What does it mean to think of drones as culture? If culture is the range of social practices through which we come to understand and engage in our shared world, then drone cultures might be the myriad ways in which drones are embedded into our everyday lives as well as our fantasies about what kinds of lives that drones make. In this short piece I consider how ideas about drone life have made their way into conversations regarding technology, privacy, civil militarization, surveillance, violence, ethics and ultimately, the question of our shared humanity. To do so I briefly explore how, over the past decade, drone cultures have been discussed and written about by scholars, journalists, artists, makers, users and activists. My suggestion is that by tracing the ways in which drones are rooted in cultural practice, we learn something unique about what drones mean to our current social and political moment.
In his text Drone, Adam Rothstein ponders what we talk about when we talk about drones: are they physical objects, technological inventions, existential projections?. Drones are, of course, all of these things and more. One way of parsing the drone, Rothstein suggests, is as the sum of the narratives that we use to describe it. The drone is, he claims, “the way that we work with, think about, and respond to technology”. Drones cultures, then, are the ways in which our complex relationships to drone technologies are materially produced and animated: even to narrate a story of the drone is to bring it to life. Bloomberg offers a reading of the drone as a “constellation” or assemblage of historical and political statements that energize our contemporary assumptions about social labor, politics and bodies. To approach the drone through the lens of narrative is a provocative premise because it ties the story of a technology to the story of what it means to be human. This is one understanding of drone culture – a set of propositions that express the intimacies between technologies and our social and political lives.
Writers and thinkers have utilized a number of different methods to explore these relationships. Rothstein proposes a “drone ethnography” that draws on the techniques of observation, field study, and documentation common to practices of social ethnography but also to routines of drone technologies. The web-based activity of “drone-spotting”, for example, can be easily accomplished by programming a Google daily alert, an analytic tool based on mechanisms of data sorting that are redolent, albeit less technically sophisticated, of applications for big data analysis such as that proposed by the Pentagon’s new “Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team” (AWCFT). An ethnographic approach to the study of drone cultures is compelling because it considers the drone as both an object of technology and a subject of human invention. As an investigative method, ethnography involves the study of experience from the point of view of the study subject – hence the importance of embeddeness and fieldwork. But what is the point of view of the drone and what stories of experience does it tell?
“There are many drone cultures, and many drone stories to tell”. So write Coley and Lockwood who, with their edited scholarly collection, bring together a number of internationally based interlocutors to explore the “middleness” between the drone as a technical object and those who are its social and political subjects. Jablonowski, for instance, takes the reader into the “maker culture lifeworlds” of DIY drones. He draws on sociologist John Law’s notion of “aircraft stories” to analyze a fascinating set of data collected during ethnographic interviews conducted with DIY drone makers. From these drone stories Jablonowski interpellates a perspective on drone culture in which the technological, the civilian and military collide to produce contradictory and sometimes ambivalent desires. “By re-telling the differing and contradictory drone stories circulating in the media, science, popular culture, and everyday lifeworlds”, he writes, the singular narrative of the drone is transformed into one of plural understanding. Such a perspective drives the work of the Bard Centre for the Study of the Drone whose research provides a forum for scholarly and public debate about the opportunities and challenges posed by drone technologies. In this short discussion, I aim for this plural approach by offering the following framing premises – affect and iconography – that capture just two of the many dimensions of drone cultures.
Drones provoke emotion. Such a statement might seem banal in the face of the passions that drones arouse, both from their detractors and advocates. If affect is the bodily sensation that arises before thought gives shape to emotional experience, then we might think of drone affects as the range of narratives that animate our emotional attachments to drone technologies. A quick survey of terms used to describe drones in the media illustrates this point: they are variously referred to as “Orwellian devices”, “Killer Robots”, or the harbingers of a “dystopian future” characterized by forms of extreme violence and asymmetrical governance. In his 2012 piece for the Washington Post, cultural commentator Eugene Robinson proclaims that, “the age of the drone has arrived” – a phrasing which foretells a new world order of unforeseen dimensions. This worry is reflected in the many pop culture representations of the drone as hunter/killer (Wiki lists over 40 films in the past 5 years alone) and as the terrifying coalescence of human and machine (Star Trek “Borg”, The Matrix (1999) and Terminator (1984) franchises).
On the other side of this conversation are perspectives such as those shared by Washington Post innovations contributor Dominic Basulto who argues that America’s “collective drone paranoia” stymies innovation and leadership in what promises to be a multi-billion dollar global industry. What scares Basulto is not the threat of drone domination but rather the production and circulation of a collective drone “paranoia” that impedes innovation and progress. The cultural outlook here is of human invention rather than machine intervention. Supporters of drone applications intended to lessen and even remedy negative human impacts on the natural world share this perspective. In a 2016 issue of IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Prachi Patel reports on changes to US federal aviation law that make it easier for farmers to use drones for agricultural applications, a market which could garner up to 80% of commercial drone use in the country. “By using drones to scout for weeds and pests, spot diseased plants or dry areas, and spray the right amount of fertilizer and pesticide”, Patel writes, “farmers can increase yield with less resources and environmental harm”. More profit to the industries (both agricultural and drone) and less cost to the planet, is the drone narrative expressed here. Other instances of commercial drone applications adapted for the social good can be readily found (see www.conservationdrones.org and this report about the use of drones to surveil workplace violations in the construction industry). Despite the lauding of such applications by their proponents, there is a widely held public mistrust about the integration of drone technologies into daily life. While concerns about regulation, privacy, state power and ethics are part of this skepticism, there is a powerful drone iconography that underlies this sense of unease, a cultural phenomenon that I explore next.
In his text A Theory of the Drone, French philosopher Grègoire Chamayou prefaces his remarks on the relation between surveillance and annihilation with a reproduction of a 17th century wood cut from a book on alchemy.
The image depicts an unblinking eye hovering in the sky over a built landscape. The Latin text Quo modo Deum – “this is the way of God” – suggests the judgment of an all knowing and all seeing celestial subjectivity. A more recent translation of this imagery appears on the US $1 bill. Designed in 1782 by Charles Thomson, the reverse side of The Great Seal of the United States features a version of the eye alongside the phrase Annuit Coeptis – “providence has favored our undertakings”. The Great Seal binds the Eye of Providence to the development of economic might and the project of US nation building. The iconography functions as a kind of Foucauldian panopticon through which divine sovereignty is internalized in the citizenry. Panotpical regimes of visuality are also characteristic of military drone technologies, as evidenced in this remark made by Colonel Theodore Osowski, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis Airforce Base in Nevada, who describes the presence of drones in battle as “…kind of like having God overhead. And lightening comes down in the form of a Hellfire”. In Osowski’s example God is the drone that sees all, but the gaze is anything but benevolent – indeed, with the right purpose and target sovereignty is delivered in the form of a Hellfire missile. U.S. based contemporary artist James Bridle whose piece, The Light of God (2012), is inspired by the laser targeting technology used by drone operators, comments on this scopic relation between sovereignty, aesthetics and killing. Indeed, the language used to describe and market military drone technologies both draws on and produces just such an aesthetics of violence. Consider the US military’s Gorgon Stare persistent wide-area airborne surveillance system (WASS) . Developed by the Sierra Nevada Corporation, it consists of a spherical array of 9 cameras that, when attached to a Reaper drone, are capable of capturing the motion imagery of an entire city.
“Oculus Semper Vigilans” reads the Latin inscription – “always watchful eye” – a phrasing redolent of the Greek Gorgon Medusa’s mythic power to turn those who witness her visage into stone. Another metaphor that aligns killing power with drone technologies is the expression, used by air force troops to refer to WASS enabled attacks on suspected insurgents, of “putting warheads on foreheads”. Taken up and repackaged in a commercial context, the sale of garments and military patches featuring the slogan both represent and reproduce a particular culture of military masculinity that marks fraternal belonging as “necropolitics” (Mbembe) – an identification with the “power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die”. This too, is drone culture.
Such examples of drone iconography are not merely symbolic; rather they point to an argument made by critical theorist Benjamin Noyes who suggests that the drone “constitutively exceeds its ‘function’ as a mere surveillance and killing machine, engaging with metaphysical questions of sight, power and the forms of the human”. Drones press our understanding of what it means to be human, to ask what it is that constitutes life as well as the ethics of the technologies that we have designed to take it. Nevertheless, Noyes warns of a kind of “techno-fetishism” that results in the “inflation of the technical object into something that horrifies and fascinates, electing it out of history and into a natural or metaphysical realm”. So while drone iconographies carry powerful affects, one’s capacity to think with those responses is important to producing a critically grounded understanding of how drones produce cultural practice, both currently and historically. Cormac Dean touches on this point in his exploration of the political, historical, legal and aesthetic dimensions of the military control room so iconic to debates about the interface between the human and the technological. Using an approach he dubs a “media archeology”, Dean’s argument is that the filmic history of the control room cannot be separated from “evolutions in computing, warfare, information theory, law, geopolitics and consumer products”, so that to study one is to study them all. It is studies such as these that align with Noye’s provocation to consider how myth and materiality come together in drone life and death-worlds and the imperative to explore these tensions as social and not merely theoretical conditions.
This discussion has articulated several examples of what I am calling drone cultures – the ways in which our understandings of, and attachments to, drone technologies can be narrated as instances of social life. There are many other drone stories to tell. Chamayou, for instance, considers the asymmetrical intimacy of drone violence exemplified by the operational dynamic of military drones in which the drone “operator will never see his victim seeing him do what he does to him”. There is also the story of civil militarization – of how drones and other military technologies pervade civilian spaces under the name of state sovereignty. Consider Coley and Lockwood’s analysis of the history of “bomber country” in Lincolnshire UK, a community that, during World War II, played host to the production of hundreds of Lancaster bomber aircraft and currently provides a home base for remotely piloted drone operations. In Coley and Lockwood’s example it is not just geographical space that has been militarized, but also the communities that support such industries with their labor and cultural life. There are plenty of other examples of the ways in which military technologies seep into civilian contexts, such as the exemption, granted in January of 2015 by the Federal Aviation Administration, to real estate companies who wish to use quadcopters to augment real estate listings. Mark Neocleous suggests that the concept of the civilian or of civilian spaces is an artifact no longer relevant in the present conditions of “everywhere war” in which “war and police are always already together”. Artists are particularly adept interpreters of the ways in which drone technologies have become an intricate part of cultural life. Rosane and Rothstein’s Murmuration Festival – an online archive of works of art and fiction that respond to drone technologies – draws on a Bakhtinian notion of the carnivalesque to consider how creative expression holds the space for critical commentary. Their words are a fitting conclusion to this short exploration of the various narratives that both produce and reflect the cultural lives of drones. “Art and fiction”, the curators suggest,
…are not arguments with which we are meant to agree or disagree. They paint a landscape of impressions, from which questions rise, like birds (or drones) into the air. What all these pieces of culture share is a serious engagement with the idea and implications of the drone.