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What Do Drones Mean for Humanity?

By - October 23, 2013

predator-firing-missile4(Image) One of the “artifacts” that Sara and I are paying close attention to as we work on the book is “the drone.” Drones ply the liminal space between the physical and the digital – pilots fly them, but aren’t in them. They are versatile and fascinating objects – the things they can do range from the mundane (aerial photography) to the spectacular – killing people, for example. And when drones kill – well, what does it mean, to destroy life, but to not be physically present while doing it?

Until today, drone warfare for me has been a largely intellectual concept: I followed the political and social issues closely, but I avoided emotional engagement – most likely because I knew I hadn’t quite worked out my point of view on the ethical issues. But after reading Matthew Power’s Confessions of a Drone Warrior, I can no longer say I’m not emotionally involved.

The article profiles Brandon Bryant, a retired Airman  trained to pilot Predator drones above Iraq and Afghanistan. Bryant’s story frames all that we’re struggling with as a nation, as citizens, and as human beings when it comes to this new technology. As Powers writes:

…the very idea of drones unsettles. They’re too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties—the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we’ve slipped into a dystopia of disconnection. Maybe it’s too soon to know what drones mean, what unconsidered moral and ethical burdens they carry. Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

Bryant understood that his job probably saved lives, on balance, but over time his ambivalence grew.

Often he’d think about what life must be like in those towns and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now.

By the time he left the service, Bryant had aided in killing, or directly killed, more than 1600 human beings. That’s a heavy burden. He fell apart, and was diagnosed with PTSD. I found this passage particularly difficult to internalize:

Forty-two percent of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.” A later study found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews. These effects appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)

Existential conflict. I think there’s a very important concept to explore in those two words, one that is highlighted by the proposed remedy: To give technology – a non human actor – the agency of a human being, so that we can transfer the conflict we feel about killing to a machine.

It makes me wonder how much of that we do in everyday life already, on a far less dramatic scale. In any case, it’s clear that killer drones are not going away. The real question is how we as a society will internalize what they mean for our humanity. Bravo to GQ for publishing such a thought provoking piece of journalism. And to Bryant for being willing to speak out.

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4 thoughts on “What Do Drones Mean for Humanity?

  1. Mark says:

    Speaking of plying the space between digital and physical, here’s an Interesting story on the origin of that photo: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/the-canonical-image-of-a-drone-is-a-rendering-dressed-up-in-photoshop/274177/

  2. Finding Healthy Food says:

    Makes me think of our food, our waste, our clothes, our energy, our devices… all created and disposed of without much witness.

  3. dbv says:

    How much real difference is there between firing a cruise missile from a ship or a guided missile from a fighter plane and the actions of a droid? All are computer/software controlled.

    When commercial paparazzi drones take compromising photos of celebrities will the outcry insist that human paparazzi be the norm?