March 26, 2014 | 6 Comments

Self-Guided Bullet (Sandia National Laboratories)

From the curators: The self-guided bullet prototype was designed by hunting enthusiasts Red Jones and Brian Kast and their colleagues at Sandia National Laboratories, a research and development subsidiary of one of the world’s largest defense contractors, Lockheed Martin. The four-inch-long dartlike bullet houses an optical sensor that detects a laser-designated target, triggering electromagnetic actuators in the bullet. These steer tiny fins that cut all spin, guiding the bullet to the target with devastating accuracy. The designers anticipate that these bullets could be produced inexpensively and rapidly, making them potentially available to the military, law enforcement, and recreational shooters. As of 2012, Sandia was looking for partners to support further testing and research in order to bring a product to the market.

I remember not long ago a heated discussion between a Mexican committee to promote Mexican gastronomy as a cultural and humane force for good, and a sadly misguided UNESCO counterpart saying Mexican food was not healthy enough. There’s a correlation between other beautiful and bountiful gastronomic places like Napoli or Palermo, their sad relation to violence, and my home state, Sinaloa. Sinaloa is, like the Italian cities invoked, a beautiful place filled with incredible food, and festive people who enjoy life and the beautiful ocean. However, it’s also the birthplace of the drug cartels in Mexico.

Sinaloa has been a major influence in the culinary explosion of my hometown of the past 26 years, the proudly ex-hyper violent city of Tijuana. Tijuana’s a place where creative civic participation has helped decrease violence, using food as one of the most important resources through which to recuperate public space. Well…perhaps I shouldn’t dwell on the connection between beauty and things that are bad for you, like a beautifully designed food dish, a bad relationship, or a beautiful smart bullet and somebody’s life.

A life of delicious meals that could incur the detriment of your health (might even kill you) is your own self-generated system activated by only you. To establish a relation between such food and a bullet—maybe the best-designed bullet ever, the smartest, the most interesting of bullets—works against the idea of free will. There’s always another being fired, or threatening to be, and it’s a system that works by fear and coercion.

So how many things had to go so wrong to instigate the development of such a sophisticated and well-designed killing object?

It’s hard not to be stimulated by the dynamic imagery of Sandia’s Self-Guided Bullet. The tracing of the air path to its target is so very connected to mapping projects that trace life, like John Snow’s Cholera map (1854); or the Architecture and Justice data from the Million Dollar Blocks project (2006); or the Protein Homology Graph (2004); or the Walrus graph visualization tool (2001); or Torolab’s Region of the Transborder Trousers (2005).

It is irresistible to compare Sandia’s ultra-slow 17-second video of the bullet separation mechanism and accuracy system to Jules Verne’s De la Terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon) (1865), in which an American gun club sends its president, an armor-making baddie, and a French poet to the Moon. It also most emphatically brings to mind Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la Lune (Voyage to the Moon) (1902), in which Professor Barbenfouillis designs another bullet-shaped rocket and shoots the moon in the eye (dans l’oeil) with the help of a group of handsome marine ladies and a giant gun.

Torolab worked on a project related to the topic of security in “America’s Safest City 2003,” San Jose, California. With all the misguidedness of Bentham’s panopticon—made famous by Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison) (1975)—we should have ended up with a surveillance project that observed that this safest of all cities had terrible problems of domestic violence. How do you really measure safety? What is the real measure of violence?

Now we are working in Tijuana’s not only poorest, but also most violent, neighborhood—the area that sends more people to jail for violent crimes than any other. It comprises 42,000 people. Our “smart bullet design” for this place came in the form of a Farmlab that produces knowledge, food, and jobs in information technologies, but we lack the business savvy of the good people of Lockheed Martin.

In the past, science fiction put man in peril through misguided conjunctions of humanity, behavior, and politics (Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke.) The Cyberpunks used technology designed to enhance quality of life to put the peril back into humanity’s existence (Philip K. Dick, William Gibson.) Ejival (a member of our collective) refers to this binary as an echo of a universal dynamic of self-destruction, where the design of a super-antibiotic generates super-bacteria that destroy humanity’s health.

Juan Carlos (another Torolab member) was reminded of playing Unreal Tournament, a first-person shooter video game in which a fun feature pits a player with the ability to use a guided missile system against other players in a gigantic arena. It’s a terrifying thing when you can be hunted by an unreachable predator who is tireless, sees you, and doesn’t miss—like the hounds of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Why design something that, instead of building paths of safety in absolutely horrible situations, like Hassani’s Mine Kafon, does the opposite? Sandia’s answer to safety is to design an intelligent, even smart object that, if used, can not only coerce somebody into submission but—if really used properly—can kill.

A solution to violence is a bit like if H. P. Lovecraft fans campaigned on the last two federal elections in the U.S. (they should have done it, more appropriately, in Mex-Fed Elections) on behalf of the mighty cosmic entity Cthulhu, with the campaign slogan, “Why vote for a lesser evil?”

Einstein said a lot about the danger of the Second World War being fought with A-bombs, and mentioned that he didn’t know what the third world war would be fought with (maybe, Sandia’s Self-Guided Bullets?), but he said with certainty that the fourth will be fought with rocks.


Is death more terrifyingly inevitable for the hunted?

  1. March 27, 2014, 9:25 pm



    This little piece of metal manages to blend the best of our nature and the worst of our nature, with deadly results.

  2. March 28, 2014, 11:43 pm


    poverty and violence

    The Farmlab goes straight to the core of the concept of violence, as stated by Gandhi: “poverty is the worst form of violence”.

  3. April 2, 2014, 2:51 am


    The manufacturers

    Death should be equally terrifying for the manufacturers of weapons, the people and corporations who benefit from armed conflicts and that laugh all the way to the bank.

  4. April 9, 2014, 9:02 pm


    So, basically, I think the gist of Torolab’s rambling essay is that it doesn’t make sense for someone to apply their considerable expertise and resources to developing a better tool of violence when they could have developed a better tool of, like, non-violence; something constructive. At least that’s what I got out of it.

    The problem with this argument is that violence, and tools for violence, are amoral. Violence, in and of itself, is not inherently wrong. Hitting a person just to hurt them is wrong. Hitting a person to stop them from hitting someone else just to hurt them is right. So a better bullet can be used for better good or for better bad.

    If someone was holding a knife to a kid’s throat, a wicked accurate bullet would suddenly seem like a pretty great idea.

  5. April 12, 2014, 1:14 am


    Wouldn’t it be awesome if the purpose of this technology was diverted? If instead of shooting a bullet aiming to kill, it could shoot a post-it with an anonymous love note…Maybe my solution is corny, but there must be a force of counteraction as long as human and natural resources continue to be spent on developing objects that create division.

  6. June 18, 2014, 10:50 am

    […] Design and violence […]