Tag Archives: murmuration

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.)

New story – Drones in therapy. Seriously.

Another writing tidbit for today: My short story for Murmuration, “All the Literati Keep an Imaginary Friend”, is now up to read for free.

So you ask, How have you been feeling? And you ask, Do you have trouble rebooting? And you ask, Do you experience difficulty preparing yourself for missions?

How did killing thirty three people, twelve of whom were children, make you feel in the morning?

Did you find yourself altering your flight path for reasons you couldn’t identify?

Do you take unnecessary risks?

The heads-up display registers responses, such as there are. You scan each carefully for any indication of emotional distress. You take copious notes. You bill the government five hundred dollars an hour. The taxpayers go to bed with the warm, fluffy reassurance that someone somewhere is still suffering for what no one wants to do but what no one wants to stop doing, either.

And if you like what Murmuration is doing, we could use your support.

Sunday linkdump: Drive it like you stole it

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Things Occurred.

  • Antidote to all the dismaying SFWA sexist bullshit: “Doctor Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron”, by A.C. Wise.

    For this mission, they’ve chosen strictly retro-future, which means skin-tight silver, boots that come nearer to the knee than their skirts, bubble-barreled ray-guns, frosted white lipstick and, of course, big hair. CeCe the Velvet Underground Drag King called in sick with the flu, so it’s lamé all the way.

  • One of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve read this year is a flash story presented as a Twitter bug report. Read it. Trust me.
  • Stand with Turkey.

    People who are marching to the center of Istanbul are demanding their right to live freely and receive justice, protection and respect from the State. They demand to be involved in the decision-making processes about the city they live in.

    What they have received instead is excessive force and enormous amounts of tear gas shot straight into their faces. Three people lost their eyes.

  • When you’re dealing with highly abstract concepts like states and corporations, what does it mean to grapple with the material?

    We have the ability to fight them in the streets to a degree. We can still burn the buildings down, block the lanes of traffic, and cut the cables. But to do this, we must be able to see these material capillary beds. We cannot fight corporate cops that don’t exist, or boycott nation-state products that don’t need our business. There is a material reality to both states and corporations, but we can easily miss it, distracted by the allusions we have created in our minds for rhetorical simplicity.

  • I did kind of a bit of commentary for Cyborgology on the Kindle Worlds thing.

    The practical implications of this are that traditional tie-in writers might no longer be needed at all. Instead of having to pay authors advances and higher royalty rates, Kindle Worlds presents a dystopian future where media tie-ins are entirely produced by poorly compensated fandom content-serfs, where traditional writers of original fiction are simply no longer needed.

  • “Melancholic Damage.” Rhianna’s new album and racist-sexist discourses of acceptable recovery. Long but so worth it.

    In a multiracial white supremacist partriarchy like ours, resilience distributes racial privilege: “good” black women who “overcome” are granted some of the privileges of whiteness, while women who fail to overcome are racially darkened. To maintain white privilege, one has to keep optimizing one’s human capital. Those who can’t keep up will fall behind, ever closer to precarity, which is racially nonwhite. Whiteness is thus increasingly indexed to resilience, and non-whiteness to precarity. This is actually a vicious cycle — privilege makes it easier to “bounce back” from crisis.

  • Murmuration has begun and this poem is stunning.

    Edward said their thereness is just
    a shadow on the sky. Before depredating colonies
    of pests, the selfish herd moves
    with all the precision of an equation, unraveled
    by game controllers north of Tampa. Of starlings,
    bats, and drones, only drones are native to Florida.

Do like they do.

Sunday linkdump: Shine bright like a diamond

murmuration-drone-festival

Been out of the game for a couple of weeks, finishing a book and defending a dissertation proposal and wrapping up a course. Back now. Have stuff.

  • Why you dislike singular ‘they’.” I am so fucking sick of people complaining about how it’s grammatically incorrect, or it’s too clumsy, or they just can’t be bothered. Sack up, motherfuckers. Also my sister has some knowledge to hit you with:

    I wrote a linguistics final on this: plenty of fluent adult speakers naturally produce “they” as an indeterminate gender pronoun to avoid using the clunkier construction “his or her.” not only is it transphobic bullshit to say third person plurals are grammatically unacceptable, it’s linguistically incorrect.

    BOOM.

  • “Every Every Every Generation Has Been the Me Me Me Generation.” On Time’s awful awful awful Millennial cover story.

    Basically, it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It’s like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences.

  • “The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform.” It’s things like the recent discourse around MOOCs that make me seriously wonder whether I’ve made a huge mistake going into academia and whether maybe I should just toss in the towel and leave the country once I have my PhD rather than watch this institution that I love shit all over itself and die.

    Since educating fewer students would therefore cost money, in effect—and it would also cost money to fully staff the necessary courses—there is no solution to the problem that does not require spending more money on chairs, classrooms, and teachers to teach them. MOOCs enter the picture, then, as a kind of fantasy solution to this unsolvable problem: instead of addressing the problem by either admitting fewer students or adding more courses, we will define the problem differently: chairless classrooms! Everyone is happy.

  • “Star Trek Into the Endless War On Terror.” This piece is fabulous.

    Khan is blowing up Starfleet because they used him and manipulated him to built a war machine capable of defending against people like Khan. Self-justifying, perpetual war machines are what we have come to expect from governments. Even if you are defending the war, you have to justify this “new kind of war” by describing and identifying an enemy that demands a war of ambiguous lines and endless horizons. Talk about policing, intelligence, boots on the ground, or peace-keeping missions but don’t question the need for constant intervention. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek might not be the Star Trek you want, but it is definitely the Star Trek America deserves.

  • “The Ethics of Extreme Porn: Is Some Sex Wrong Even Among Consenting Adults?” Really good response to a recent blog dialogue that questions whether sexual ethics based entirely around consent are a universal good (spoiler alert: kinda, yeah.)

    My generation doesn’t treat consent as a lodestar merely because consent permits pleasurable sexual activity that more traditional sexual codes would prohibit. The ethos of consent is regarded as a lodestar because its embrace is widely seen as an incredible improvement over much of human history; and because instances when the culture of consent is rejected are superlatively horrific. The average 30-something San Franciscan has had multiple friends confide to them about being raped, and multiple friends confide about participating in consensual BDSM. Only the former routinely plays out as extreme trauma that devastates the teller for decades.

  • I’m interviewed in the current Outer Alliance podcast, along with an all-star lineup of folks, about the acronym QUILTBAG and the idea of “metrosexual” and current SF awards. It’s fun.
  • Finally, a thing by me: “Distant droning murmurs” – a reflection on the issues raised for me by Murmuration, a June festival of drone culture.

    Need is by definition a loss of power. And in as much as a drone is a cultural node, it’s a node of political and social power, equally capable of surveillance and lethality, technically exact but inscrutable. A shifting, endlessly accommodating idea isn’t especially trustworthy. But maybe we want to trust. Above all, we want everything to be recognizable. We want to be able to understand.

    What I think may be most terrifying about drones – at least to me – is the prospect that they might ultimately be beyond understanding. But we’ll see what Murmuration can do.

Rihanna and M83 have made a beautiful baby.