A certain thread of theology holds that angels are not actual entities; they are human characterizations of god’s infinite will, manifested in singular points of time and space that we can only represent as corporeal actions by supernatural beings. Drones are the same. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles themselves are made of very real alloys and composites, flown with very real bands of electromagnetic energy emitted from satellite and ground station, launching weapons with exothermic warheads resulting in very real deaths. But “Drones”, as we have come to know them, represent an intensely collapsed political, economic, and social cosmology. They are singular points of world-historical militarism, state control, and technological specialty, orbiting high above our heads, the new astrological wanderers of our mortal fates. Dare we ask the rhetorical question: how many drones can surveil the head of a pin? MQ-1 Predator, MQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-170 Sentinel: these names are the basis of a new hierarchical choir of angels, as cataloged by Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft.
Drones function in our current Future-Present, as a category conglomerated from many components. A MQ-4 has very little to do, technologically, with a smartphone-controlled quadrocopter. The relationship between them, which we fetishize into the category of “drone”, is a composite of factors and values so intricate as to border on the cosmological. It is true that they both fly, with different types of remote control. They both contain cameras, so that a person can see a visual field from the vehicle’s perspective. They both contain technological advances that are not entirely new innovations, though their widespread use and public recognition is a relatively recent event. And yet, one is an expensive toy, while the other changes the geopolitical landscape as a weapon of war. It is only when their use, political significance, and market value are networked to their technological construction that they become equivalent in the Future-Present cosmology.
If angels are too metaphysical a means of getting at the cultural function of such a unifying concept, let us utilize a more atheistic church, another sort of holy ghost. Drones are technology, commodified. Commodities are objects, abstracted from their strict material origins, and invested with a surplus of market-meaning. An automobile, for example, is not so much the frame riding on four wheels; it is not pivotal object of the American Dream; it is more than a single class of “Sport Utility” use-case or a particular brand name. It is all of these things. It is a history of technological advancement, a society’s main means of transportation, and a set of cultural value signifiers, condensed into a single object. What does precision milling equipment have to do with “Tell Laura I Love Her?” Everything and nothing. Technological commodities exists in multiple dimensions of technology, culture, economics, and politics simultaneously. What we perceive is the object, but behind it, is its cosmological network. We watch a video of a drone swarm in a college laboratory. We hear a news report about a drone strike on the other side of the world. We dream about the future of airspace regulation over drone-like inventions that don’t exist yet. We interact with all of these threads when we think, talk, or work with drones...
Superflux headset to enable prosthetic vision.
The Future-Present is something that once one has begun to notice it, it becomes very difficult to not see. This visual pattern of our conception of the future has the occult symbolism of apophenia, an illusion of perception generated as glitching artifact by the same non-illusory means by which we perceive reality. The shape of history projected forward in time looms out in the shape of a monster from patterns of moss on our architecture, and as a prophet from coffee stains on news magazines. Our imagination builds reality both forward and backward in time, as our vision builds reality on both isomorphic sides of the mirror. Our speculative thought catalogs these alternate realities, and we attach them to ourselves like equipment strapped to the stomach of a soldier, and we drag them along with us as we crawl across the surface of the earth, dodging death. Or so we dream, as we let our eyes slowly unfocus, gazing at our liquid crystal screens.
The Future-Present hangs heavy with acquired schematization, grows thickly in the rhizomatics of our mental constructs, and with this decaying biomass, lubricates the sliding transmission of our worldviews. But while the implications of the Future-Present for philosophical theories that deploy such semiotic hardware are important, there is a complex material realm of the Future-Present that should not be ignored. Regardless of what sort of opaque, nebulous terms we develop for the clouds in our temporal vision, they have material form with which we will collide with if we don’t watch where we are going. The gears of the mechanisms are sharp, and the metabolized exertions to avoid injury on the cutting edge are chemically taxing.
This is not simply a matter of seeing correctly and avoiding illusion. The illusions have important meanings. Patterns are the visual boundaries of underlying systems. When a slime mold grows into nearly the exact same shape as the Tokyo rail system, this is not a random coincidence...
Mike Flynn's Ferrofluid Magnetoscope via Make
There are a number of us driven to search the world for the newest forms of magical tricks. We dive into the darkest alleys, the most convoluted of document dumps, the blackest of markets, searching for clues. We tune our aetheric antennas, looking for signals that might indicate a disturbance in the order of things— eddies in the production currents of technology— where such supernatural powers might suddenly emerge.
Arthur C. Clarke’s famous words are often repeated: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What isn’t often mentioned is that this is third of three of Clarke’s Laws. The full list reads as follows:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The third law is delightfully vague, capable of converting from advice for writing space opera, to a commandment of UX design. But in the context of the other two laws, it reads as a presupposition to how we view technological history.
Clarke is directing us to look at the means of the generation of history— the intersection point where the impossible is processed into the possible. The impossible is a large domain— containing impossibilities that may become possible in a week’s time, those that will only be possible in a thousand years, and those that for all intents and purposes within humans’ conception of time, will never be possible. Our knowledge of present technology is projected forward into the unknown, and the way forward is illuminated in heavy shadow, unfolding into what we conceive of as the future. To think about the future you must study history. But you also must be willing to perceive the currently impossible as already becoming historical. This temporally augmented reality is we are calling it in this series of essays, the Future-Present...
This is the first in a series of six essays, drawing on interviews with speculative thinkers finding and defining the technologies of the Future-Present.
Near Tappi Saki, Aomori (via Pink Tentacle)
It is the 21st Century, and history has delivered us into a time when aerial swarms of hypertextual futurist essays sling bombshell proclamations down upon us, guided down the invisible path of a laser beam. With each new detonation our grounding worldview shakes with tectonic intensity, as what we have always known as “the future” is driven to critical fission when hitting the present. Behold, this new technology: the “Future-Present”: where our dreams collide with reality. There is no fantastical World of Tomorrow, and there is no reality in which we know the real from the imagined. There is only the waking dream of the categories’ simultaneous coexistence. In this world, cities explode, the network sings like razor wire, a caustic, aerosolized powder rises up from pavement beneath our feet, people wearing masks shout instructions over our heads. The dream is still going on, a double exposure of ideas over impact weapons. It is difficult to say whether we are excited, or terrified, or bored, or confused. But we understand this, don’t we? We must say we understand this. There is no one else that could understand this, other than us. What would it mean, if no one understood the future?
Still from The Conversation (1974)
Upon hearing the phrase, we may not know exactly what a “cephalic sniffer” is, nor whether it is a real piece of technology. However, as to what such a nefarious device might be able to do, we could surely begin to imagine from the name alone. And as for whether it is technological reality (it is not, being invented by Philip K. Dick in his story Clans of the Alphane Moon), from its “sci-fi” sounding alliteration we might guess correctly that it is purely fantasy.
At least it was fantasy when PKD invented it in 1964. Today, advances in biometric identification mean that while a device that can search out an individual by his or her brainwaves is not yet on the market (at least publicly), searching out a person by face or speech pattern is decidedly real. Furthermore, brain-computer interface devices (BCI) have been commercially available since at least 1999. So how far are we from the technological reality of a biometric tracking system hacking BCIs and tracking individuals? If we change the name to “brainwave keylogger”, it suddenly is less fantastic, and frighteningly plausible.
Submitted for your consideration: an entire list of surveillance concepts, proposed by science-fiction stories. Note the technologically real items: Augmented Reality, ubiquitous surveillance, drones, eavesdropping rays, and tracking systems. These are all things that we might call “cutting edge tech”, but indeed, certainly real tech. Surprise, shock, uncanniness, paranoia— yes, it is repeated enough to be cliche--the future is here.
But what is truly uncanny about our present “not-so-distant future”, is that we continue to refer to it as the future. There is no need to speculate. We have a fully evolved culture of surveillance technology in the United States. Here is another list: this time of non-fictional surveillance concepts. They range from the slightly-troubling to the fully-horrifying, but they all are now employed by the government of the United States for the purposes of so-called “National Security”:
Palantir, No-Fly List, Full Body Scanners, “If you see something, say something”, Border Searches are Exempt from the 4th Amendment, Stop and Frisk, NYPD spying on Muslims,TSA harassment of children, the elderly, DHS spying on activists, That DHS exists, FBI terrorism entrapment, Domestic Drone Surveillance, Private Prisons, Over 1% of US Citizens in Jail, National Security Letters, FISC Courts, Immigration Policy, Abu-Ghraib Prison Abuse, Guantanamo Prison Camp, Extraordinary Rendition, Torture, Codifying Indefinite Detention, FBI seeking backdoors in electronic communications, ICE raids on websites, Iris scans of civil disobedience protesters, Warrantless Wiretaps, Recorded Future, The Domestic Communications Assistance Center
Nevertheless, the primary means by which we engage with surveillance culture outside of the news media is still speculative art and fiction. Speculation allows us, as both creators and readers, to play design-fiction with reality. It is rapid prototyping in emerging psychological patterns. But these thought experiments do not exist in a vacuum.