War in its cultural, social, geographical and historical contexts. Many of these resources have been specially created by the University of Oxford and partner academics for this website.

It’s an Open Educational Resource, so that everything is released under an open content/commons licence.

The site is organised around a series of themes, including Body and Mind (read the brilliant Santanu Das on ‘The Dying Kiss‘, revised and extracted from his Touch and intimacy in First World War literature: ‘It is a great irony that the world’s first industrial war, which brutalized the male body on such an unprecedented scale, also nurtured the most intense and intimate of male bonds’) and Machine (for those of us interested in the administration of military violence, in the double sense of that term, Christopher Phillips has an insightful vignette about General Haig: ‘Far from being a ‘donkey’, he was the centralizing force responsible for overseeing the entire ‘business’ on the Western Front…. the ‘General Manager of War’’.)

And there is also a section entitled ‘From Space to Place‘ that includes Das again on ‘slimescapes’ (which is what triggered my work on ‘The natures of war’, soon to be completed for Antipode) and Matt Leonard on the war underground.

Many of the contributions come from PhD students, which gives the whole project a remarkable freshness.

Securing the volumes

More on war, police and the ‘security forces’ (see also herehere and here).  My copy of Mark Neocleous‘s  War power, Police power (Edinburgh, 2014) has just arrived, and I’m about to work my way through it (you can download the Introduction here).

But I’ve just stumbled upon another new book, by Caroline Holmqvist – Policing Wars: On military intervention in the twenty-first century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) – that I obviously need to read in parallel.

COVER_POLICING_WARS-libre

I’ve referred to Caroline’s work before, and in case you can’t read the small print in the image above here’s the blurb:

This interdisciplinary study provides an original account of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to show how, why and with what consequences, twenty-first century wars became seen as policing wars.  Holmqvist starts from the assumption that wars always reflect the societies that wage them and combines the analysis of western strategic thinking with a philosophical examination of the core ideas that structure the contemporary liberal imagination. She argues that the US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were characterised by a widespread understanding of war as ‘policing’ – that is, waged against opponents deemed ‘criminal’ rather than political, and directed at the creation and maintenance of a certain type of ‘order’. Holmqvist turns to themes of social theory and philosophy to offer new perspectives on why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were waged in the way they were, and why the fantasy of policing wars came to resonate so widely amongst policy makers and academics alike.