Nobody Knows You're a Drone

image by Imp Kerr

What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
— Steve Jobs

Forty years ago, in a hundred garages through-out the Silicon Valley, across the country and around the world, hobbyists pushed forward the state of the art of a technology developed by mega-contractors at great military expense. Steve Jobs’s techno-Utopianism evinced in the quote above is both clear and typical of the era. A million geeks worked with visions of beating high-tech swords into ploughshares, creating tools that would make life better and bring the world together. More subversively, computers and networks would restructure society, for the first time ever, in a truly meritocratic way. Decades before anyone had heard the phrase, “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog,” the so-called hacker ethic, described in Steven Levy’s Hackers, dictated that criteria like age, degrees, race, position, or gender were irrelevant.

Such a benevolent role for computers represented a dramatic shift from the way they had been perceived previously. Just a few years before Jobs began tinkering with them, computers were seen as cold, calculating, a symbol so “odious” that the leaders of the Free Speech Movement on the steps of the university across the Bay encouraged students to throw their “bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus.” Students wore signs on their chest that co-opted the language of the punch cards so deeply intertwined with computers of the day: “Don’t bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate.”

Forty years later, we’ve seen a new wave of military technology take flight in the form of aerial vehicles — drones. Their rise has been anything but benevolent, turning into the military’s most relied upon and most lethal weapon. But in small circles of technology enthusiasts, these machines have captured the imagination in a way that’s reminiscent of the personal computer revolution, a fascination that doesn’t stem from their role as a weapons delivery system. As terrifying as the implications of armed and unmanned patrols overhead may be, remote destruction isn’t what holds the imagination.

Drones have not only destroyed thousands of lives, but delivered back real-time images of the destruction. As a domestic tool, drones aren’t the next development of projectiles or even aircraft, they are the latest stage in surveillance gathering and analysis, outfitted with a vehicle and sometimes a weapon. Understanding drones in this way welcomes another separation between the oncoming drone revolution and that of personal computers: If the PC is a bicycle for our minds, as Jobs said, what are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), when liberated from the military and operated by the general public? Instead of increasing our understanding, they extend our senses. They extend our vision, giving us “eyes in the sky,” overhead or across the globe. Drones exist in a curiously intimate spot, that thin membrane between ourselves and the world, expanding and filtering what we may take in. More even than “thinking” technologies, “seeing” technologies become a part of us.

Aerial surveillance is far from the first technology to change the way we see. Eyeglasses made our surroundings clearer, telescopes shortened distances, microscopes showed us life and movement where before there was none, and high-speed cameras separated motion into a series of static positions. There’s nothing inherently insidious about literally broadening our perspectives. And with hobbyist communities like DIYDrones playing the role of the Homebrew Computer Club, it’s hard not to be gripped with a combination of excitement and anxiety. On the individual level, the introduction of increasingly powerful systems with which we can see the world can be empowering. Widespread recording and communication technologies have given benefits unevenly, but have at least occasionally granted a voice to group members who may have otherwise been disenfranchised. Drones make the same promise: if brave activists like Manal al-Sharif, whose driving videos sparked protests by other women drivers in Saudi Arabia, can draw attention to inequality with the technology of today, what might women’s rights activists be able to communicate once a new powerful technology becomes a part of the way they see the world?

But whether drones end up being a net positive for liberty and equality depends on how we allow the technology to develop and advance. Institutionally, drones are already allowing for surveillance so unprecedented in its thoroughness that it seems all but certain to permanently entrench the power imbalances that exists today. Gender proves to be an important filter through which consider these issues, and a ready framework for looking at power gaps: will drones provide a perpetual and unavoidable “male gaze,” as Madeline Ashby and others have warned? Or will they deliver through technology the “post-gender world” Donna Haraway describes in her “Cyborg Manifesto”?

In order to weigh these two possible futures, it’s important to first consider the scope of the surveillance at hand and the trajectory of technological development. And to get a feel for the ambition of the military programs, it suffices to review the plans they have for the straightforwardly named “Gorgon Stare.”

The Gorgon is a traditionally female sort of Greek mythical monster. Its names stems from the Greek word gorgós, meaning “terrible” or “dreadful,” and it is typically portrayed as having a variety of animal features, from wings to tusks, and most often snake-like qualities. In The Iliad, Gorgons are described as such: “and therein was set as a crown the Gorgon, grim of aspect, glaring terribly, and about her were Terror and Rout.” Often, statues of Gorgons were placed on the top of buildings; builders believed their unnerving gaze would protect the buildings from intruders. It was that unflinching gaze that made her legendary: The most famous Gorgon, Medusa, was actually one of a very few who were considered mortal. She, of course, was known for turning anyone who locked eyes with her to stone.

For those concerned about the perpetuation of the male gaze through aerial surveillance, and given the widespread gender gap in the  cybersecurity field, the choice of name is especially ironic. But the Army’s version is much scarier than Medusa and her less famous sisters. There is no avoiding eye contact with these drones. The flying machine holds dozens of cameras that can cover 40 square kilometers, leaving no area untouched. As the Washington Post describes, “It can send up to 65 different images to different users; by contrast, Air Force drones today shoot video from a single camera over a ‘soda straw’ area the size of a building or two.”

“Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at,” bragged the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence. “We can see everything.” And not just see everything. To the extent that it’s about  seeing, Gorgon Stare is an intelligence program. But they are also watching everything. And when it’s about watching, it’s a way of establishing or reinforcing a power inequality.

To offset this sort of military power requires a radical decentralization and democratization ofthe technology. Where the popularity and capability of the personal computer increased as processor prices fell, the rise of personal drones will follow the drop of sensor prices that has already begun. Projects like the Occucopter, conceived by an Occupy protester to document police abuse, show promise as a means of putting drone power in the hands of nonstate people. These examples will only grow more common as open-source toolkits like the Droneserver project for online journalism comes to fruition and groups like the University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab continue to explore the realm of possibilities.

The military may be spending tens of billions of dollars on their drone programs, but the Internet revolution has shown other factors can end up neutralizing that sort of imbalance; for better or for worse, in recent wide-eyed Congressional cybersecurity hearings, individuals with cheap laptops were described as a great threat to billion-dollar infrastructure.

University projects like the popular “swarming nano quadrotors” out of Pennsylvania, or hobby-level spy or projects like the F-BOMB give a hint of the future. Programs like Gorgon Stare may remain in the hands of state-level actors, but widespread technologically-enabled  surveillance can undermine their impact and recalibrate power relationships. Moreover, broad individual technological empowerment can serve as a sort of progressive tax on the traditionally powerful, leveling off dynamics that would be otherwise perpetually skewed.

The impact of that strategy is moot, though, if the technology isn’t used for individual and community empowerment. Other technologies have left promises unfulfilled. Strong encryption and decentralized communications channels may have allowed individuals to avoid surveillance, for example, but they failed to generate the same followings as less secure and more centralized channels.

It’s a mistake, then, to approach the drone revolution with the same starry-eyed optimism or techno-Utopianism as the leaders of the PC revolution. There is no question that this new technology poses a real threat to our liberties, but we must accept that it will continue advancing. It’s also a mistake to cynically assume that the situation will worsen. Drones will come to dominate the sky in the near future, that much we know. But whose drones they will be, and whether they’re advancing the public interest, is still an unanswered question.