Drone Ethnography

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Trevor Paglan, The Other Night Sky

Suppose you wanted to build your own drone—well, hold on a minute—why do you want to build your own drone?

What do you mean, “why?” The answer is, you'd go to Dronepedia  first, and then to DIY Drones , where you'd find out where to get started with a simple kit or pre-made drone.

But suppose you just wanted to find out some of the latest info on the US government's top secret drone projects. Don't even ask me why, it should be obvious. You'd want to do like artist Trevor Paglen , and travel to remote testing locations to snap photographs of strange shapes taking off from military bases, along with the planespotters. Either that, or travel to  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and now Somalia  with a good pair of binoculars.

And then if you want a little bit a speculation about drones, you pick up the paranoid defense blogging of Danger Room  or the design-fiction of sousveillance and cyborg specialists like Tim Maly . And then you—

Okay. I thought it was clear, but if you want me to spell it out for you, I will. You are obsessed with drones. We all are. We live in a drone culture, just as we once lived in a car culture. The Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is your '55 Chevorlet. You just might not know it yet.

I have thirty-five browser tabs open, and each contains a fragment of the drone-mythos. Each is a glimpse at a situation, a bird’s eye view of the terrain. So many channels, showing me the same thing: near-infinite data collection. With the help of Google, I’m drone-spotting—I'm turning a new critical perspective that I'm calling Drone Ethnography, back on itself.

All of us that use the internet are already practicing Drone Ethnography. Look at the features of drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Surveillance, Sousveillance. Networks of collected information, over land and in the sky. Now consider the “consumer” side of tech: mapping programs, location-aware pocket tech, public-sourced media databases, and the apps and algorithms by which we navigate these tools. We already study the world the way a drone sees it: from above, with a dozen unblinking eyes, recording everything with the cold indecision of algorithmic commands honed over time, affecting nothing—except, perhaps, a single, momentary touch, the momentary awareness and synchronicity of a piece of information discovered at precisely the right time. An arc connecting two points like the kiss from an air-to-surface missile. Our technological capacity for watching, recording, collecting, and archiving has never been wider, and has never been more automated. The way we look at the world—our basic ethnographic approach—is mimicking the technology of the drone. 

Epistemological change in inevitable, but there is more going on here than a revolution in research tools. There is a feeling I can only describe as the presence of “The Swarm”, a fundamental aesthetic of the drone-mythos. It's an unexpected mythological evolution that has come about along with the technological evolution. There's nothing groundbreaking about myths accompanying new technology. But this mythos is different. The industrial revolution didn't see a burgeoning number of DIY textile mills. This is more along the lines of the birth of the automobile—a seemingly simple invention that not only revolutionized its particular task, but also changed society.

 

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