Surveillance Never Sleeps | 2. Dreaming with Drones

Theorizing 21c

Surveillance Never Sleeps

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker


2

Dreaming with Drones

When the Sky Grew a Warlike Eye

More than ever, real power in the twenty-first century is space-bound–globalized, atmospheric, instantaneous. It is not that time has disappeared, but that the medium of time itself has been everywhere reduced, reconfigured and subordinated to the language of spatialization. That is the meaning of “real-time” as part of the contemporary language of power–time itself as an otherwise empty, locative coordinate in the spatial networks of communication surrounding us. But if that is the case, if, indeed, power has taken to the air, literally taken flight with the technological capacity provided by drones to turn the sky into a warlike eye, that would also indicate that the grasp of power on the time of duration, the lived time of territorial and bodily inscription, has perhaps been terminally weakened. When the sky has been transformed into a liquid eye of power–monitoring, watching, archiving visual data for storage in distant archives–with target acquisition and weaponized drone strikes as its military tools of choice, the greater complexity and intricate materialism of time escapes its grasp.

Think perhaps of a distant future when empires, following the usual cycle of rise and decay, crumble to dusty memories, when a collapsed social economy produces an angry mass of dispossessed citizens in the otherwise empty streets, when even borders are abandoned in the global rush for scarce resources, and when all that is likely to be left may be those airborne fleets of now fully automated drones, long forgotten by their ground command, but still, for all that, circling the sky on the hunt for humans. At that point, some historian of the technological past may well begin to reflect on what exactly was released in the domestic atmosphere when the drones came home: a technologically augmented surveillance system under strict political supervision, or something different. That is, the giving of sky life to a new species of being–being drone–with a score to settle against its human inventors and, over time, the capabilities to do something about it. In this time, above all times, a time in which we can finally appreciate what is to be gained and lost–what is utopian and what dystopian–concerning the technological devices we have engineered into existence, it may be well to remember that the story of technology has never really lost its entanglement with questions of religion, mythology, and politics.

Signs of the practical entwinement of technology and mythology are everywhere now as early warnings of what is yet to come–namely, that while the contemporary language of technology might have excluded its origins in myths of nemesis and hubris, what drone technology may actually deliver in the future as its most terminal payload will be the return of mythic destiny as the hauntology of the sublime order of technology. Consider, for example, the following stories about the world of drone warfare: “Drone Kamikazes in the California Sun” and “Hydra Awakened.”

Drone Kamikazes in the California Sun

Recently, there was a serious naval “incident” off the coast of Southern California, involving an American Ticonderoga guided missile cruiser, the USS Chancellorsville, and a supposedly errant BMQ-74 target drone.

It seems that one clear Pacific day, after the drone was launched for target practice, it suddenly wheeled around, ceased software communication with shipboard command-and-control, and promptly went into full assault mode in an unexpected and perhaps first of the twenty-first-century kamikaze attacks on a battle-ready cruiser. While the navy at first reported only minor damage, later accounts confirmed not only thirty million dollars in damage to the cruiser but, equally significantly, that the drone inflicted serious, target-specific harm to the state-of-the art Aegis Combat System–the technical essence of the cruiser’s sophisticated electronic warfare systems. The consequence–one lethal drone, one broken down guided missile cruiser, and a lot of bruised navy pride.

While online chatter has focused on the lack of readiness of the guided missile cruiser to shoot down errant drones by “moding up” to Ready Status onboard guns, no one has asked why the drone suddenly broke ranks with its navy cohort, did a quick field-reversal in the sky, instantly resignified itself from passive target to aggressive predator, and swooped down like a bird of prey on its mothership. While naval authorities are reduced to speaking about “malfunctions” and “accidents,” it seems that they have not considered the historical, and then mythological, nature of the event. Historically, it may well be that the actions of the drone in attacking the missile cruiser were already hinted at by the very name of the ship, the USS Chancellorsville. Like the army before it, the US navy often adopts the names of defeated enemies and famous battles from the Civil War onwards as ways of both honoring military history and perhaps conjuring up the courage of former enemies and martial memories of distant battles as ways of strengthening itself. Chancellorsville is the name of an important Civil War battle that involved Confederate soldiers led by General Robert E. Lee moving against a larger Union army under the command of General Joseph (“Fighting Joe”) Hooker. This battle, which was won by the Confederacy, entered the annals of Civil War fame because Lee was ultimately victorious by employing the original and certainly daring tactic of suddenly dividing his forces, moving one wing, led by General Stonewall Jackson, undetected in the dead of night across the front of a much-larger Union army. Breaking with the traditional practice of maintaining cohesive, single-force strength when confronted with a superior foe, Lee’s military genius was to stake everything on his deeply intuitive knowledge of Hooker’s personal psychology–“Fighting Joe” Hooker’s actual timidity and, in effect, lack of preparation for the unexpected. And what could be more unexpected than to march your Confederate army undetected in the midnight darkness laterally across the defended front of the superior-sized, yet oblivious, Union army?

While drones have probably not, as yet, been programmed with Civil War history, in this posthuman age where objects are increasingly viewed as possessing agency, drones may have already been invested with affectivity–machines with an attitude. Given the fast, objective evolution of drone technology from passive prosthetic to augmented aerial machines equipped with artificial intelligence, powerful missiles, laser vision, and recombinant memories, drones may also now be on the verge of actually achieving elements of real subjectivity, nesting within their software logic the all-too-familiar instinctual impulses of revenge, mistrust, and resentment. Viewed through the prism of Civil War history, with its equal measures of murderous violence and tragic sacrifice, the drones of the USS Chancellorsville have possibly, in some entirely strange and certainly unexpected way, sought to remake themselves as contemporary, technological versions of Civil War reenactors. Not so much like the tragically minded Civil War buffs that almost obsessively haunt annual reinvocations of the sacrificial violence that was the Civil War, but something very different and, in fact, dangerous. Perhaps in the case of the USS Chancellorsville, its BMQ-74 drones somehow absorbed, magically, almost atmospherically, the energies of its famous battle name. Stealing a strategic march from the always creatively daring logic of Robert E. Lee, this drone actually reenacted on the Pacific shores of southern California precisely the same gambit that allowed the Confederacy against all odds to win the day at Chancellorsville. When the missile cruiser launched its target drones for a routine battle-readiness drill, it probably never suspected that it was, however inadvertently and unintentionally, reenacting the original battle of Chancellorsville, except this time not in Spotsylvania, Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century but just off the port of San Diego in the twenty-first century. Taking their cue from General Lee, these latter-day Confederate drones split their forces in the face of a superior opposition, the missile cruiser and its AEGIS system. While some drones continued on their terminal flight as flying targets for all the onboard telemetry, the most creatively daring of the drones did to the USS Chancellorsville precisely what Lee had earlier done to Hooker–namely, it split off from its normal targeting routines and swooped down on the cruiser itself in an unexpected stealth attack.

As to why a drone might do such a thing, we might want to consider the real lesson of object-oriented ontology: that is, not only are objects today rightfully conceived as possessing affectivity–trees with feelings, devices that sense, mobiles that connect–but there exist digital devices necessarily capable of absorbing a whole range of human passions, from the utopian beliefs of the “new materialism” to what seems to be the dystopia of drones invested with a lot of anger and perhaps just a bitter touch of revenge-taking. In this scenario, like all other technologies, the all-too-human will to power that is built into drones–drones that bomb, spy, irradiate–always follows this basic rule of (robotic) law. Taking seriously its appellation as an “unmanned aerial vehicle,” it becomes, in the case of the USS Chancellorsville, a massively lethal technology that finally lives up to its name–certainly not as an obedient and passive member of the programmed target pack, but, as the BMQ-74 drone, truly unmanned in its intentions. That’s the significance of its precise attack on the communications command room–it scopes out its enemy for its point of maximal weakness, does instant target-acquisition, pierces the side of the command module and explodes with all the violence that a thirteen-foot drone can do. It is certainly not for nothing that other, perhaps more battle-wise American sailors have reported that, on previous excursions in the Persian Gulf, they always kept their shipboard guns on ready-status and that, in fact, many of their weapons were painted with symbols of drones kills, some of which seemed intent, like the kamikaze drones in the California sun, on doing terminal damage to their homeland ship. Maybe, then, not just machines with an attitude, but machines with deliberately perverse intentions and time-hallowed military logic. Perhaps what just happened is that that the second battle of Chancellorsville has been reenacted with the exact same result, this time the guided missile carrier playing the hapless role of General Hooker, with the BMQ-74 drone absorbing into its putatively mechanical self all the military valour, always breaking the rules logic, and daring do that which was the hallmark of General Lee. Except, of course, this time, reflective of the purely technological destiny of military logic, the whole incident was played out with a naval target drone as the unlikely Confederate reenactor.

But in the way of all complex intersections of technology, mythology, and psychology, the conclusion of this fateful story is still to be determined. While the Confederacy gained a tactical victory at Chancellorsville by virtue of General Lee’s daring gamble, the battle was in the end a strategic defeat for the armies of the South. It was in this battle, after all, that Stonewall Jackson was accidentally killed by one of his own soldiers who mistook him for Union cavalry. In the future, who can know with any certainty what will unfold with drones possessing subjectivity. Following science fiction, will drones rise up in merciless, mechanical revenge against their human creators? Or will something else happen? Will the story of affective drones repeat the lessons of human mythology, on account of which they were invented in the first instance and the memory of which will undoubtedly haunt them long after the disappearance of the human remainder? That is, will the future epoch of drones, like the history of humanity before it, also be characterized by bouts of radiant, positivistic power mixed with accidents, futility, caprice, and the furies of enigmatic uncertainty?

Hydra Reawakened

“In our lifetime, what was [in effect] land and prohibitive to navigate or explore, is becoming ocean, and we’d better understand it,” noted Admiral Greenbert. “We need to be sure that our sensors, weapons and people are proficient in this part of the world [so that we can] own the undersea domain and get anywhere there.” [1]

Is it possible that classical Greek mythology will finally find its practical realization in contemporary history by way of advanced military innovation? That, at least, is the hope of the US navy, as evidenced by the recent DARPA solicitation for innovative design proposals for a program named Hydra, which is aimed at creating permanent, unmanned, underwater platforms in all the oceans of the world populated by drones within drones. Media reports included the following:

DARPA goes deep: New Hydra project to see underwater drones deploying drones.

The sky is no longer the limit for US drone warfare, with secret military research agency DARPA considering a conquest of the seven seas with an underwater drone carrier.

. . .

“The Hydra program will develop and demonstrate an unmanned undersea system, providing a novel delivery mechanism for insertion of unmanned air and underwater vehicles into operational environments,” says the Hydra Proposers’ Day website.

. . .

In broader terms, the Hydra project implies building an underwater drone fleet to ensure surveillance, logistics and offensive capabilities at any time globally, throughout the world’s oceans, including shallow waters and probably any river deltas or systems. [2]

Drones within drones, upward falling payloads, an unmanned undersea system: the future of drone warfare as envisioned by DARPA migrates the question of the unmanned from its previous station in targeted aerial surveillance to the depths of the seven seas. Here, it is no longer flocks of drones hovering in the sky, but something else–unmanned, underwater motherships equipped with drones within drones, some as troop transports, others as transport vehicles for armaments and supplies, all lying in wait, just offshore, just under the seas, waiting to instantly respond to insurrections, rebellions, disturbances.

While, from one viewpoint, this vision of repurposing the oceans for drone warfare provides another example of technological hubris combined with the US military’s proclaimed ideological commitment to “global projection of power,” from another perspective, it also contains a Heideggerian aporia. For Heidegger, the mobilization of the seven seas on behalf of a global system of command-and-control is part of the technical drive towards reducing nature and humanity to the status of the “standing-reserve”–the seven seas held in reserve, that is, for an innovative process of technological ordering with its “upwardly falling payloads,” “drones within drones,” and “underwater drone carriers.” With one difference, however: almost as if perfectly symptomatic of profound, nagging anxiety about the eventual failure of the project in the face of a greater, as yet unknown, force, the very mythic name of the Hydra program announces in advance the most critical weakness of the initiative. After all, in classical Greek mythology, the figure of Hydra, this “serpent-like monster with two heads,” evokes a larger mythological fable that is replete with moral complexity and martial ambiguity.

Mythically, the Hydra is always figured in relation to Heracles, the heroic representative of fallen divinity who, in order to win back his immortality after killing his own wife and children, is forced to undertake twelve difficult labors, involving, among others, slaying the Nemean Lion and capturing the Erymathean Boar, the Cretan Bull, and Cerberus, with its three heads of a wild dog, tail of a dragon, and snakes emerging from its back. Yet perhaps the most challenging of Hercales’s tasks was overcoming the monstrous figure of the Hydra who, with its ability to effortlessly regrow many new heads, guarded the swamps of Lerna, beneath which lay the entrance to the underworld. The mythic force of the Hydra has to do with representing a fierce entanglement that only grows more difficult and complex with any and all attempts to overcome it. In the end, the Hydra was ultimately defeated by Heracles’s brilliant tactic of cauterizing the severed heads one by one, thus eliminating the flow of blood and the generation of new heads. The lesson of the myth is that the Hydra, this watery defender of the underworld, is as weak as it is ferocious, an obstacle that can be overcome in practice by a skilled, creative, and courageous warrior such as Heracles.

Consequently, while the US military’s Hydra program may well culminate in interesting designs for an underwater world populated by drones within drones, it offers no solution to the real problem, which is, in its essence, mythological–the always certain appearance of counter-power, of counter-resistance to sovereign claims of “ownership of the undersea domain” in the form of the new Heracles: a heroic figure–perhaps from the present, perhaps from the future–with a name of no importance and from a country of no significance, who can only win back political immortality by overcoming the new Hydra of the underwater drone.

Unfortunately, while the resolution of the problem of Heracles might have been left in suspension by an act of technological indifference, naming a project Hydra has about it all the signs of mythic necessity, posing a challenge to the sleeping powers of the long-neglected pagan gods of classical antiquity. Known now by the continuous appearance of the mythic signs of necessity, nemesis, hubris, and revenge, the spirits of those pagan gods have never really been at a distant remove from the technological scene, and certainly have never been anything less than the essence, particularly if unrecognized, of political experience. While minds more attentive to the continuing mediation of the language of the pagan gods and the spectacular drives of technological hubris might enter a word of caution against carelessly conjuring up the forgotten spirit of the gods (particularly by formally inscribing their sacred names in the chronicles of contemporary history), it must be admitted that it is part of the unfolding truth of the most brash of the newest posthuman gods–the language of technological mastery–to issue a challenge to the death against the gods of classical antiquity.

Who knows really whether the power of Zeus, the jealous love of Hera, or the remorse of Heracles have heard the voice of this newest pretender to divinity? Like the original Hydra, this drone project sets out to guard the entrance to the underworld, no longer under the mythological swamps of Lerna, but within the watery labyrinth of the seven seas. Also, like the Hydra of classical mythology, this daring military innovation uses precisely the same tactic to propagate drones within drones–heads within heads–as a way of guarding itself against an enemy seeking to sever the only head of a multiplicity of heads that counts–the single, undetectable head of the Hydra that is immortal. Of course, in the transition from classical mythology to the new real of drone technology, the contemporary Hydra, lacking any plausible pretensions to immortality, begins the game of war with an immediate disadvantage. Now we know from the military’s call for proposals that the underwater drone project is intended to operate in the real-time environment common to both the contemporary moment and, it should be noted, classical antiquity–insurrections, rebellions, civil strife, revenge-seeking suicide missions. Like the immortal Hydra, the underwater drone platform lies in wait, thus ceasing to be so much an instrument of spatial domination of the skies as a lethal weapon willing to engage temporally those courageous, or perhaps foolish, enough to gain entry to the underground. A time-biased technology operating in the liquid environment of the seven seas, this newest iteration of the myth of Hydra knows only that its weaponry of choice must of necessity be that of deception, subterfuge, and secrecy. Hiding in the depths of the oceans, revealing itself only when engaged in aggressive military strikes, the drones within drones that are the essence of the Hydra program adopt the languages of temporality as their own: a waiting game of infinite patience with secret locations, illusions of identity, and hidden purposes. While drones hovering in the clear-blue sky might communicate a message of terror by their very appearance, drones secreted within the seven seas communicate a different order of meaning altogether.

The Drones of War

Perhaps nothing symbolizes so well the movement of power–from visibility to invisibility, from the imminent to the remote, from the language of discipline to that of a politics of control–than drone technology. Understood as a metaphor of power, drone technology represents the migration of power from something vested in the territorial claims of sovereign nations to the space-extending ambitions of trans-sovereign empires for which only the projection of power has political currency. Understood as a metonymy of power, drone technology is energized by the fact that, while it rides the imperial wave of the invisible, the remote, the monitor, its actual political effects are always highly visible, deadly intimate, and purely chaotic in terms of their impact upon targeted tribes, clans, families, communities, and individuals. Consequently, neither a pure metaphor nor an irredentist metonym, the power of drone technology rests structurally in its ultimately semiotic status as a violent, flickering signifier from the sky, an indeterminate point of mediation between invisible force and targeted visibility, remote commands, and highly tactile results, unmanned control, and social chaos.

Indeed, the fact that drone technology enters so easily and pervasively into contemporary public debate may be because there is something about the image of hovering drones–in all their invisibility, remoteness, and artificial control–that actually touches on, and is perhaps even emblematic of, an already widespread anxiety in the posthuman condition. In this case, what we see in those images of Predator and Reaper drones in far-off lands, these almost post-apocalyptic scenes of violent power projected across the skin of the planet by way of electronic pulses sent from remote command-and-control locations, may actually bring to the surface of individual visibility what we already experience in our unconscious and more often than not unarticulated feelings as that which is most primal, and for that reason most uncertain, about the character of our necessarily shared political condition. Certainly, we can recognize that, as citizens of the privileged centers of neoliberalism, our political fate has, for the most part, already been structurally figured in advance. When imperial violence takes the form of unexpected and unpredictable blasts from the air, when imperial power depends for its very existence on subjecting dominated populations to a form of cynical power that operates like a murderous flickering signifier–invisible yet risible, remote yet intimate, controlling in its logic yet chaotic in its effects–then we too can recognize something not particularly alien to our experience yet deeply familiar. It is as if the massive deployment of drone technology by the permanent war machine represents an accelerated test-bed for a new form of political ethics yet to emerge, one deeply attuned to the language of weapons of invisibility, death-matrices by remote command, and power at that point where it becomes something less terrestrial than purely atmospheric, something as intimately present as it is technologically suffocating.

When the drones of war are tested in foreign lands, we can perhaps comfort ourselves with the moral illusion that politics today neatly divides into a more primary distinction between friends and enemies and that the boundary points for such a division can be identified by the signs of citizenship, religion, ethnicity, race. While such ready-to-hand distinctions have the grisly political benefit of ethically dividing the world into a sacrificial table of values upon which will soon be arranged those to be violated as the unlawful alien, the scapegoat, the terrorist, the enemy non-combatant, the stranger, they also have the strong moral appeal of rendering any and all violations of the norms of social justice ethically justifiable. Those not structurally determined in advance as the outsider–from the alien to the stranger–will probably never know what it means to inhabit a body, a race, a family, a clan, a tribe, or a society that will never be honored with the most elementary rights of human recognition and reciprocity–the right to be mourned, the right to grieve. While media communiqu├ęs about new drone strikes in Asia and Africa are usually figured in the deliberately sanitized and entirely nebulous language of the war on terror, these reports on the conditions of the new security state often provoke not a ripple of discontent precisely because they work to confirm an ethically striated vision of the contemporary political condition that we long ago interiorized as our own. Of course, having acquiesced either consciously or by a silent proxy in the privileges to be gained by linking our fate to the ethical exclusions necessary to the self-preservation of power, there remains just the tangible hint of a doubt that someday the moral cycle of accidental divisions and ethical cynicism represented in all its ferocity by the drones of war will run its full course.

Perhaps they already have. Perhaps the political use of drone technology to terrorize often-defenseless populations rests on a prior moral blast that already obliterated much of the traditional language of human reciprocity and recognition. More than we may suspect, we are already dreaming with drones. Dazzled by this spectacular projection of technology that advances the space-control of empire against time-bound forms of terrestrial resistance and, perhaps, in consequence, numbed by the silent ethical compact that authorizes lethal violence from the air, we may have already naturalized something resembling drone subjectivity as our very own interior habitus. But, if this were the case, then it would only be churlish to later claim that we did not have at least a premonition of our own approaching extinction-event when the drones come home. In this sense, what is actually being tested in far-off foreign territories may not be, in the end, the purely technical abilities of drone technology as instruments of war, but pilot projects for the use of drones at home. When power turns inward as it always does, when that which has been done by power to those determined to be beyond the rites of grieving and mourning finally turns on us as the new ungrievable, the definitely unmournable, then we should not be surprised. As the last and best of all the cynical signs, drone subjects have long been nurtured in the language of moral equivocation: subjects of use and abuse, subjects of control and chaos, subjects remote even to themselves in their most intimate moments. With this perfectly equivocal result, when drone technology tracks back to its country of (technological) origin, when drones become an important dimension of the language of the new real, what the consequences will be are still unknown, still emerging. Yet we do know this: the contemporary situation oscillates today between scenes of “Bounty on Drones” and the present and future specter of “Drones Hunting Humans.”

Bounty on Drones

In the United States, The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) recently issued a formal warning to cease and desist to the residents of Deer Field, a rural community in Colorado that was considering a proposal to issue a bounty on drones:

“Under the proposed ordinance, Deer Field would grant hunting permits to shoot drones. The permits would cost $25 each. The town would also encourage drone hunting by awarding $100 to anyone who presents a valid hunting license and identifiable pieces of a drone that has been shot down.” [3]

So then, a perfect reincarnation of the spirit of the Wild West in the early years of the posthuman condition. Not settling for legal niceties and certainly not yielding quietly to official power, some citizens of Deer Field want to do what gun-toting trail blazers of the old west have always done before them: take to the new surveillance trails of the sky in order to bag a hovering drone. This leads to the question: What happens when the drones finally do come home? Not as super-tech augmented, sky-bound survivors of hard fought battles in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, but drones making their first appearance in their homeland as a new form of heightened state security–only this time, a state security framed less as a scattering of insurgent rebellions in the far-off global reaches of the empire of neo-liberalism than as returning drones pressed into service again as the front (aerial) line in the surveillance of domestic populations. Will this be the first symptomatic sign that the power of the new security state, having fine-tuned its apparatus of control in the war on terror, is finally prepared to colonize its own population?

Or perhaps something else: not the new security state filled with drones solely in passive submission to its strategic aims, but a present and future time populated by drones replete with a multiplicity of commercial purposes–unmanned media photography; drones for the surveillance of wildlife, crops, and storm damage; long-distance rescue drones in otherwise inaccessible harsh environments; knowledge-based drones for long distance, real-time education. While the commercial repurposing of drones is indeterminate–limited at first really only by the human imagination, one thing is certain: when the drones come home, the future is likely to be stellar grid-lock, with the sky the limit for the sudden extension of human commerce. A future filled then with many accidents in the air, near collisions as drones speeding along on their different missions forget to keep watch on their unmanned neighbors and, of course, the inevitable–long lines of stalled, sky-bound traffic, impatiently spinning their algorithmic wheels, probably getting into hot coded disputes with quick terminations of flight high on the probability charts. In this scenario, the skies of tomorrow are the expressways of today: studies in immobility with patience at the limits of its endurance.

With this difference: taking advances in ubiquitous computing and relational processing to its extremes, there are undoubtedly technological plans now afoot to design drones of the future–or as the drone industry likes to call them, “unmanned aerial vehicles”–with the capability of communicating with one another, sharing pertinent information, and, what’s even better, with advanced capabilities to mimic bees and birds by instantly gathering into fast-moving flocks of flying drones. No longer, then, drones as long-distance, lonely fliers, but suddenly drones armed with hive-minds for better swarming, flocking together in the air, swooping down on unsuspecting drone singletons, and just as suddenly turning every which way probably for the pure joy of being swarm. For most of us civilians who are aware of brilliantly creative technological advances set in motion without much thought given to unexpected consequences, it is unlikely that computer-console designers of swarming drones have read up much on insect lore, the fact that swarms in nature appear in many different shapes, all of which have very real-world consequences–from the hardworking cooperatives of bee hives with their built-in aristocratic class structure of drones and queens to the hornets who form angry swarms when annoyed or angered by the human presence. So, while the utopian dreams of all the drone designers probably shade away into the comforting flight path of future unmanned aerial vehicles as busy bee hives in the sky, the hard reality probably will be something very different. Since drones first came into existence at the behest of military violence, with its calculated bursts of murderous rage, there’s no reason to think that future generations of commercial drones will not, at some undefined point, rekindle memories of the targeting imagination of the Predator and the killer-instinct of the Reaper as the most active, and fondly thought of, long-term memories.

When drones themselves begin to dream, their psychoanalytical drivers will probably move unerringly to that moment when drones as purely technological devices first merged with human psychosis on many battlefields of the past. Not accidentally, but with a deliberate and almost inevitable evolutionary logic, since the killer instinct, with all its preparatory conditions–surveillance of targeted populations, data acquisition, arming of weaponry, and bursts of destructive violence–is not at second-hand remove from the logic of drones, but actually designed into their unmanned (but not unarmed) intelligence. The curious mixture of cybernetic rationality and spasms of irrational violence has always been the emblematic sign of drone wars. Like the human species before it, drones also have memories. Sometimes these memories are short-term, like agricultural fields to be surveyed, packages to be delivered, isolated survivors to be rescued, but they can also be long-term. It is those deeply embedded, long-term memories of their all-too-human origins in a mythic mix of antiseptic designer rationality and murder from the air, memories that will most likely be activated by swarms of drones. Liberated intentionally from human control with sensors fast-processing the territory below and other drones alongside, the drone swarm, like those angry hornets before them, is a likely candidate to go on instinctual killer-mode, to become, in practice, what their drone ancestors had long ago initiated in the skies of foreign lands. In this case, when the will to technology is finally realized in the form of swarms of angry drones, when cybernetic reason merges with unmanned violence, there will probably be a big rush for those hunting permits.

When drones become an unmanned aerial species, equipped with autonomous intelligence, weapons of choice, surveillance capabilities, and laser-like targeting abilities, we will probably be able to discern that their primal psychology will not run to the hectoring superego or the reasonable ego but to the instinctive-like drives of the howling id. Without the disciplinary cage of the social to tame it, without the fear of god to inhibit it, drones of the future will make their first swarming appearance as the id unbound: psychically self-possessed, humourlessly destructive, seemingly irrational but, for all that, cunning, creative, and probably (cybernetically) ruthless in the games they play.

With this in mind, the unsuspecting residents of Deer Field might be wise to start running or, at least, to instruct their children in the ways of mythic nemesis likely to be expressed in their streets when drones appear in the domestic sky.

Drones Hunting Humans

The first of all the violent invasions of drones hunting humans has already taken place. That’s the so-called War on Terror, with its carefully orchestrated publicity campaigns in support of ever-increasing popular fear and, in a perfect feat of logical symmetry, its identification by means of the Obama administration’s “disposition matrix” of a changing list of “terrorists,” some perhaps even dangerous opponents for targeting by fleets of drones stationed in the skies of designated kill zones. For example, according to media reports from the tribal areas of Pakistan and adjoining regions of Afghanistan, we can gather some preliminary results of this lengthy experiment in test-driving drones hunting humans. [4] Indeed, similar to large-scale, innovative scientific projects that can only seek major funding on the basis of “proof of concept” projects, the War on Terror might be viewed retrospectively in the same terms. Here, all the design ingredients were mobilized for a potentially successful “proof of concept” experiment in drones hunting humans: a captive population that can be targeted at will; the necessary long-range territorial distance (from Las Vegas to Afghanistan) needed to field-test lag time for the remote control of unmanned weapons systems; and media mobilization of the public opinion of domestic populations, which generates active support for the frequent use of unmanned aerial vehicles in warfare but, more importantly, generalized ethical tolerance for excluding targeted populations, whether targeted “terrorists” or civilian bystanders–families and friends at funeral gatherings, children sleeping at home–from basic recognition of the rights of reciprocity as human beings. From this purely strategic point of view, the experiment in drones hunting humans that was the essence of the War on Terror was demonstrably successful. Not particularly, of course, in the numbers of known “enemy combatants” killed–it was always the usual folly of war to expect that seasoned warriors adept in the ways of camouflage and surreptitious movements could be tracked, let alone eliminated, by flying robots in the sky. But, in the usual way of things, even major failures like the rash and ill-conceived military adventure in Afghanistan have their purposes. Like any cold-eyed examination of the outcome of this proof of concept experiment, the results were strikingly successful in inverse proportion to the harsh reality of the overall military failure itself: fleets of Predator and Reaper drones could be controlled remotely; brilliantly displayed, real-time videos of actual combat situations could be provided to elite commanders bunkered down in the command-and-control centers of the Pentagon, intelligence services, and the White House itself; captive populations could not only be targeted as required but, as an added benefit, future psych-ops would be guided by the medical finding that the humming presence of drones hunting humans in the sky would accelerate mass psychological depression, and thus political paralysis, in the targeted population; and finally, domestic populations have quickly and decisively proven themselves receptive to, if not eager participants in, ethical indifference to those identified by the state as fit objects of sacrificial violence. Consequently, when drones first began to hunt humans in the War on Terror, a complicated calculus of proof of concept was affirmed, one that was at once strictly technological (remote control of unmanned aerial vehicles), specular (those live video feeds to the masters of the war machine providing, at the minimum, the illusion of being warriors, if only ersatz warriors, in games of life and death); [5] psychological (creating and maintaining a generalized condition of cultural acedia in targeted populations); and ethical (preserving political support for drones hunting humans by intensifying that sweet spot of all carefully orchestrated military media campaigns–a perfect blending of moral indifference mixed with feelings of righteous anger as the emotional fuel supporting war drones operating under the sign of abuse value). This, in effect, constitutes the technological ontology of surveillance practices that function as the operating system of the new security state.

Now that the “proof of concept” stage for drones hunting humans has been completed, it will only take a slight redesign of contemporary models of war to successfully reenact this very same mix of tactics, logistics, ethics, and psychological animus in domestic space. Following the doubled ideological logic of facilitation and control by which new technologies are usually introduced, we can already identify the key political markers facilitating drones hunting humans at home. Not surprisingly, everything will have to do with “securitizing the homeland.” Not just securitizing the always-porous borders in the face of increasingly phantasmagorical anxieties about “illegal aliens” and sometimes even legitimated suspicions about potential terrorist attacks, but also the much-publicized need to securitize dense networks of oil and gas pipelines, isolated power stations, nuclear facilities, and transportation corridors. In this case, when the drones come home, it is likely that the form of invisible surveillance will take over the open skies of homeland security, with “upmoded,” war-like drones securitizing borders, patrolling far-flung networks of pipelines, and surveilling over targeted cities, neighborhoods, homes, vehicles, individuals. While economic insecurity and political anxiety provide, in the first instance, the necessary conditions for authorizing the apparatus of drones hunting humans into the domestic scene, the future will be different.

Art as a Counter-Gradient to Drone Warfare

When machines break the skin’s surface, becoming deeply entangled with desires, imagination, and dreams, do we really think that we will be left untouched, that easily discernable divisions will remain among the machinic, the natural, the human? Without conscious decision or public debate, we may have already passed into the deeply enigmatic territory of the new real: that space where the price to be paid for the sudden technological extensions of the human sensorium may be an abrupt eclipse of traditional expressions of consciousness and ethics; that time in which the uniform real-time of big data effortlessly substitutes itself for the always complex, necessarily enigmatic, and lived time of human duration. When the human life cycle increasingly depends for its very existence on technological resuscitation, how much longer will the meaning of the human not yield to the greater power of the technological? That’s the new real: the future world that is now where individuality singularity has been replaced by network connectivity, where bodies of flesh, blood, and bone have already been surpassed by a proliferation of electronic bodies in the clouds; where every step, every breath, every glance, every communication gives off dense clouds of information that are, at once, our permanently monitored past and our trackable future. For some, definitely suffocating. For others, a fully liberated future of the transhuman where the handshake made between the codes of technology and the missteps of humanity indicates that we have already migrated into another country, another time with sublime possibilities for technologically augmented bodies, digitally enhanced vision, and quickly evolving light-wave brains.

We have always been an adventurous species, living at the edge of dangerous risks and practical wisdom, a species (technologically) willing to will its own extinction while, at the same time, artistically probing the future for its terminal abysses and points of creative transformation. It is the very same with the unfolding story of drones. It is the artistic imagination of drones that displays heightened sensitivity to what Heidegger might have described as the new dwelling-place of drones at home and drones at war. Refusing to think outside the imaginary landscape of drone technology, the artistic imaginations can be so replete with important insight because they actually engage in the material reality of drone technology. Not through active imitation or complacent praise, but an artistic imagination that thinks right through all the symptomatic signs of drone technology to discover its essence–not only that which is made visible by drones but how its very invisibility and remoteness burrows inside human anxieties.

Today, a number of contemporary artists act as leading political theorists of drone technology, exploring in the language of aesthetics the remote violence and the equally remote ethical distancing that occurs when unmanned aerial vehicles are purposed by larger military missions. In the contemporary artistic imagination are to be discovered the full dimensions of drone technology as the truly ominous symbol of the times in which we live: a symbol of power that is remote, invisible, weaponized. Representing, in effect, heightened cultural consciousness concerning the full implications of drones, artists often function today as the kind of philosophical explorers that Hannah Arendt once described as the “negative will” at the heart of technology: a pornography of power that seeks to draw everything into obscene visibility–desensitized, dehumanized, sadistic in its pleasures, cynical in its purposes. Opposing the secrecy that surrounds the development and application of militarily purposed drone technology, contemporary drone art–online and real-time–breaches boundaries of secrecy by making its aesthetic explorations fully open to the electronic public, linking together in common ethical purposes drone artists from different countries and, perhaps of greater significance, creating active collaborations between critical drone art and the actual and potential victims of the cold violence of those unmanned aerial vehicles hovering in the skies of foreign lands for the moment, and soon in the twilight sky of the imperial homeland.

#NotABugSplat

“In military slang, Predator drone operators often refer to kills as ‘bug splats’, since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.” [6]

#NotABugSplat, an emotionally evocative and deeply ethical project by a Pakistani artist collective, is what happens when those held under the sign of erasure by warlike drones finally have the opportunity to speak publicly, and in doing so begin to imagine another language, ethics, and memory for making the invisible visible, the prohibited image the necessary subject of moral inclusion, and the (technically) silenced a suddenly noticeable, deeply insistent subject struggling to be recognized. When the governing ethics of power privileges a form of long-distance ethics essentially constituted by a strict separation between decision and consequences, between remote drone operators and slaughtered people in fields, then we can most definitely know that ours is a culture that moves at the ethical speed of a bug splat with all that entails in terms of extremes of dehumanization, desensitization, and pure objectification.

Understanding that the only effective ethical response to power under the sign of a bug splat is one that suddenly humanizes the field of remote vision and thereby activates an insistent demand for recognition as human beings, #NotABugSplat works to facialize Pakistani victims, actual and intended, of US drone strikes in order to make legible the human dimensions of those condemned to abuse value status in the age of drone technology. The artistic strategy is as straightforward as it is ethically profound:

The image released as part of this project was taken by a mini-helicopter drone and depicts a young girl who lost both her parents in a drone strike in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkwala province. Hoping to instill “empathy and introspection,” one of the artists of the organizing collective (said): “We tried to replicate as much as we could what a camera from above will see looking down . . . (W)e wanted to highlight the distance between what a human being looks like when they are just a little dot versus a big face.” [7]

While the artistic project involves, in the first instance, remaking a farmer’s field in rural Pakistan into a large art installation featuring a massive image of a young girl’s face–an image aimed at activating the ethics of remote predator drone operators–the political implications of #NotABugSplat are universal. Here, in a unique case of art acting as a counter-gradient to power, that haunting image of a young Pakistani girl “who lost both her parents and two young siblings in a drone attack” reverses the language of power by critically and decisively re-ordering the logic of targeting. Until this point, the specific targeting of drone attacks was solely a matter of cold military logic with, for example, all young males in strike zones considered “militants, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary,” and the local population deemed “guilty by association” and “a militant if they are seen in the company or in the association of a terrorist operative.” [8] Working to undermine the antiseptic, radically indiscriminate logic of “signature strikes” with their unreported but widely documented massive civilian casualties, #NotABugSplat subverts such a logic of targeting. While it might be naive to suppose that an image, even a large haunting image, visible to predator drones, would have any real effect on the ethics of their remote operators, this attempt to make suffering visible, to actually facialize those literally objectified by technologies of violent disappearance, has an unpredictable advantage. For the very first time, the ethical worm turns by a radical reversal in the order of targeting. Suddenly, an art installation in a rural, Pakistani field begins to speak to drone operators housed in the remote reaches of an imperial homeland, targeting their ethics, their memories, their most fundamental understanding of the necessary demands implied by human recognition and reciprocity. While the nihilism evinced by drone technology may already be so advanced as to immediately nullify the ethical purposes of the artistic project, there always exists the fragile, nebulous possibility that the face of existential suffering can give pause to the most arid, most unmanned, of technologies of contemporary war. In this case, #NotABugSplat might best be viewed as the first of all the future artistic experiments in breaking, not the sound barrier of earlier times, but the ethics barrier of remote technology. Consequently, it is in this emotionally compelling project–a project that puts the question directly concerning whether or not shared ethical responsibility can triumph over the singular purposes of drone warfare–that both the last and best hopes of suffering humanity surely rest.

Terror from Above

Let me tell you a story
a bedtime story
Let me tell you a story
of Predator drones with giant wings
equipped with hellfire missiles
and “light of God” lasers
choking the skies over northwest Pakistan

Let me tell you a story
a daytime/nightmare story
of grandmothers as “bug splats”
and children as “double taps”
Let me tell you a story
an everyday story
of terror from above
villagers burned, body parts strewn
over cultivated fields

Let me tell you another story
The official story
a drone warfare story
Let me tell you a story
of precision strikes
where no innocent is mutilated, incinerated
or murdered
Let me tell you a story
But we know this story is a lie

Surveillance power increasingly functions by moving from the center of human attention to its peripheries–invisible, ubiquitous, waiting. Now it is no longer a matter of people having to walk into the field of machinic vision–as it was in the age of street-level video cameras–but of a machinery of surveillance that electronically scans entire landscapes, carefully monitoring the daily habits of their inhabitants, watching for selected disturbances of the field of vision, which may potentially trigger a violent technological reaction–a drones strike. In this case, the surveillance power of drone technology is no longer limited to a list of potential targets listed on what the National Security Council describes as the “disposition matrix,” but something more menacing, namely the harvesting of entire populations under the sign of a generalized disposition matrix–people who are deemed to be in a permanent state of suspicion by associations no matter how accidental, by physical proximity through a wedding, a funeral, a community gathering, by the simple geospatial fact of where they happen to live. When surveillance migrates from visible technologies to invisibility, from reliance on human disturbances of machinic vision to machinic disturbances of individual experience, it means that we are living in the era of space-binding power–always hovering on the peripheries of life, bracketing the lived time of those inhabitants held under suspicion by the prospect of an immediate sentence of death from the air. What does it mean, then, when the power of surveillance is no longer limited to visual scans of always-threatening populations, but when surveillance itself incorporates a politics of life and death? Equally, what is meant when entire theatres of war in the contemporary era themselves retreat behind a shield of invisibility: unreported, unexamined, undisturbed? What is implied, in effect, by the present state of affairs when the concept of invisibility itself has been weaponized? While technologically augmented society likes to pride itself on the culture of connectivity, with bodies everywhere seemingly globally mobilized by social media into always-open data points, the reality of the new invisibility associated with technologies of surveillance would intimate that, in some fundamental sense, we are actually radically disconnected from some very essential knowledge. Perhaps what we are most disconnected from is the sudden transformation of weaponized invisibility–surveillance technology in the form of drone strikes–into a key expression of the ontology of the times in which we live: drones strikes as being towards death.

The political implications of drone strikes as weaponized invisibility has been brilliantly explored in the aesthetic work of the British artist James Bridle. In an interview with BBC, Bridle noted that his art is interested “in exposing the connection between secret surveillance, power projection and new technology through installations”: [9]

It’s very strange that these days we have no idea of the battlefields on which war is being fought.. . . But at the same time we’ve built technology that allows us to see the whole world on your phone. I wanted to use these technologies to make visible the contemporary battlefields, these drone strikes. [10]

Working in the language of social media, one of Bridle’s aesthetic projects–Dronestagram–repurposes Google Earth into a visual cartography of actual drone strikes, including location, frequency, and timing, that is then circulated through the electronic capillaries of social media, from Instagram to Twitter. Here, one medium of (social) communication is creatively redeployed as a way of drawing into visibility another medium of social destruction. But beyond Dronestagram, there is another interesting project that Bridle has initiated, one that has a larger collective purpose–to create public awareness of the material reality of drone strikes. Titled Drone Shadows, this project, based on the active collaboration between Bridle and Norwegian visual artist Einar Sneve Martinussen, produces perfectly scaled chalk drawings of drone shadows in the streets of many cities of the world. As Bridle states: “One way of looking at drones is as a natural extension of the internet . . . in terms of allowing sight and vision at a distance. They’re avatars of the net for me.” [11] Or, as one insightful commentator has noted: “In Drone Shadows, he draws a chalk outline to scale of a different drone each time, highlighting that not only do they not cast shadows from the vast height they operate at but that they are here among us, very literally, and unseen.” [12] In a larger sense, Bridle’s overall project, what he describes as the “New Aesthetic”–whether Drone Shadows or Dronestagram— focuses on the complex entanglement of technology and warfare as the essence of invisibility itself. By creating shadows for that which is without shadows, by visually mapping that which wishes to remain unmapped, his artistic imagination probes the full consequence of invisibility itself. In so doing, the project renders the question of invisibility even more complex in another way. While drone strikes can be mapped and drones themselves made to cast chalk-like shadows on city streets, what about those other invisibilities, those growing invisibilities of language, culture, ethnicity, geographical location–of life itself? Why is it that so much of what is visible today is, in fact, invisible? Why is it, in the end, that only certain expressions of human visibility–targeted bodies in the tribal lands of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia–are dragged out into the violent visibility of otherwise invisible technologies of surveillance? Have we reached a first cultural, and then political, breaking-point in which the meanings of visibility and invisibility have entered into a more complicated mediation, one in which the question of visibility will increasingly rely on a greater political ordination while, all the while, those other very human invisibilities–differences of class, race, ethnicity, life itself–are allowed to disappear into the category of human remainder? And, of course, there is also this curious, purely aesthetic paradox, namely, that the act of making visible those hidden warfare invisibilities of Predators, Reapers, and Global Hawks does not rely on anything particularly high-tech, but on two other expressions of more urgent technologies–the simple act of drawing chalk outlines of drones on city streets and the very public act of mobilizing global public participation in the art of making drones visible. [13]

Night Sky Epilogue

The night sky drone
is a bullet, an eye, a gut
spilling blood

Venus transits and the sun
is a distant memory

2 tons of fuel and a ton of
munitions. 18″ and 7,000 miles

Palm trees
The smell of BBQ
Surfers, scubas
walkers and runners.

A biplane overhead laconically
pulls a sign that reads
“There’s no place like home
especially when it is clean and green”

Notes
—————–

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle,” New York Times Sunday Edition, March 30, 2014, p. 11.

[2] “DARPA Goes Deep: New Hydra Project to See Underwater Drones deploying Drones,” RT (September 10, 2013), http://rt.com/usa/darpa-underwater-drones-fleet-489/ (accessed July 28, 2014).

[3] Joan Lowy, “Drones: FAA warns public not to shoot at unmanned aircraft,” Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press, July 21, 2013.

[4] “‘Will I be Next? US Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” Amnesty International, https://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/asa330132013en.pdf (accessed on July 28, 2014).

[5] For example, see https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/5680724572/in/photostream (accessed on July 28).

[6] http://notabugsplat.com/ (accessed July 24, 2014).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Vincent van Drone: They’re not just killing machines anymore.” www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/war/130812/drones-art-dronestragram-whistler-bridle (accessed April 15, 2014).

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Art in the Drone Age: Remote-controlled vehicles now spy and kill in secret. What are artists doing about it?,” www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/16183/1/art-in-the-drone-age (accessed April 15, 2014).

[12] Ibid.

[13] James Bridle, Drone Shadow Handbook, http://booktwo.org (accessed July 24, 2014). On his site, Bridle also offers “DIY Drone Shadows,” a free electronic download of the Drone Shadow Handbook with instructions for creating drone shadows: “For some time, I’ve wanted to open up the project, so that anyone can draw one. With this in mind, I’ve created a handbook, which gives guidance on how to draw a drone shadow, including advice on measuring and materials, and schematics for four of the most common types of drone: the Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk, and Hermes/Watchkeeper.”