- Drones, War, and Technological Seduction
"A drone isn't just a tool: when you use it you see and act through it—you inhabit it. It expands the reach of your body and senses in much the same way the internet expands your mind. The net extends our virtual presence: drones extend our physical presence."—Lev Grossman1
Extensions and Prostheses
Over a hundred years after their invention by Nikola Tesla, drones are finally becoming ubiquitous. While this has come as a surprise to some who should have known better, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, many saw it coming. After all, at the deepest level drones are social media, as Lev Grossman realized, and we now understand how quickly effective new social media technologies can proliferate. It is a matter of seductive affordances and the capacity for monetization. Drones were successful toys for many years, but it took decades of military development for the technology to ripen. Recently, starting with military operations, drones are indeed proliferating throughout society, so the need to understand why military drones have become integral to war, and therefore the human future, has become obvious. We now have a number of books on military drones to help us do this. The five books reviewed here are only the beginning of a wave of scholarship we can expect about drones, military and otherwise.
Technically, a drone is any remotely-piloted vehicle (RPV), but in popular usage remotely-controlled land vehicles are often called robots (as in [End Page 954] "police robots"). And while RPVs are being developed for sea combat, the vast majority of RPVs deployed now are flying drones. This is because while drones can be traced back to Tesla's Teleautomaton, a radio-controlled miniature ship he patented in 1898, the term drone originated in the military from the name for airplane-towed targets. Actual drone programs existed in World War II, but only very recently have drones become a key part of society in both military and civilian spheres.
The oldest of these texts, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (New York: O/R Books, 2012. Pp 241. $14.41.), is the least academic, which turns out to be one of its virtues. Written by Madea Benjamin, the Code Pink activist and theorist, it is accessible to the general public, something one could not say about the other books except for Hugh Gusterson's Drone: Remote Control Warfare (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. Pp 199. $24.95.). Benjamin urges citizens to take action against the immoral use of military drones and does so as someone who has often put her body on the line. Benjamin's account of the early years of massive U.S. military drone use is clear enough, historically and morally, and she is certainly correct to situate drones as an extension of current war practices, not a break from them.
Drones aren't a unique evil—but that's just the point. Drones don't revolutionize surveillance; they are a progressive evolution in making spying, at home and abroad, more pervasive. Drones don't revolutionize warfare; they are, rather, a progressive evolution in making murder clean and easy.(Benjamin 2012, 214–15)
But her book is seriously dated now, so for an undergraduate class, for example, Gusterson's well-written text is a better choice. It is also richer analytically, covering all the significant issues from an anthropological/STS perspective, as one might expect from an author who has studied military culture for decades.
Gusterson does not agree that drones are a continuation of the technological transformation of war in the twentieth century, quoting the oft-cited (in these texts) Gregoire Chamayou for his book's opening epigraph: "The drone upsets the available categories, to the point of rendering them inapplicable." He is not alone in this assessment: Lisa Parks and Caren Kaplan, citing Chamayou's argument that drones produce, among other changes, "new visibilities" and redefinitions of the civilian, call drones a "game changer" (6...