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Written in


by Dustin Breitling

In the machine, the notion of finality makes its appearance, a notion sometimes attributed in living beings to some intelligence inherent in the species, innate to life itself. Finality is artificially built into the machine and regulates it, an effect requiring that some factor be modified or reinforced so that the effect itself does not disturb the equilibrium . . . Errors are corrected without human analysis, or knowledge, without even being suspected. The error itself corrects the error. A deviation from the prescribed track itself enables the automatic pilot to rectify the deviation . . .For the machine, as for animals, error is fruitful; it conditions the correct path.

Pierre de Latil, La Pensee Artificielle

I wandered lonely as a drone That floats o’er jails and landfill And monitors what we say on the phone.

Götterdämmerung Family BBQ

I. Drone Overture

A guided phantom whirrs over the skeletal vestiges of a barely imprinted landscape, not on grounds of a merciless and lethal discharge, but rather on what masquerades as a harmless maneuver. A harmless maneuver that only ‘drones’ over war-torn ruins and desolate landscapes, where any glimmer of an eerie anthromorphic presence or semblance of a platform is detected by an assemblage of machinic senses for the execution of a delivery.

Yet, it is what is guiding the execution of this delivery, and particularly what the senses don’t detect or, more importantly, what they are programmed to detect, that compels further interrogation. This programmed detection falls under an omnipresent regime and governing protocol of an englobed sentient machinic nervous system that tracks and monitors  “allowing everything to be seen and known, at every moment and in every place.” (Virilio,1989) To allow everything to be seen and known at every moment bears the trappings of a divine presence that roams and skulks the Earth, intervening with its might and rendering those below its hovering presence hostage to its sovereign enforcement.

Yet, it is a sovereign enforcement that is not merely alluding to the ‘exterminating angel’ that has captured the contemporary imaginary, it is an enforcement that completes the drones’ capacity to destroy, construct, and legislate, which concerns us here. It is this capacity that engenders an emerging yet fascinating uneasiness behind a rising civilian industry intent on repurposing drones, as they potentially offer “to rework and transform the messy materialities of the human and the technical.” (Noys, 2015) To rework and transform here entails uncovering what is necessarily reworked and transformed, or more importantly, what is  ‘unsensed’ or unprogrammed in the interiorized logic of a machinic sensibility. Therefore, it draws vital considerations as to what the algorithmic code underlaying the machinic sensibility fails to detect and yet deems able to ‘correct’, identify, datify, and database through its compressible circuits. It is this very operation of a dromological compressibility that problematizes the introduction of drones under the auspices of a newly adopted role within the humanitarian industries. It is not only a matter of drones not registering the messy nexus of socio-historical and post-colonial particularities, but also how their further employment as considered here potentially perpetuates a historical neglect of core infrastructural, social, and economic needs. Perhaps, we can tease out here how the drone’s logistical repurposing, especially in environments that are beset by poverty, environmental degradation, and the hauntings of a post-colonial past, could portend a paradigm coming to the fore.

It’s a new way of thinking in which collecting huge amounts of data, machine vision, and drones themselves are all part of a change in the humanitarian industry.The metamorphosis linked to a retreat on one end becomes marked by a shift from a terrestrial, face-to-face, on-the-ground team response swapped on the other end for unmanned, remote, and screen response crisis management. Arguably, it is what Mark Duffield and Dan McQuillan’s work understand as a burgeoning industry of ‘Cyber Humanitarianism’ when engagement and response to vulnerable populations evacuates altogether from a grounded-frictional response, where workaround solutions conceived and engineered by a digital intelligence gathering highlights a ‘paradox of presence.’ This ‘paradox of presence’ predicated on an armamentarium of sensors, satellites, relays, fibre-optic cables, and data warehouses, are the warp and weft of a global interconnected machinic nervous system. Furthermore, this evacuation from a grounded response points especially to Mark Duffield’s works which highlights the growing trend of ‘bunkerization’, which enables humanitarian workers to retreat from the front lines of engagement and govern at a distance. (Duffield, 2015)

The governing at a distance underlies the murky enfolding of technology and humanitarian practice with the growing trend of rendering bodies and populations as testing subjects for the novel uses of technologies for their potential redeployment back to the Global=Core which can be termed a ‘Boomerang Effect’.  Here, the initial phase of testing technologies such as drones under the guise of humanitarian purposes is hinged upon what territories are considered laboratories that “feeds into a production of differently valued bodies considered subject to forms of intervention that would not be acceptable to citizens in the global core.” (Jacobsen, 2015)  Testing and implementation blur an eroding thin line between acceptable forms of intervention and what appears to be necessary interventionism qua depoliticization. Depoliticization as understood here capitulates to a world that can convert readily into crisis camps, or enable populations to remain in remote areas as a means to test and exercise techno-sovereign management. This management arguably undermines an incentive to challenge the structures or conditions that have produced these self-propagating and asymmetrical dependencies.

Notably, it is the link between dependencies and the increasingly imaginative uses of drones that constitutes accordingly for some a ‘politics of the possible’ (Sandvik & Jumbert, 2017) that enables intervention itself to become a mutable and situational practice. Respectively, a ‘politics of the possible’ drives an evolutionary design space for drones as the mutations in their designs and imaginations are increasingly tailored and specified according to ever hostile situations, environments, and war-devastated zones. Ultimately, any hostile situation or environment underlines how drones and its ‘politics of possibility’ become commensurate with a budding humanitarianism. Therefore, resilience entails reconstituting subjects as passive recipients and subjects of aid technologies (biometrics, solar power projects), attempting to empower them as agents confronting embattled environments as they remain confined and warehoused in camps.

Here, resilience humanitarianism conceives of the human being as “as resilient in so far as it adapts to rather than resists the conditions of its suffering in the world. To be resilient is to forego the very power of resistance.” (Reid, 2012) Concomitant with the surging level of displaced people (68.5 million)[1] worldwide, the camp as an organizing territorial structure becomes a constitutive feature of a restive global geopolitical situation.  Turning to the works of Giorgio Agamben and his exploration of the ‘State of Exception’, we can see  how the managing technologies of the ‘camp’ profit from an exemption from conventional law and jurisdiction to be used as weapons by dubious sovereign or external forces.

It is further compounded by the fact that as Dan McQuillan points out, the employment of managing technologies coupled with the algorithmic governance afforded by machinic processes can enable a tendency to escape legal due process and thus create fluctuating states of exception. (McQuillan, 2015) This weapon for sovereign or external authority precipitates fundamental considerations as to who are the cast of sovereigns or authorities, as a diverse ensemble of intergovernmental, international, and non-governmental agencies are simultaneously cooperating and competing in a morphing landscape of Humanitarian Aid. The conventional players on the scene, such as UNHCR find themselves now increasingly in competition with the likes of Silicon Valley as they are gradually entering the humanitarian scene.

Ultimately, it is the entrance of these new players that is further preparing the groundwork for the generation of makeshift self-sustenance settlements in rural and village communities. It is the makeshift settlement that ineluctably gridlocks and normalizes a fate of scarce connectivity as, a form of ‘relief-sovereignty’ becomes the emerging precedent of our age. Crucially, this fate of scarce connectivity becomes constitutive of how drones themselves are resources to ‘preempt’ responses and engagements in risk environments, following in accord with a logic of preemptive governance that “acts not to inhibit a future event from taking place but rather to bring the future into the present as an effect.” (Massumi, 2005) Thus, a future of automated relief and response can anticipate and refashion environments already within the clutches of degradation and disconnection, effectively purposing these environments for the response and actualization of drone-related sovereign-technological management.

II. Dronetarianism History

Already, we can trace the drones’ shuttling in the civilian sector along the continuum of dual-use technologies that trickled their way into the hands of consumers, hobbyists, and filmmakers.  The recent humanitarian decoupling of drones beyond their lethal programming has been demonstrated in their employment in 2010, for purposes of mapping densely populated urban areas, particularly slums in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to understand how land tenure statutes would be affected subsequent to the earthquakes.[1]

Their further acknowledgement and visibility of their use value has been shown in their recent employment in disaster-ridden zones such as Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, which drew in companies such as Duke Energy to rebuild the island’s energy line. The capability to overcome rugged landscapes and traverse the more than 1,000-foot gorges of Ponce was instrumental in recabling critical power lines in the area.

Stoking up speculation about the possible investment opportunities related to drones, the focus on resuscitating ‘Sacrifice Zones’ potentially yield new testing grounds.  Afflicted by paltry job opportunities, obsolete manufacturing or industrial industries, and escalating poverty,  it is visions such as Marc Andersson’s ‘Drone Valley’ that affirm such zones as being amenable to an idealized barrierless or deregulated testing of these technologies in their particular locus. It involves  luring in the promise of a barrierless urban frontier airspace, by compelling cities alike to engage in  regulatory arbitrage competition, one that involves cities relaxing their regulations and fees for players such as Google Fiber to be attracted. It is Andersson’s endorsement of lifting restrictions on drones that “is one way to give other regions a chance to become the next significant locus of innovation.” The lifting of these restrictions capitalizes on the leniency of regulatory systems in order to circumvent unfavorable regulation and oversight altogether, causing concern of ‘a state of economical exception’ and a lack of due process. Even though it is not explicitly spelled out, Andersson envisions a variation on the theme of Silicon Valley, or ‘50 different variations of Silicon Valley’ that infuses local counties and cities alike with their own specialized domain of innovation. [2]Thus, Andersson’s proposal of a Drone Valley arises in the wake of a city such as Detroit embroiled in bankruptcy, hoping capital and investment injection would link up with his vision of airspace as the next incarnation of a commercial expansion of an Internet-like platform. This envisioned dovetailing of airspace, drones, and a tinge of commercial enterprise is not a remote reality, as we presently see its adoption and operationalization in Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya.

These countries have brokered deals with the Silicon Valley Startup ‘ZipLine’ which has pioneered the engineering of a robust, automated, and distributed countrywide network for pharmaceutical and blood delivery. The drone system depends on a fleet of small aircrafts, equipped with twin electric motors, a 3.5-pound payload, and an eight-foot wingspan. Its management of over 20 % of the blood supply in rural Rwanda and its tallying of 300,000 flights since its introduction in 2016, have been touted as the swiftest commercial drone delivery program, blazing at a speed of 128 kilometers an hour.[3] Zipline in conjunction with Silicon Valley’s Matternet has also fielded test prototypes in Bhutan, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Papua New Guinea. Further embracing the skies, Zipline has now begun to set its sights on an expansion into South and North American territory, intending to conduct a test-run of their medical supply run in suburban and rural areas later this year in the United States.

If a grounded humanitarian response becomes increasingly absent as a means of engagement, we can proceed to grasp how drones and their inclusion in localized settings are regarded as opportunities that continue the pattern of enabling necessary resilience in the face of permanently infrastructurally deprived environments. It is this focus that undergirds projects such as Droneport, designed by the architectural studio Foster + Partners, that strive to endow communities with the means of necessary self-sustenance.

Droneport’s vision parallels the operationalization of Zipline, with a ready acknowledgement of a ‘do more with less’ motto that raises an important ambiguity in the possible accessibility of drones to the populations in Africa, where “a third of Africans in rural areas are living within two kilometers of an “all season-road” and 38% of the African population have access to electricity. [1] Droneport enables the construction and maintenance of operating manufacturing centers for drones, with an emphasis on the generation of employment opportunities for the local population. Providing self-assembling material or ‘kit-of-parts’ is seen as a possible leverage point for stranded communities that encompasses a health clinic, a digital fabrication shop, a post and courier room, and an e-commerce trading hub that idealizes its integration into the local community. [2]

The further expansion of possibilities of drones is intended for the creation of impromptu on-demand WiFi networks that share similarities to Alphabet Project Loon, which consists of balloons broadcasting Wi-Fi to remote locations. Mark Zuckerberg’s envisions drones establishing airborne networks that reaffirm the possibility of unmoored autonomy from wired or land-based infrastructure. Yet, the particular concoction of ‘Edible Drones’ or a Silicon Valley Pouncer Edible Drone developed by former army logistics expert Nigel Gifford raises a new plateau in ‘automated’ features and response.

The mutant multi-purpose autoconsumptive-delivery system serves ‘itself’ or the dishes that make up the drone itself, purportedly “having a 50kg payload that should feed 100 people for one day” [3], such as meat and pasta that are deemed to be equivalent to the weight of a standard aluminum frame for feasible delivery purposes. Furthermore, Pouncer provides a “UAV that would have a wingspan of nine feet, big enough to let the shell serve as shelter, the frame as fuel for a cooking fire, and the contents provide food and water for dozens of people.” [4]  Thus, drones in this regard are the ultimate resilient technologies, enwrapping themselves as molecularly laced culinary dishes to habitat construction vehicles and generators of impromptu coordinating networks.

III. Decay Ballet

Ultimately, it again warrants underscoring their repurposing in a paradigm that concedes to the siphoning away from a modernist ethos of rescue and protection that affirmed disasters are essentially preventable accidents occurring outside of a society. (Duffield, 2015) Now, strategies, responses, and aid are expected to adapt to the reality of emergency that necessitates social habitat adaptation and fundamentally anticipates a solution of mitigation that drones are conceived of possible correctives.

Thus, it is this social-political habitat adaptation that reinforces the seeming integrality of drones and their inherent ‘politics of possibility’, a possibility that capitalizes on and preys on the increased impotency of human engagement. It is an impotency bound up with the awesome involutions of machinic warfare, catabolic geopolitics, and the increased sloughing of humans from the informational decisional loop. Overall, the technological management of the drone underlines a shifting ‘power topology’ where, as Ian Shaw contends, this topology ‘is not strictly exercised across space then, but rather, in its capacity to crumple an environment by digitizing it.’ (Shaw, 2013)Therefore, the drones’ capacity not only to destroy but also to shapeshift, digitize, deliver, and administer topologies underscores their sovereign capabilities. Sovereignty, now ephemeral and temporal, is indeed capable of “expanding, shifting, folding, and being reconfigured” chaining those governed below to an automated and machinic dependency for subsistence.  (Kindervater, 2016) Ultimately, it is this reconfigurational ability conferred to the drone that enables it to simultaneously transform the globe into a “digital manhunt reserve” through its enlistment in the global war machine. (Chamayou, 2015)  It equally enables the world to become a permanent camp awaiting the sovereign aerial priest of the drone to administer, respond, and deliver as socio-political decay unravels.

Works Cited:

Chamayou G. (2014) Theory of The Drone.
Halpern, O. (2014). Cybernetic rationality. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 15, 223–238.
Jacobsen, K.. The politics of humanitarian technology : good intentions, unintended consequences and insecurity.
Kindervater K. (2016): Drone strikes, ephemeral sovereignty, and changing conceptions of territory, Territory, Politics, Governance
Massumi, B. (2005) The Future Birth of the Affective Fact.

McQuillan, D. (2015). Algorithmic states of exception. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(4–5), 564–576. doi: 10.1177/1367549415577389.

Noys B. (2015) Drone Metaphysics.

Sandvik, K. B., Jumbert, M. G. (2017). The Good Drone. London: Routledge
Shaw, Ian G. R. (2013) Predator empire: the geopolitics of U.S. drone warfare. Geopolitics, 18 (3). pp. 536-559
Virilio P. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception.




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