Blogs & Comment

Consumer life and the U.S. military: irrevocably tied

It’s not just old, aerospace giants that have long and storied connections to the Pentagon. Big, new companies such as Google also have very close ties.


Photo: Owen Sweeney/Rex Features/CP

In 2009, the world’s militaries spent a combined US$1.5 trillion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or about 2.4% of the entire planet’s gross domestic product. The number has been rising quickly—it grew again in 2010 to $1.6 trillion—having increased by almost 50% since 2000.

How much of that spending does the United States account for? More than half: about $661 billion, or about 54%. The U.S. has increased its spending by a staggering 81% since 2001 and in 2010 was responsible for almost all of the growth in total global expenditure (it accounted for $19.6 billion of the $20.6 billion increase).

The next biggest spender, China, is nowhere near as close—it spends about $100 billion per year, or six times less than the U.S. Indeed, the U.S. secretly spends more on its military than most countries do openly. The Pentagon’s $50-billion-plus black budget exceeds the defence spending of the United Kingdom, Japan and France and is more than triple all of Canada’s budget.

What does it all mean? Well, the spending obviously translates into military superiority but also, in the context of my book, Sex, Bombs and Burgers, it means technological domination. The United States has only 4% of the world’s population, but spends more than half of its research and development dollars, much of which is tied to the military. According to one estimate, one third of major university faculty research has been supported by national security agencies since 1945.

The result is that consumer life in the United States, and much of the developed world for that, is irrevocably tied to military research and spending. And while we like to think this shadowy military industrial complex was at its height during the Cold War, the reality is that links between defence and industry have never been stronger. It’s not just old, aerospace giants that have long and storied connections to the Pentagon—big, new companies such as Google also have very close ties. Google Earth, Maps and Translate are just a few of the company’s services that have defence dollars at their very cores.

One great, recent example of this is Siri, Apple’s voice-controlled assistant on the iPhone 4S. Released in October, the 4S with Siri obviously came after Sex, Bombs and Burgers was written, but the military program on which the software is based is in the book. Siri came out of the Personalized Assistant that Learns research project, funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and put together to crunch the massive amounts of military intel and data being generated.

The project’s purpose was to create an intelligent piece of software that could sort through and analyze reams of data, then suggest useful courses of action. As Wired put it, it was all about developing the sort of responsive computer found on the Starship Enterprise.

A few years and some corporate investment from Apple later and voila—military technology in the palm of our hands.