Technological Object: Drone

Model (1:72 scale) MQ-1 Predator equipped with Hellfire missiles,
somewhere in the region of real hands.


I’ve chosen to write on ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs – commonly known as ‘drones’) as objet du mois because they draw together aspects of communications, computing, weaponry, and data recording that were associated with the four previous objects. Since 2002 drones have been used increasingly by the US (also by the UK and Canada) for counter-terrorist surveillance and attacks in a range of countries, notably Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia. Drones such as the Predator and Reaper models carry sophisticated cameras that relay real-time video data; they can also act on the data by launching Hellfire missiles at targets. That description makes them sound like they have their own agency, which isn’t yet the case, for they are operated remotely – the US drones, for example, are piloted by CIA employees working in Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

Various paradoxical states of affairs are entangled with this remote control: the main advantage that military drones afford is of waging war from a distance, yet that is made possible by the ‘space-time compression’ that their ‘real-time’ data relays enable. (As someone at Creech base is reported to have said of the operating trailers: ‘Inside that [one] is Iraq, inside the other, Afghanistan’.) And although the US has defended its drone strikes as part of the ‘war on terror’, the CIA operatives are actually civilians and not armed service personnel. As Derek Gregory has argued, they can thus be seen as having the same status of ‘unlawful combatant’ as the detainees that the US has incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay. Another paradox: the CIA operatives (often recruited for their ‘gaming’ prowess) are continually both ‘at home’ and ‘at war’ on a daily basis. Another paradox: the operatives’ technologised witnessing of events ‘on the ground’ builds a preparedness in enemies to bear witness to anti-Americanism and religious faith by becoming militant martyrs.

Drones are thus already undoing distinctions between surveillance, militarisation, and civilian everydayness, and it looks like UAV technology will increasingly play a role in people’s lives. A recent European Commission paper, for example, claims that there are 400 civilian applications for unweaponised drones currently being developed across the EU for applications in a variety of areas, including infrastructure monitoring, media/entertainment, wildlife management, intelligence gathering and surveillance. That surge will raise all kinds of questions about privacy and civil liberties; as Eric King of Privacy International has commented: ‘Not too long ago this was the stuff of science fiction, but flying robotic devices equipped with facial recognition technology and mobile phone interception kit are increasingly commonplace’.

Consider this description of a cutting-edge drone:

The Scarab pauses on its perch for a moment, as if to determine for itself whether it is perfectly fit for action. It is a tiny thing, scarcely more than an inch and a half in length… Its body has a metallic sheen, and its vitals are far more intricate than those of the finest watch… It buzzes into the great workroom as any intruding insect might, and seeks the security of a shadowed corner. There it studies its surroundings, transmitting to its manipulator, far away now, all that it hears through its ear microphones and sees with its minute vision tubes.

If that sounds like it’s straight from sci-fi, that’s because it is; the passage is from Raymond Gallun’s novel The Scarab published in … 1936 – I just changed the tense from past to present. Proto-drones have a long history in science fiction that imagines future scenarios of society being policed through a combination of networked surveillance and weaponry. Other notable drones include the ‘Raytron Apparatus’ in Ray Cummings’s Beyond the Stars (1928), the ‘Flying Eye’ in Harry Harrison’s The Repairman (1959), the ‘Copseye’ in Larry Niven’s Cloak of Anarchy (1972), and the ‘Dornier’ in William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). There is also a substantial history of real drones: remote-controlled UAVs date back to the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane developed in WWI and were used in combat by the US in the Vietnam war.

In recent years interesting literary and filmic engagements with drones have been relatively scant, despite all the pressing cultural and political issues thrown up by UAV technology and its future. (Human Rights Watch recently published a paper ‘Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots’ sounding alarm at the prospect of UAVs that can function autonomously without human operators.) Teju Cole emphasises weaponised drones’ terrifying capacity for termination with his tiny stories of abridgement – e.g. ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s’. Michael Robbins wrote a darkly humouristic poem ‘for President Drone’ to mark Barack Obama’s re-inauguration. A few bloggers have called for drone fiction that might adumbrate the characters of drone operators, and even drones themselves, in order to think more about how their strikes involve personhood, experience, emotions, and the mediation of those things. Sincerity about drones ‘as characters’ sounds a rather confused realist approach. An alternative would be a novelistic treatment that involves the kind of parodic ramifying of plot and character that Pynchon presents in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) when dealing with V-2 rockets. Or a diaristic lyric psychodrama that relates war and a kind of mass observation along domestic lines (both household and national) in the way that Auden’s ‘Journal of an Airman’ (1931) did.

When William S. Burroughs was asked how much of his fiction was autobiographical he replied that it was all fiction and all autobiography. The difficulty in pinning down the significance of drones is that they are thoroughly science-fictional and awfully real. Consider another passage from Gallun’s novel, The Scarab:

At sea, the coalition task force takes data from a range of organic and land-based unmanned surface and underwater vessels… Ten days previously, 100 Class I micro Perch and Stare unmanned aircraft were deployed to key locations in the city. Their coatings provide camouflage by adopting the same colour as their surroundings, while embedded solar cells augment the on-board fuel cells by recharging capacitive energy stores during daylight. Working collaboratively in a network, many of the aircraft have self-repositioned to gain further intelligence data.

Well, if only it were from Gallun’s novel; it’s actually a passage envisaging future drone capacities taken from the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Doctrine Note: The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems (2010). The present tense is the MoD’s…

—Alex Houen

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  18. James Riley says:

    Great post, Alex. I find the collapse of space suggested by the remote nature of the combat the most interesting of the paradoxes you raise. Obliquely, and in connection with the implications of David’s comment, this got me thinking more about the sonic implications of the drone: the continuous monophonic sound that is presumably connected to the buzzing of the drone bee. Drone warfare it seems negates the strategic negotiation of topographically diverse battlefields in the same way that drone music typically reduces the topography of harmonic variation. Not sure what fictional mode could instantiate the drone operators or drone agency, but I would imagine that such a voice would sound something like this:

  19. Alex Houen says:

    Thanks, David! I’ve not read the Cornwell or Scarpetta, but I will. I can see that you’re right about genre fiction familiarising drone technology. Films and tv series such as Mission Impossible 4 and Homeland are also doing their bit on that front. I think the challenge will increasingly be to defamiliarise the technology.

  20. David Trotter says:

    Bang on the technological nose, Alex! I didn’t know about The Scarab. Sounds as though I should have done. The title of course takes an intriguingly Egyptological turn, which might lead back to some of our reflections on the idea of the pylon. Your speculations about an appropriate literary response reminded me that insect drones loom large (or buzzingly small) in Patricia Cornwell’s Port Mortuary (2010), Kay Scarpetta’s 18th outing, and the excuse for much brooding on virtual autopsies and the like. That is, one normalisation in progress here might be technology’s appearance not in Auden or Pynchon, but in bog-standard genre fiction!

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