Late last month, the University of Lincoln hosted ‘As Above, So Below’ – a colloquium organised by the 21st Century Research Group in order to explore prominent issues surrounding ‘drone culture’.
Academics, writers, artists and performers from across the globe gathered to discuss the social and conceptual implications of unmanned aircraft. As well as exploring the psychological effects of exerting power from a distance and the implications of the commercial use of drones in civilian airspace, the colloquium looked beyond the ‘physicality’ aspects of unmanned vehicles and examined a broader series of questions relating to the drone as a cultural concept. The political and ethical implications of armed drones are well-documented – accumulating much academic research, media attention and heated political debate – but the idea of drones being a symptom of a changing human relationship between humans and ever-advancing technology garners far less attention and it is precisely this question the colloquium sought to address.
The colloquium was full to the brim with quality speakers throughout the day (over two dozen in total); with a keynote address in the morning session delivered by Benjamin Noys. Noys dissected the ontology of drones and how their metaphysics may come to embody and symbolise how humans interact with one another in the future. He argued that drones may be emblematic of a “world-spirit” and that drones are simply the latest addition in “techno-fetishism” the modern world has become addicted to and reliant upon. Claire Reddleman, a PhD researcher in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London problematised the notion of a cartographic “God’s eye view” that drones are often perceived to have and traced its production through a study of ‘Targets’, a cartographic artwork by Joyce Kozloff. The work takes the form a large-scale inverted globe, which the viewer stands inside, and whose interior is painted with maps of all the countries that have been bombed by the U.S. since 1945.
Brad Bolman, a Harvard history student, explained how wine growers in Oregon are keen on using variations of the very same technology which is proving to be lethal for citizens in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. He argued that the ‘droneisation’ of agriculture was well under way but given scant attention. Drone manufacturers creating combat or armed drones are spending just as much research and development on “precision agriculture” and Bolman argued that it is this aspect of drones which makes them attractive to farmers. In much the same way that armed drones are often pushed as a natural progression in military conflict, agricultural drones too, are seen as the way forward in farming. So the very same aspects which make armed drones the weapon of choice for targeted killings – namely the ability to loiter over targets for long periods, the “God’s eye view” and the supposed ability to micro-target particular areas while leaving others untouched – make drones appealing to farmers. Bolman though, claimed there were dangers of ‘drone farmers’ becoming “agricultural software programmers”, taking the meaning out of farming as we know it. This is something Martin Heidegger warned of in his work ‘The Question Concerning Technology’. Heidegger warned that advances in technology could take the “meaning” out of the world as we know and understand it and mix the essence of man with the essence of technology. There is also something to be said about cutting-edge robotic technology supposedly being a solution to issues farmers have dealt with for hundreds of years using traditional, ‘hands-on’ methods. The idea that unparalleled aeromobility and ‘drone farming from the sky’ is better than an old-fashioned physical connection with agricultural land means that farming as we know it may be on the brink of a [r]evolutionary change, particularly if drone manufacturers successfully push technology onto farmers.
The evening keynote address was from Derek Gregory, who sought to address the notion that drones possess a technological “God’s eye view” of totality, omniscience and control and how this notion tragically unravelled with the needless deaths of at least 27 civilians in Uruzgan province in 2010. Gregory painstakingly deconstructed the build up to an attack by US and NATO forces and highlighted that despite possessing a “God’s eye view” on the civilian convoy and the latest in cutting-edge technology, from the very moment the convoy was spotted, the military was veering uncontrollably towards attacking the civilians. Gregory stressed that whilst investigations proved that the Predator drone crew misinterpreted every action by the civilians as a threat, a closer view at the build up to the attack shows that their view fed into a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of vision in which different actors at different locations saw radically different things and the breaks and gaps in communication were just as significant as the connections. In closing, Gregory argued that while much of modern war is ‘remote’, there is considerably less ‘control’ than many people are led to believe.
A recurring theme throughout the day was undoubtedly the idea that drones are beginning to have greater and greater effects on our daily lives. The colloquium superbly addressed how armed and unarmed drones are changing aspects of our culture, leisure and even our farming; demonstrating the sheer pervasive and invasive power drones possess, on a multitude of levels.
Nawaz Hanif is a former death penalty investigator at Reprieve and is currently studying for a masters degree in International Relations & Security Studies at the University of Birmingham.