Our common image of drones is a military ones. Drones are unmanned aircraft controlled by a remote operator. They undertake surveillance, make predictions and execute bombings.
Mark Andrejevic suggests that we think about drone logic. Not just the military use of drones, but how the drone can be thought of as a figure that stands in for the array of sensors and probes that saturate our worlds. Drones are interrelated with a vast network of satellites, cables, and telecommunications hardware. They extend logics of surveillance, data collection, analysis, simulation and prediction.
Drones are diffused throughout our society: collecting information and generating forms of classification, prediction, discrimination and intervention in populations. Thinking this way, we might take the smartphone to be the most widely distributed and used drone. Andrejevic argues that smartphone is a drone-like probe used by both state and corporate organisations for surveillance. Probes have ‘the ability to capture the rhythms of the activities of our daily lives via the distributed, mobile, interactive probes carried around by the populace. In this way, smartphones are on ‘always on’ probes distributed through a population.
Andrejevic offers us a framework for drone logic. Drones are a hyperefficient probe in four ways:
- They extend and multiply the reach of the senses.
- They saturate time and space in which sensing takes place (entire cities can be photographed 24 hours a day)
- They automate sense-making.
- They automate response.
In the public lecture below Mark Andrejevic gives us an account of ‘drone logic’. He asks, ‘what might it mean to describe the emerging logics of “becoming drones”, and what might such a description have to say about the changing face of interactivity in the digital era?’
For him, the figure of the drone as an avatar for the interface of emerging forms of automated data capture, sense making, and response. Understood in this way, the figure of the drone can be mobilized to consider the ways in which automated data collection reconfigures a range of sites of struggle — after all, it is a figure born of armed conflict, but with roots in remote sensing (and action at a distance).
In 2014 an art collective working with a local Pakistani village helped lay out an enormous portrait of a child who had been killed in a US drone strike. Buzzfeed writes:
The collective says it produced the work in the hope that U.S. drone operators will see the human face of their victims in a region that has been the target of frequent strikes. The artists titled their work “#NotABugSplat”, a reference to the alleged nickname drone pilots have for their victims. “Bug splat” is the term used by U.S. drone pilots to describe the death of an individual as seen on a drone camera because “viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed”. The artists say that the purpose of “#NotABugSplat” is to make those human blips seem more real to the pilots based thousands of miles away: “Now, when viewed by a drone camera, what an operator sees on his screen is not an anonymous dot on the landscape, but an innocent child victim’s face.” The creators hope their giant artwork will “create empathy and introspection amongst drone operators, and will create dialogue amongst policy makers, eventually leading to decisions that will save innocent lives.
The artwork attempts to put a human face on drone warfare. While the US promotes the use of drones as a more precise and targeted way of identifying and eliminating enemy targets, they enact warfare at a distance. The drone operator sits in a remote location out of harm’s way, directing the drone via a screen and joystick. While this makes warfare seem safer for the intervening military, although there is evidence that drone operators are traumatised by the work, there is evidence that drones kill many innocent victims.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has conducted extensive reporting into the use of drones in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. This includes documenting every drone strike in these countries. In Pakistan alone they report the US has conducted 420 drone strikes since 2004. Those strikes are estimated to have killed over 900 civilians, over 200 of which are children. And, injured a further 1700 people.
In 2009, The New Yorker published a detailed investigation of the US drone program’s origins and activities.
In her talk ‘Drones, the Sensor Society, and US Exceptionalism’ at the Defining the Sensor Society Symposium in 2014, Lisa Parks examines the US investment in drone for military and commercial purposes.
Parks’ arguments and provocations
If the relationship between bodies and machines are ‘dynamic techno-social relations’ what are we to make of the impression created by US military that drones remove responsibility from human actors in war zones? The drone appears to be the actor, rather than the human soldier. But, drones have a heavy human cost. Hundreds of civilians and children are killed by US drone strikes in targeted areas.
The drone is more than a sensor, and more than a media technology that produces images of the world, it directly intervenes in the world.
Drones don’t just hunt and kill from afar, they seek to secure territories and administer populations from the sky.
Drones are like '3D printers more than video games, they sculpt the world as much as they simulate or sense'.
Drones intercept commercial mobile phone data as well as tracking military targets. They conduct both ‘targeted’ and ‘ubiquitous’ surveillance. They ‘scoop up’ as much mobile and internet communication data as they can. The drone is a ‘flying data miner’ or ‘digital extractor’ that collects any information it can in order to then identify patterns.
Drones enable ‘death by metadata’. Drone operators target mobile phones, determined by location data, without identifying who is actually holding the phone. A drone operator explains: ‘it’s really like we’re targeting a cell phone, we’re not going after people we are going after their phones in the hopes the person on the other end of that missile is a bad guy’. Pre-emptive targeted killing is met with retrospective identification. ‘We can kill if we don’t know your identity but once we kill you we want to figure out who we killed’. All but three African countries now require mandatory sim card registration strategies so that every sim card can be related to a person. This enables sim card databases to be used for identifying individuals in time and space. But, people are identified by inference. The person holding the mobile phone is presumed to be the person who registered that sim card. ‘Metadata plus’ is an app created by an activist that informs users each time the US conducts a drone strike. Terrorist groups often confiscate mobile phones from areas they are in to avoid being detected by drones.
Drones detect body heat. This marks a shift in how racial differences are sensed and classified. Infrared sensors enable drones to see through clouds and buildings. In a visually cluttered and chaotic environment infrared is useful for identifying living bodies to target. To the drone a person is visible via their body heat. This does not enable the drone operator to distinguish between different kinds of people: adults and children, military actors and civilians. Once a drone identifies a person as a red splotch of body heat on a monitor, the decision to ‘strike’ the target is made via data collection and prediction. Often, that data is generated via a mobile phone. What marks the red splotch out as the intended target is data indicating that their mobile phone is present at the same location. What is targeted is the mobile phone, which is assumed to be on the nearest red splotch on the monitor.
People on the ground create drone survival guides. The guide gives information on various kinds of drones, how to identify them, and how to avoid their detection systems.
Drone Wars is a UK group which collects information on drone operations. Check out their Drone Crash database for information and images on drone crashes.
Alex Rivera is a filmmaker and artist who has explored drones for more than fifteen years. His film Sleep Dealers (2008) is a vivid account of the social implications of drones and algorithmic media in the global economy. In part, the film features Mexican workers who work ‘node jobs’ in vast computer sweatshops or virtual factories where they have nodes implanted in their bodies and connected to a computer system. Watching monitors they move their own bodies to control robots in American cities. The robots undertake all the labour that real Mexican immigrants currently undertake in the US: cleaning houses, cutting grass, construction. The US economy has maintained the Mexican labour in its outputs but not its human bodies. The human bodies all reside in impoverished conditions in Mexico, controlling robots who perform tasks in the US.
The film illustrates ‘drone’ logic. Human actors use a sensory and calculative media system to remotely perform tasks from afar. Rivera suggests that our global economy is increasingly underwritten by this drone logic: military drones, call centres, immigrant labour in vast factories who only interact with loved ones via the screen and so on are all examples of the way computerisation, digital networks and media interfaces enable humans to act on geographic areas and processes that they are not physically present in.
Furthermore, the film connects the concept of the drone to our discussion about the implosion of bodies and machines in the era of calculative media. The workers in the film are cyborgs in the sense that they are literally plugged into a vast media system. Their capacity to work involves their physical fleshy body, the digital network through which their human senses convey digital data and robots in distance places performing tasks.