Xbox One: conceived in an age of prosperity, it's the wrong console for our time

Microsoft's vision of the future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at a beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Microsoft described the new Xbox One as "a new vision for the future comes to life". I've assembled many speeches around this theme over the years, never for a games console.

Then again, there has never been a console as over-engineered as Xbox One. You operate it using a voice recognition system devised by Mircosoft's top aural engineers. You can scan menus using a new sign language developed by Microsoft's ergonomic technicians.

Microsoft is the sort of company that probably hires TV ethnographers and viewing psychologists. In the wildly chaotic living room of the Watsons, though, the will of dad still prospers. Without control of the "remote", order does not exist. With Xbox One the TV watching quacks have won the design war. The patriarchy has been deposed as we move into the new era of Microsoftocracy.

Well Microsoft, my vision of your future is a group of wildly gesticulating children and screeching voices aimed at the beautiful black box that can switch between CBeebies and CBBC in one barked order from a five year old.

Worryingly, particularly for the middle aged grumpy gamer, is that Microsoft's user experience experts have, in their words "refreshed" the "class-leading" Xbox controller with more than "40 technical and design innovations". I don't want the controller to be "refreshed". I'm used to it. It's perfect in every way. I spend more time using the old unrefreshed controller than I do driving my car. We've been on many adventures together and I don't want to trade it in for an upgraded and refreshed version. Microsoft should hire some political philosophers alongside the audience ethnographers. Edmund Burke could have told them that "change always brings certain loss and only possible gain".

Yesterday's global screencast of the launch event carried it's own pre-launch hashtag: #xboxreveal. One thing that was not revealed was the price of the new system. I'm pretty sure that we'll all want one but can we all afford it? The company has spent a lot of time bringing people closer together with the integration of Skype and improvements to the use of Xbox live for multi-player online gaming. It looks impressive and I certainly want to play with one as quickly as I can.

But the price of the "liquid black" console will be the real game changer. Microsoft has sheepishly admitted to Wired that games discs will have to be installed onto the hard drive. This strongly suggests they will create a fee regime for second hand disc purchasers. If true, it will significantly reduce games ownership in my constituency and I'm sure will create a consumer resistance to the new device that Microsoft's team of market researchers may have underestimated.

We are told to expect more news about the repertoire of available games during the E3 conference next month. Yesterday's list of games was limited, only using the unsurprising Call of Duty franchise to showcase the new kit. Microsoft promise early and new franchises. They're going to have to deliver on this if they want early sales.

Xbox One looks like the next generation of big telly gaming and viewing. Yet without knowing its' price or games catalogue, how can one judge its' value? It was conceived in a time of ever growing prosperity and no-one, not even the Microsoft pointy heads will know whether Xbox One will triumph in tough economic times.

Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times