Unmanned mobile devices, better known as drones, are one of the most significant ‘dark technologies’ of the 2010’s, and proceeds to reconfigure sociopolitical relations through the gesture of the remote gaze. Note that I say ‘mobile’, as opposed to ‘aerial’, as drones encompass unmanned land and water-based craft as well, but for our purposes, the flying eye has been the most visible technology in Baudrillard’s mediascape in terms of its use by the CIA in the Afghanistan/Pakistan and African theatres of operation.
To compound matters, the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act has created a milieu in which estimates are that there could be 10,000 domestic drones in use by 2020 (Bennett & Rubin). Drones are going to be one of the US’s major technology growth markets, with the devices being used in geographic, aerospace, and environmental research as well as military and law enforcement uses.
From this, a strange series of cultural disconnects are emerging as drone images become Tumblr fodder as part of the ‘New Aesthetic’ art movement via James Bridle’s Dronestagram site (Bridle), and drones proliferate through sites like DIYDrones.com and even retailer Costco. What emerges is a complex cultural landscape where a burgeoning remote air force polices the globe in the name of American power, while the images generated by them elicit a perverse visual fascination amongst certain subcultures. Furthermore, only slightly domesticated versions of these technologies are now being flown by techno-enthusiasts and children. What is developing is a complex set of relations that is abstracting power, interaction, and representation.
In March of 2012, a panel of five artists, writers, and designers presented a panel at the media festival South by Southwest entitled, “The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices” (Bridle, et al). In this panel, they stated that the aesthetics of digital vision and representation, created through algorithmically-driven imaging and devices, including generative art, Kinects, and drones, are creating a machine aesthetic signaling a distinct step in the creation of the digital image since its emergence in the 1960’s. The panel expounded upon the aesthetics of new re-presentation technologies like 3D printing as well. Keep in mind that this panel drew with a very broad brush, including everything from algorism to computer glitch media, but what has intersected with current events are robot eyes like those of drones and their cyborg sighting mechanisms that team pattern recognition with human remote operators. This panel may have faded into obscurity if it were not for Bruce Sterling’s endnote talk foregrounding the concept (Sterling).
Bridle’s creation of the Dronestagram Tumblr foregrounds the drone’s eye view or the ‘shadow’ of the drone on the landscape, as depicted by Bridle’s Drone Shadow 002 (Bridle), which was a 1:1 scale outline of a drone’s shadow in Istanbul for the 1st Istanbul Design Biennial. Other projects that highlight the gaze from and the gazing of military drones are Trevor Paglen’s Drone Vision and Omar Fast’s film, Five Thousand Feet is the Best, which tells a fictionalized encounter of a Nevada-based drone operator with an interaction between a Middle Eastern family and a group of men planting an IED. Fast makes an interesting observation in the narrative, “Seeing the world from above doesn’t just flatten things, it sharpens them. It makes relationships clearer.” (Fast) Conversely, Trevor Paglen remarks on the nature of drone vision:
“What is particularly interesting to me are the ways in which ‘seeing like a drone’ is and is not like seeing through a standard bombsight: the techno-optical regime through which conventional bombing has been conducted differs from the high-resolution full-motion video feeds that inform (and misinform) the networked bombing of late modern war. Those feeds significantly compress the imaginative distance between the air and the ground, but they do so in a highly selective fashion.” (Paglen, from Gregory)
How I see the gaze of the drone is not through relief, technological regimes, or even traditional paradigms of Mulvey’s acquisitiveness of the male gaze (Mulvey), but of a Latourian network of objects (actors) in a network (Latour) that reconfigures the definition of the viewed object that the line of flight that the drone-gaze confers. In my model, the operator-node views the ‘sighted’ object through a framing of the drone camera, part of which is controlled by pattern-acquisition algorithms. What results is an augmented ‘cyborg’ sight in which the mise en scene is given the illusion of being sharpened by the technological regime of the drone’s technological systems. It is a line of flight that travels along of three nodes in a network of gaze; the operations site, the programmatic framing node of the drone-object which then redirects the gaze to the objective, transforming it from a house, person, or loved one to a target or objective. This is the problem of the cyborg gaze of the drone.
Another read of the drone gaze can be found in James Cameron’s movie, Avatar(ibid.) In it, disabled soldier Jake Sully operates a bioengineered clone of one of the native species, the Na’vi, to infiltrate their culture. While many have likened Avatar to a criticism of the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements, I posit that Jake’s avatar, is in fact a drone in biomorphic form. The difference here is not merely the optic (and haptic) immediacy of the avatar and its less destructive mission, but the avatar’s mission to win the “hearts and minds” of the native population, similar to that of the Afghanistan conflict. The drone-dream of Avatar is experience and agency without presence, although Jake does end up ‘going native’ when his human body is killed and his soul transfers into his Na’vi body. This echoes many films in which the colonizing body becomes part of the colonized demographic after spending time with them, like Dances with Wolves. It’s safe to say that a drone pilot might not want to ‘go native’ until such a biomorphic agent is invented, but Avatar problematizes the notion of remote engagement in terms of Fast’s affective gaze of the drone and its context to human relationships in addition to Cameron’s romanticization of the avatar-drone.
The second aspect of remote engagement that Avatar brings into focus is the lack of distinction between the technologically enabled person of disability versus the able-bodied person placed into a state of paralysis by being tied to the workstation or network-connected device. In The Third Interval, (Virilio) Paul Virilio posits this liminal (dis)abled state as an effect of the technological collapse of space through networked technology, but as Raunig states, a Deleuzian line of flight and invention appropriated by the state apparatus as a tool for the institution of war. Jake becomes freed by his cyborg existence, only to be trapped by the war machine of the corporate state until he is freed by the elimination of his techno-duality. It appears that true freedom can only come from the severance from remote control and cognitive integration with the drone itself. To experience the ontology of a drone, you must become one, not merely control it. (Bogost)
“There are eyes everywhere. No blind spot left. What shall we dream of when everything becomes visible? We’ll dream of being blind.” – Paul Virilio
Setting aside the idea of becoming drones, I want to share a cognitive dissonance that I experienced at the end of 2012. While reading descriptions of the dark spectacle of “The Light of God” (what the laser homing beam used for the Hellfire missile has been called) in the Middle East, over Christmas 2013 I was horrified to see stacks of drones for sale at the local Costco (a regional US wholesale big-box chain) in a picture posted on Facebook by scholar Richard Grusin. I had been working with devices like the ARDrone for a couple years, but to see stacks of them for holiday sale was a grim fantasy made real. It is not that, as Paul Virilio said, there are just more eyes in the panoptic First World (in addition to police cameras, phones, ATM machines and the like), but these particular eyes that are being used as extensions of state power are being sold as infantilized versions at holiday retailers. The ARDrone was the early techno-adopter’s fetish of the 2012 shopping season, military technology commodified as completely as any iPad (which it uses as a controller, by the way). As Laurie Anderson said in the film, McLuhan’s Wake, “if you want to get the job done, you‘re gonna want the latest thing…”(McLaughlin, et al), and in this case, the thing is the ARDrone. Or it could be any of the products promoted by Chris Anderson’s new project, DIYDrones.com, a start-up he left WIRED Magazine in part to create.
The connecting conversation between the military Predator and our “pet” predator (i.e. the videodrone; and there is an irony that many of our pets are predators, such as dogs, cats, and ferrets) is that I was communicating with artist Art Jones in Karachi, Pakistan who was doing an art project with the US State Department. He called it The Pakistani Playlist(), where US artists would send media and links to him in Karachi as a form of intercultural dialogue. I sent links to devices like the ARDrone and videos of children playing with these infantilized versions of military technologies that were zipping around the outer tribal lands. My aim, and Jones understood this, was that technoculture and the military-industrial complex sells a dark dichotomy between remote hunter-killers abroad and sexy flying eyes at home that one woman even asked me to use to see if her landlord had successfully removed the bird nest from her rafters. How can something so fun and useful, because it’s little more than a radio-controlled plane with a camera, be that dangerous? What’s the worst that could happen, except for perhaps having your teenage son spying on the sunbathing girl next door? As a point of note, that scenario was one illustrated briefly in a PBS documentary called The Rise of the Drones.
The cultural effect of the domesticated drone is that of banalization and aestheticization of military technology and its products that elide the stark reality that the ARDrone at the Costco is not a General Atomics Predator. The swarms of synchronized quadricopters being developed at Penn State in videos on YouTube are not seen in the context of their potential applications for the violation of personal privacy. In addition, Parrot (the maker of the ARDrone) offers tools to dynamically upload your flight videos to YouTube without vetting, and another app allows you to create snazzy dance numbers by creating aerial ballets for your drone on your iPad. Those who have always dreamt of flight, like me, can now share our dreams of flight through the social nets. Given this, drone flight logs have the potential of having the banality of funny cat videos and hipster Tumblr sites, while eliding the social issues these devices raise. What is the meaning of a domestic commons when Foucault’s panoptic vision is merely intensified by the number of Virilio’s public eyes? Is the fact that public eyes are now nearly universal, justifying the installation of more of them? And who are the operators, and what is the intent of the gaze of the domestic drone? And what of the configuration of the drone as fetishized object itself, such as Antoine Catala’s objectified drone exhibition (Kirsch) or Burt Jensen’s Orvillecopter(Netburn), the merger of taxidermied cat and quadridrone?
The emergence of the drone in all its configurations, fixed-wing, quadricopter, or rover, how they represent the detached gaze and how they are depicted in the media, call into the question the ethics of remote warfare, new forms of objectification, commodification, and aestheticization of intrusive technologies and their mediated production. The use of drone strikes by the CIA around the world, the intersection of these practices through critical artmaking sectors of The New Aesthetic and its obsession with the machine eye, as well as the proliferation of domestic drones (at least in North America) show the complexities of the cultural impact of this ‘dark’ technology. Furthermore, where technology is in one place a weapon, in another a toy, and yet in another a fetishized object brings us to a complex discursive locus where the extension of military power, McLuhanist body augmentation, and cultural production are all brought into question. Where the military-industrial complex has given technological apparatuses with multivalent uses such as the Internet, drones complicate the concept of the remote eye in ways that are in no way even close to resolution.