Chris Anderson has famously compared the nascent drone market to the early days of PCs, comparing it with the Homebrew Computer Club, the Bay Area hobbyist meetup where the Apple I was first unveiled. It may seem an odd comparison—the drone is thought of as military technology and (more recently) luxury plaything, while the Homebrew Computer Club is remembered for its utopian beliefs about putting technology into the hands of the people. But while Apple's forays into personal computers were groundbreaking, the "PC" abbreviation historically referred to its greatest threat, the IBM PC standard, a revolutionary form of computer architecture that was easily licensed and copied, and which shaped the personal computer market for over a decade. Drones do not yet have a "PC standard," but if they did, it might be the tipping point that could catapult drones into the mainstream and unlock their social utility.
We have yet to see what this social utility will be. Militarized drone technology has a well-established place among the many tools of the surveillance state. Looking at the history of the computer's shift from an awkward, heavy, military and commercial engineering project to something we carry in our pockets, one wonders how drones might make a similar transition. Some of the first ideas for non-military drones, such as catching poachers, have some way to go in development before they will actually be useful. So far, one of the best uses for drone technology is in the field of cartography. Drones like senseFly's eBee can map a large area very quickly, and rectify imagery to GPS maps. But drones like these cost thousands of dollars and run proprietary software in order to work so seamlessly. What if drone technology were to be transformed in a similar manner to computers, so that standard architecture and operating systems allowed cheaper, more universal hardware and software?
In the late 1970s, desk-sized computers were typically terminals linked to mainframes where the real processing was done. But with the miniaturization of transistor functions into integrated circuits, desktop computers became possible.These early personal computers were sold as kits, and required a hefty investment as well as technical know-how to assemble and operate. When the Apple II was introduced in 1977, it was one of the first "out of the box" personal computers; BYTE magazine called it the first "appliance computer". But the Apple II was still expensive, and with an operating system and architecture limited to this machine only, all compatible software had to be designed specifically for this system. In 1980, less than 10% of 14 million small businesses in the US had personal computers, and of large corporations, less than 3% used personal computers on a regular basis.1 Investing in a limited hobby system was not a priority for most companies.
Map of East End Net, London. Via.
Let us summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point [...] It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills.
- Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
Thus is described the rhizome, the symbol of the internet age. When Michel Foucault said that the 20th century may one day be called Deleuzian, it is doubtful that this is what he intended. And yet, the language of this young, networked century so far is mimicking the speech of the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.
The language of Deleuze and Guattari is employed by everyone from the Israeli Defense Forces to this arts website, including any number of for-profit and non-profit startups in between those poles. War machines, companies, NGOs, and arts organizations all find utility in a philosophy that describes systems moving according to programmatic algorithms, breaking through what was solid, and re-writing the codes of meaning. War, commodities, society, and art all function according to their own programming. The public is coming to terms with the knowledge that the internal coding of networks is what defines future possibilities in the 21st century.
And yet, we are often too quick to tell ourselves that this programming can be rewritten for the greater social good. In our enthusiasm for the rhizomatic fruits of this new century, we often neglect the technology itself, replacing it with our ideas of what the technology could be. It is far easier to wield ideologically expedient speculative fictions than to develop socially expedient tools.
Consider what might be the most rhizomatic technology of them all: the mesh network. In words it is the perfect rhizome. Independent nodes set up the same piece of software in their network router. Every router connects to every other router, forming a multi-dimensional web with no central point to be disabled. It is "legion," to use a familiar term from contemporary parlance: each point is not a separate unit, but n-dimensions of distributed power. Some routers are designed to connect to each other ad hoc, over the air, without needing any wires between them. Even cell phones can connect in such a mesh, promoting a vision of infinite, pocket-sized nodes, deployed at a protest or as a hedge against infrastructure-destroying natural disaster. They could be manufactured in bulk, as cheap as a Raspberry Pi, solar-powered, disguised as innocuous light fixtures or other small appliances. The mesh network vision is of a rhizomatic network that is local, horizontal, self-healing, non-hierarchical, and scalable. Philosophically, its kung fu is perfect—bending like a reed in the wind against any foe, whether deployed by Occupy, by Egyptian revolutionaries, against censorship, war, flooding, poverty, or ISPs. In language, it is everything we expect from the future, the fantasy of certain post-structural technological desires.
Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, still from The Forgotten Space (2010).
I woke up at the chime, looked at the mobile. New work available. I clocked in, made coffee, sat at the desk. Two hours of work right away, even before Twitter. Felt accomplished. I invoiced, and collected.
I met Sandra for breakfast. She's in Miami. She had the ceiling open to let in the sun. She got into a new task queue, editorial work. It's good work, she said, even though the pay isn't quite as good as advertising. What's the difference, I said, sipping my Bloody Mary. Different algorithmic authors, same algorithmic grammar problems.
Former Ministry of Highways Building, Tbilisi.
There is a sense in which all architecture is authoritarian, regardless of its ideals. No matter how many community meetings a planning process incorporates, in the end only one building may be built; one architecture, which by its very existence precludes another. The eventual users and non-users of the space may make minor modifications. They may open or close windows, but in the end they must deal with the consequences of the building, whether it is a postwar housing project or a San Jose strip mall. They must negotiate its little manipulations, and have little in the way of recourse if these should become oppressive.
Artists, at least of a particular bent, are not the sort to take authority at its word. Even under the most oppressive of conditions artists find ways to critique and to criticize, and to present alternate theories of the world. They respond to all forms of power, architecture included, through gestures that range from the most basic act of graffiti to Ai Weiwei's "studies of perspective."