You know a technology has become truly pervasive when it makes a fuss in Auchterarder. Last Friday, residents of the douce Perthshire town reported to the police that a flying drone had been seen moving “close to people and buildings”.
A Police Scotland representative noted the current popularity of drones “to film or take photographs”, but urged users “to adhere to existing aviation laws and regulations.”
So nimbyists can now add the buzzing, camera-bearing mini-copter - along with the quad-bike, the T-In-The-Park raver, or the planet-saving wind farm - to the list of items they don’t want in their back yard.
But drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in official language) are beginning to make their impression on all of our hearths, everywhere. We know them first, and terrifyingly, from the modern battlefield.
These drones are odd, bulbous-nosed, strangely-winged aircraft, bearing cameras and missiles. They are remotely directed by their human operators in Nevada (and now, recently, Lincolnshire), missioned to conduct “counter-terrorist” activities in the Middle-East and Africa. Which means targeting and killing individuals or sites deemed to be a threat to US or UK national security.
Their buzzsaw noise may twitch the curtains in Auchterarder Main Street. But in areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, a generation has grown up knowing that the sound of a drone presages death from above.
Afghan women are now weaving motifs of drone planes into their traditional carpets. Pashtun women, composing their traditional “landays” (folk poems), cannot escape the subject. One mother, Chadana, recently wrote: “Nabi was shot down by a drone./May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.”
Over here, we are familiar with the official spokesmen who says “precision-targeting” the baddies, taking out from on high the “nodes in their terror network”, is far preferable to losing soldiers’ lives on the battlefield, blundering and bludgeoning towards the same end. We also know the on-the-ground reports that tell another story - of imprecision and collateral damage on children and families, and the spirit of revenge that recruits even more to the anti-Western cause.
Yet even as the term “drone” cannot shake off the dust of war, or the calculus of blood and retribution, we seem to be on the cusp of a new aerial popular culture. Of which the disorder in Auchterarder is only a couthy sign.
The same news report notes that father-of-two Nigel Wilson, 42, of Bingham, Nottinghamshire, pleaded guilty last month to nine counts of flying his camera-drone over the grounds of Premiership and Champions League games with Arsenal and Liverpool, or London landmarks like Westminster or the Queen Victoria Memorial.
Mr. Wilson then uploaded the videos to his YouTube channel, appealing for subscribers. He practised his drone-flying skills in his back garden (though not well enough to prevent his device frightening the policehorses at Anfield). Part of Wilson’s £1800 fine was because he “lost sight” of his own device, which goes against Civil Aviation Authority regulations.
Now, there are Silicon Valley moguls, like the venture capitalist and internet pioneer Marc Andreessen, who would hear this story and start jumping up and down in fury. Look at the appetite for expertise, the entrepreneurship, the sheer enthusiasm of this civilian! Using new technology to push forward the frontiers of entertainment! Don’t let regulation stand in the way of the next wave!
Surveying the bewildering array of everyday uses for off-the-shelf drones, it’s hard not to grant that there is something elemental - what Keynes would call “animal spirits” - being tapped into here. Remember Icarus, anyone? And as the Scottish band put it, we were indeed promised jetpacks, if not flying cars. In lieu of that future, we have given ourselves flying eyes.
And how they fly! Camera-drones slowly scroll over the tip of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Geeks will thrill at the forest race that allows drone pilots - with their video-specs and hand-held controllers - to recreate the high-speed chase through the Endorian trees in Return of the Jedi.
There is also an extraordinary device called a Lily. You throw it in the air to make it fly, and it then follows a homing device on your wrist, recording your every move at a respectful distance. Cue lots of white-water rapids videos - but also imagine new kinds of documentary in the hands of film-makers.
However, it’s in whose hands civilian drones are placed, and what regulatory visions for their usage we decide upon, that are the vital questions. Yes, it’s initially funny to watch some guy scarify kids and joggers in a park, with a quadricopter dressed up as a Halloween ghoul. And who could fault the cheekiness of anti-spying protestors last month, dropping leaflets over a surveillance centre from their drone?
But the bigger corporate plans give off the stench of hubris. Any urban dweller knows, intuitively, that Amazon’s grand UAV plan (an aerial delivery service, flying drone-assembly kits straight to your home) will ultimately crash into the tarmac.
We can just about cope with the rush and clash of car culture. But add to our street-lives another layer of noise and dangerous space (this time, somewhere close above our heads)? And with all that driven by pure commercial competition, according to US (or City of London) shareholder imperatives? I don’t think that’s the spirit of the age.
I can imagine drones being folded into other coming automations we’re grappling with. Try and find the clip of several UAVs building a rope bridge by themselves, strong enough for a human to walk across. In ten or twenty years time, I predict the average building site will be emanating the whirr of blades, not the whistles of wolves.
There is already a strong narrative around the use of civilian drones in gathering environmental and farming data, or assisting disaster relief. We often get the 18th century Luddites wrong: their response to their own era of radical innovation was that it should always past the test of "benefitting the commonality”. I think we have a deep feeling for this, and that it will apply to civilian drones, as it did with computers and IVF.
But before we skip gaily off to the future, we must be ready for what the legacy of military drones attacks could be for us, over here as well as over there. In 2008, the Scottish-born disaster expert Vinay Gupta anticipated that what he called the “combat robotics” of the West against the rest could have a terrible blowback.
“The natural countermove to being faced with a robotic military is to strike at vulnerable civilian targets behind it”, wrote Gupta, in order “to make it completely clear that whatever political decision is being implemented, using combat robots, is not going to cost only the blood of the oppressed… Creating soldiers which cannot be killed simply forces those who oppose empire to hit civilian targets”.
You don’t need a drone to execute this kind of revenge logic. But I wouldn’t discount their usage either. We are back to the age-old struggle, as to whether we attach the means of our technological invention to the wrong ends - and whether those ends are most wrong when military-based or -influenced.
But talking and acting peacefully is our ultimate and lasting security, in a tense, networked world where war could easily be as pervasive as work, or love. A world where the eye of a buzzing drone can potentially level at you through your pellucid Perthshire window. Let’s start to think about how we ensure it’s either pest, prankster or paparazzi, and not something much worse.
Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury - a rich day's news in the Scottish papers, and a few pegs on which to hang some thoughts about the thorny issues of defence and energy policy for the independence movement. Should we be in the business of lamenting lost UK MOD jobs, or promoting our carbon-intensive industries as the climate crisis worsens? Your thoughts, please.
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Emerging from the season's convivialities, with my nose deep in tomes about climate-crisis and social psychology, it's been a cauld blast returning to Scotland's news agenda. The Scottish government's press office has clearly pushed its pedal to the metal in the last few days. Wednesday's papers were full of neatly placed stories featuring terribly dynamic SNP representatives (with sports minister Shona Robison looking braw but raw on the Aviemore slopes).
Yet the page two leads display all the contradictions of Nationalist politics aimed at defending "the Scottish interest", however flexibly that is conceived. Angus Robertson, the SNP's lead representative in Westminster, regularly draws the short straw in having to publicly fight for Scotland's share of UK defence spending. Yesterday Robertson was complaining that Scotland had "lost out" on 10,500 jobs and £5.6 billion in spending over the last decade, and was facing a future where "one in four service posts were cut".
"Conventional UK armed forces will become concentrated in 'supergarrisons' and bases. commanded and trained almost exclusively in the South of England", continued Robertson. And the problem is, Angus? Not much, for those of us who reach for Hamish Henderson's Freedom Come A' Ye before they can mouth a single line of Flower of Scotland: "Nae mair will our bonnie callants/Merch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw..."
How much historical irony would there be in a Tory-led Coalition, swingeing its axe at public expenditure, doing more to demilitarise Scottish identity than all the bards, playwrights and protestors combined? It's a strange feeling to be at one with a Tory Scotland Office minister when he warns that "Scotland's defences would be reduced to little more than a handful of fisheries protection vessels". Again, instead of being a critique, shouldn't that be an aspiration?
A party that's set itself against Trident and Middle-East adventuring, having to defend its stake in a military-industrial complex that brings jobs to both the barrack sodjers and the hi-tech industrial sectors (never mind naval ports still tending to nuclear warheads)? To say the least, defence is a continuing incoherence for the independence agenda. For myself, it's an example of having to take sides in Scotland (in Jim Sillars's words), as much as taking Scotland's side - that is, the left side.
Below that item, another production of the SNP press office, provoking a future scenario in which those very same fisheries protection vessels might well be deployed. Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan is backing Barra fishermen in their opposition to the establishment of a marine reserve around Rockall, which might potentially affect their catches brought in from around that area, worth around £1.6 million to the island.
Rockall also pops up in another Wednesday story, which reports that the UN is to examine Denmark's recently asserted claim to the islet of Rockall and its surrounding continental shelf (competing with Iceland, Ireland and the UK's existing claim). Rockall is 300 miles west of Scotland, a rather pointless chunk of rock 19m high, 25m across, 30m wide... but with possible deposits of natural oil and gas in the seabed around it.
Again, as the massed armies of doorsteppers and well-suited tele-politicians get ready for their ideological salvoes leading up to the May elections, it's fascinating to recall some of the craggier undersides of Scottish power politics. For example, the Scottish fishing industry is one of those parallel economic realities of this nation which barely surfaces in the largely-Central-Belt dominated news agenda.
Even its language is quite beautifully other. Wikipedia tells us that it's best to divide the Scottish fishing fleet into its demersal (sea-bottom), Nephrops (crustacean) and pelagic (mid-sea) sectors. But beyond the chippy (sorry) defences of Scottish fisherman's trawling rights and quotas, it's actually quite comforting to know that our fishing industry comes under post-national European governance - a process whereby environmental, economic and territorial rights are equilibriated by rooms full of contending Eurocrats, experts, and national politicians. They share a realisation that fish stocks could provoke the ultimate 'tragedy of the commons' - where insufficient regulation exhausts a shared but finite resource - if the long view is not taken across all parties.
It strikes me there's probably a lot of geopolitical wisdom to be plumbed from the Scottish fishing industry (it's now on my clearly insufficient radar). And interesting to see Alasdair Allan, always one to watch in the SNP firmament, take it on so stridently.
But the question of who actually possesses Rockall involves much bigger players, and much higher stakes, than the the crab-fishing lobbyists of Barra. What an independent Scotland would do with newly discovered resources of oil and gas - if Rockall was transferred to Scottish sea-bed sovereignty, or via any other discovery - is a much trickier question than the tub-thump of "it's Scotland's oil" would indicate.
As I said at the beginning, I'm deep down in the literature of climate crisis at the moment, researching for my follow-up to The Play Ethic. And if there is any message that thunders out from the literature before me - in terms of how we prevent a catastrophic increase in global warming - it is the sheer toxicity of oil and coal as the energy drivers of developed and developing economies. (Though natural gas, according to these gurus, is a somewhat more helpful resource.)
I think there will have to be a dawning (though painful) realisation among Scottish nationalists that, yes, we have missed the boat on the benefits of Scottish oil - but in other ways than the obvious lament for thirty lost years of a Norwegian-style oil fund.
Our old centre-left arguments about Thatcherism pissing the infrastructural benefits of the North Sea up against the wall of consumerism, property and speculation have to be amended. For these were also the years when terrifying, exponential rates of damage to the carrying-capacity of this planet were inflicted, by a model of development equally shared by left and right - a notion of economic growth-through-production-and-consumption, predicated on easy energy from carbon-spewing sources. If the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change is correct, that model and notion has to change drastically, implying huge changes for the basic experience of living in modern Scotland.
Yet the discourse from all of the mainstream parties in Scotland about national economic development still talks about "levers to growth" - as if "growth" itself wasn't under the most exacting scrutiny at the moment, from environmentalists and other perspectives (like the Sarkozy Commission on new measurements of economic progress which Joseph Stiglitz, now a Scottish economic advisor, served on).
As I've proposed elsewhere, the renewable energy sector in Scotland is still the strongest possible synthesis of different elements of Scottish progress – involving native talent, natural resource, and the need for control over market conditions that create incentives for innovation and dynamism.
But if we don't squarely face our complicity in a carbon-heavy economy - which certainly implicates car-intensive road developments as capital projects, never mind the completely delusory claims of "clean-coal" (or CCS) technology - our rhetoric about Scotland as the "renewables powerhouse of Europe" will be more like greenwash than a Green New Deal.
I'm not hugely impressed with the Scottish Greens' contributions to our public debates - sometimes it seems they've been too infected with the testosteronal yah-boo that disfigures much debate in Holyrood. But we need a consistent left-green perspective on the independence question. Perhaps this is a discussion that movements and voices beyond the party system need to keep raising (as focussed by the excellent ideas-blog Bella Caledonia).
All that from one day with the Wednesday papers. As that old volcano once sputtered: "Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?"
THOUGHTLAND is a blog of ideas, from a left-green perspective, supporting the campaign for Scottish nation-state independence - and once achieved, the full development and progress of Scotland itself. Author: Pat Kane.
WHO MAKES UP THE INTELLECTUAL LIFE OF SCOTLAND? A list of ideas-generators - writers, academics, blogs, think-tanks, magazines - which keep the debate about the Scottish future informed and progressing.
Any suggestions? Mail me at the 'Contact Pat Kane' link above