Drone Capitalism

Drone Capitalism

In recent article, Drone Capitalism, author Michael Richardson makes a number of expected and acceptable oversights in recent scholarship on UAVs. I tend to be rough with it but I do indeed like a lot of it. Here are my thoughts—unsolicited and polemical. I’ve just finished 6 months of working with drone activists around the world and am on my arrogant high-horse. Its all meant in the spirit of support and collaboration.

Seeing the drone through a critique of capitalism, enclosure, and biopolitics, Richardson shows a lack of interest in the UAV as something more than a tool for the expansion of processes that extract wealth from and dominate human bodies and places. Drones in fact have a number of different applications and work in the service of a richly diverse set of applications that a reading of affective capitalism fails to consider. An anthropological approach based on ethnographic encounters with technologies, techniques, and technicians would help diversify interpretations about the uses of flying networked sensors.

A good example comes from one of the all-too rare discussions of non-military applications of drones. He writes that blood drone deliver services “further enfold the biopolitical regime of the modern health care system within the drone enclosure.” In this reading the use of drones in health services—for the humanitarian application of delivering blood and medicine and in times of human catastrophe is actually an effort to control and commodify human beings. This type of cynicism can only come from armchair theorisation instead of empirical work on and with humanitarian applications of drones. I wonder if the human lives that are being saved by humanitarians drones would appreciate this Foucaultian reading of the object that just helped their family survive an actual disaster? Perhaps they would wave off the flying hospital so as to protect their symbolic capital and biopolitical agency…

In a second reference to non-military drone applications, Richardson references drones in agriculture, security, journalism, and video production. Here drones “increasingly restrict the role of the human body.” This is factually inaccurate to anyone who has ever flown a drone or witnessed the flying of a drone from the pilot’s perspective. Not to get too theoretical here—as over-theorisation is clearly part of the problem—but drones extend the human sense of sight. Different payloads extend different senses including touch—through extending mobility, and even smell, including the sensing of diverse atmospheric gases as our recent work on a dangerous volcano in Bali showed. The drone extends and augments the terrestrial senses in atmospheric and vertical domains. This is not drones restricting the body but like telescopes, eyeglasses, and prosthetic limbs adding to the repertoire of sense-abilities.

A more precise manner of discussing spatial enclosure would be to look at geofencing–mandatory restrictions imposed by drone manufacturers through software updates that prohibit flight in certain spaces–airports but also the residencies and work sites of the politically powerful, such as the US president. Geofencing can basically brick a drone that is considered in the wrong place, severely limiting the drone’s application in activism contexts like, for instance, in counter- or souveillance efforts to monitor police brutality during protests like at Standing Rock during the #nodapl protests. This is a manifestation of atmospheric enclosure or drone manufacturer self-regulation for the protection of private property, pro-corporate growth, and political elites; a problematic privatization of space indeed.

A more specific way of thinking about personal biopower enclosure would be drones and VR headsets where the users’ senses are actually enclosed by a mask and augmented by pixelated photons and electrons. But both of these examples would require Richardson to use or at least talk to users of drones. Despite being a scholar of “affect” this is clearly not something Richardson has yet done, or has yet to reveal how this theorization fits with his phenomenological encounters with the technological other. Why get involved in the messy reality of actual socio-technical practice when pure theory is so elegant and convenient? Clearly, such scholars are not there to witness or help in the humanitarian emergency where drones are assisting in delivery, logistics, and crisis mapping. I am not utopian about these possibilities. Drone delivery will be dominated by major privacy infringing technology companies like Amazon. Drones in crisis mapping embody the technofetishing developmentalism that brought out the ill-executed One Laptop Per Child kerfuffle. But at least we are talking about drones, not smart thermostats and high speed trading.

The strangest part of the essay, and indeed its point, is expanding the concept of the “drone” outside of an actual flying networked sensor to include, I assume, everything. His two other “drones” include the Nest home thermostat and high frequency trading (HFT). These are “drones” because they involve sensors and automation. So he says. This is true in only the most superficial sense. And, if correct, than the entirely of the “internet of things” universe is a drone world—which would make the very concept null and dull. For a scholar apparently engaged in studies of “platforms,” I would expect a more rigorous commitment to affordances. At the very least, compare UAVs with other networked sensors that have the qualities of being airborne, mobile, and optical. HFT, it could be argued, is not really about sensors in the sense of the reception of exterior stimuli but rather a recursive collection of inputs internal to the closed financial market. Rumbas, robots, and self-driving cars, maybe, but smart thermostats and high frequency trading networks are not drones.

He writes, “Amazon’s Alexa, for instance, is the dronification of the home.” A host of different substitutions would be more appropriate here, including datafication, mediatisation, or simply networking, rather than dronification. In what ways does Alexa incorporate flying or even moving things? It doesn’t. Referencing Nest or Alexa is just a convenience so that Richardson can discuss home datafication but it has nothing to do with drones in terms of them being platforms with specific affordances. In terms of domestic or home uses of drones, Amazon’s Air Prime home delivery drones would have been a much more fitting example. A look at Amazon Air Prime’s recent copyrights would reveal a host of different domestic privatization concepts attendant to their home drone plans. For example, Amazon has a patent for drones that while they deliver a package they also scan a home for its value and any potential repairs it might sell as a service. That is a real “dronification of the home.”

Finally, the article suffers from the all-too-usual conflation of consumer and military drones. These two have different historical trajectories, widely different developers, applications, markets, etc. The US Air Force’s Reaper and Predator drones are not the irritating DJI drones flying over your picnic in the park. Conflating consumer UAVs and military drones is theoretically useful for a certain kind of domesticated scholar—it gives them much theoretical material to work with as military drone theory-building is extensive while critical thinking about humanitarian, video, mapping, and delivery drones is not. A more rigorous comparative approach would be to define and stick to a platform based on technical and historical specifics. Maybe flying one would be good. Perhaps speaking with drone pilots would be useful.

Am I wrong in expecting this basic threshold of methodological rigor and curiosity about technologies and humans in scholarship about technologies and humans?

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia.

2 Replies to “Drone Capitalism”

  1. Since the original article was written in an equal spirit of polemic, I have little cause for complaint. Far be it from me, as “a certain kind of domesticated scholar,” to take issue with some of the more pointed objects you raised based on ethnographic fieldwork. For the most part, I don’t disagree with much that you say and a lot of it is helpful. My article deliberately covered a ludicrous amount of ground and made a lot of sweeping statements and unexpected (your “incompatible”) comparisons as a kind of necessary rhetorical move. The intention was not brush off or dismiss the good stuff that happens with drones (more that a lack of space led to the too-glibly Foucaultian remark you mention) , but to kind of step away from the object itself and think about what I think is a particular kind of “drone” logic that the figure of the drone helps us see. In my main work around drones (of which this is really an ancillary and perhaps even incompatible piece), I’m much more interested in the narrower, focused and more grounded questions that you raise. I suspect that despite what the article on “drone capitalism” suggests, we’ll find quite a lot of common ground soon enough.

  2. A forceful plea for classic anthropological virtues, serious fieldwork and attention to detail. We all need to remember Victor Turner’s maxim that theory is only valuable when it suggests fresh insights into what the field experience discovers. Theory, in and of itself, is only the stiffened mass of starch in which occasional tasty raisins can be found (My North American image is cold, leftover oatmeal, stuck in a fridge overnight. What’s yours?)

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