So what the hell is with all the drones, anyway?

art by Christopher F. Smith for Murmuration

One of the cool things about how I do fiction is that the boundary between my SFF life-segment and my academic life-segment is extremely permeable, and things often move back and forth across it. I write about technology in my fiction (sometimes) and I write about technology in my academic work (most of the time), and often I write about fiction in my academic work as well. But I feel like that’s been happening even more lately, and in more dramatic ways. I think these ways are worth taking a closer look at. I also think those movements across the boundary have a tremendous amount to do with drones.

Those who follow my Cyborgology writing already know that I was writing a lot about drones before the current issue of Clarkesworld came out, which features – as I’ve been yelling about all day – “I Tell Thee All, I Can No More”, a story about humans having sex with drones. But those who don’t may be wondering what the hell I’m doing in the story in that issue (true confession: I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing in the story in that issue) and even those who are aware of some of the writing I’ve been doing on drones may be wondering why I seem so fixated lately on that particular topic, so I think it might be worth addressing that directly at this point.

Why the hell am I writing all this stuff about drones? There are several reasons, all of them involving both my writer and theorist hats (they’re floppy).

Drones are fictional. Most of my own conceptual approach toward drones has its origin in a fantastic piece written by Adam Rothstein (one of the minds behind Murmuration) for The State. In his essay Rothstein makes the provocative argument that when we talk/write/think about “drones” what we’re really talking/writing/thinking about is “a cultural node–a collection of thoughts, feelings, isolated facts, and nebulous paranoias”. In other words, drones are fictional, a construction created by us to try to capture hundreds of different things that we attach to some roughly agreed-upon idea of droneness. Rothstein continues:

A drone is a literary character–it is an archetype of uncanny and deadly technology, spread out around us in the geopolitical world in such a way that they are nearly invisible to our non-fictional sense of fact, and yet around us all the time in fiction, invisibly hiding in the clouds, with as much reality as a paranoid delusion. And yet a drone is a literary character with the actual power to kill. They are related to the world of fact as surely as a bullet fired out of the pages of a novel, hitting the reader in the face. The substance that we use to create the fictional character of drones is drawn from a world where these are not speculations, but every day fact.

So when I write about drones, I’m not writing about the MQ-1 Predator or the RQ-4 Global Hawk or the Wasp III. I’m writing about that archetype, that nebulous concept that can accommodate any number of assumptions and ideas about what a drone is. That’s why, in my Clarkesworld story, I write:

Hovering over your bed, all sleek chrome and black angles that defer the gaze of radar. It’s a cultural amalgamation of one hundred years of surveillance. There’s safety in its vagueness. It resists definition. This is a huge part of its power. This is a huge part of its appeal.

I think one of the reasons why we find drones so powerful as a concept is that vagueness, that potential for massive accommodation. It’s also one of the things that makes a drone powerful as a literary device. It’s something that can be written about, but not directly; one writes through it in order to write about other things. So when I – or others – write about drones, don’t let the drones distract you too much.

Drones are loci of power. When we consider a drone, usually what we think of is warfare, surveillance, or some combination of both. Warfare and surveillance are both ways in which power is exercised, and historically that power has been characterized as state power, though with the rise of corporations and NGOs that’s no longer reliably the case. But drones kill, and drones watch, and there’s power in that, and I can think of very few things to write about more interesting than power (or the absence of it).

I think most of us are writing about power most of the time. Regardless of what we’re actually trying to discuss or what stories we’re trying to tell.

So there’s a particular kind of power in drones. But increasingly that power is difficult to locate with any certainty. Who has the power in the human-drone-human arrangement? The operator (I have some issues with the term pilot)? The target? The drone itself? Where is the power coming from, regardless of who’s actually in possession of it? A state? A small institutional pocket within a state? A corporation? This is one of the reasons why drones used by protestors (as recently in Turkey and less recently within the context of Occupy) are so fascinating to me: they completely fuck with that dynamic, turning surveillance back on itself. They call into question normative arrangements of power and control.

Power is worth writing about, in any form.

Drones fuck with agency. One of the most interesting and most frustrating things about how we talk about drones is the presence – and more often the absence – of human agency. We often talk about drones as if there were no human operator at all; they simply fade into the background. The removal of human agency and its corollary human responsibility – which Nathan Jurgenson issues a great argument against here –  is a fundamental part of our existing drone fiction.

Speaking for myself, this has actually gotten me into trouble with some readers, and I get the sense I Tell Thee All” might confuse some people for the same reason: Why aren’t I writing about the human operator? Why are all my drones in full possession of their own drone agency?

Because I’m trying to call attention to the fact that that’s what we do, a lot of the time. That’s how we talk about drones. You absolutely should be going “Wait, whoa, where’s the operator in this story?” That’s the point.

Again, it comes back to power: Who can act and how? What consequences do those actions have – or not have? What actions don’t we see, or do we interpret in strange ways? What can people get away with? For which actions are we prepared to look the other way?

Locating the human in the machine and vice-versa is also a puzzle that we’re constantly trying to figure out. A huge amount of the history of SFnal writing has been focused on that problem. I and a number of my colleagues have taken up the argument that there ‘s much less of a meaningful difference between the two than we like to think, but it’s still something that – socioculturally – we still seem to all be grappling with. Drones are profoundly mechanical and profoundly human both at once, but the human gets discursively lost  – often the targets as well as the operators. In the end there’s only the drone.

We are human machines and mechanical humans. This is always – always – worth writing about.

That’s all some of why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s all some of why it matters. I and many others think this is a conversation that needs to be had. And I think it’s going really well so far.

(And you should check out Murmuration if you haven’t.)

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