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 - the product of more than a few days spent obsessed with the current Egyptian uprising, via all the new media forms and continuous live feeds that exists to keep the armchair viewer of world history occupied. At the end, some rueful reflections on the comparative bathos of the coming Scottish Election. All comments welcome.
And indeed it has not been an edited package, “brought to you by Xerox, in four parts without commercial interruptions”, as Scott-Heron once growled. Via Twitter, BBC Online and the continuous live web transmissions of Al Jazeera English, it has been very easy to set aside my daily world of gigs, commissions and bills, and be an armchair witness to history.
Al Jazeera English, in particular, has been fascinating. With anchors and journalists from Britain, the US and the middle-East, it’s been like watching BBC and CNN liberated from the usual ideological manacles that contain English-speaking news discourse about civil unrest.
State heads like Obama, Mubarak and his hastily appointed new cabinet have certainly had their pronouncements dutifully covered. But it’s Al Jazeera’s prior and substantial presence in Egypt – with scores of journalists already in the bureaus, and (after the station was evicted from the country in the last few days) anonymously phoning in reports from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria – that has rendered the most extraordinary record of events.
Covertly recording footage from rooftops, combined with eyewitness accounts on satellite phones, they’ve captured the early joy and exhilaration of the occupation of Liberation Square, and the current slide into near civil war, as the anti-government masses desperately defend their occupation of this symbolic space.
The minute-to-minute reportage has been, to these eyes and ears, properly balanced. They’ve not just recorded the unpredictable miasma of events that a leaderless street revolution brings, but also allowed an impressive Egyptian intelligentsia to inform the agenda of what’s happening.
We should perhaps call them netocrats – so many are self-described as bloggers and social media experts. On a roundtable I watched in the early days of the uprising, Al Jazeera gathered together a youthful trio that exuded intelligence, charisma and a profound distrust of any vertical leadership, including that of the Nobel Peace Prize winning nuclear weapons inspector El-Baradei.
They sounded like a graduate generation, their awareness of better standards of democracy and development amplified by social media and the internet – all this building up a swell of impatience with the steely paternalism of the Mubarak regime. And let’s not forget their inspiration by the thoroughly cyber-spaced Tunisian revolution – which used Wikileaks’s leaked cables about Tunisian political corruption as the spark to mobilise a similarly educated and connected graduate class.
Some of these Egyptian netocrats are exiled in major metropolises. But they’re using both top-down and bottom-up information tools in order to become their own personalised news channels. They not only aggregate comment from friends, family and colleagues on the ground through social media, but also drive traffic to these aggregations through pugnacious tv interviews.
Foremost among these is Mona Eltahawy, currently all over US and UK TV and the Twittersphere, in which she assiduously re-tweets voices and accounts from the literal heart of the revolution (like Mosa’ab Elshamy, Sharif Kouddous, and Ramy Raoof). Follow these feeds, and you’re right at the core of the spectacle in Tahrir Square.
In this thoroughly reverberating net-world, you can also make direct personal connections with like-minded souls, through very simple and direct means. At the beginning of the uprising, I tweeted an image I found on the BBC website – a photo of protestors linking arms to protect the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo from looters.
The text that accompanied the image was: “The human wall protecting Cairo museum. So beautiful”. Which it was: a row of men, in civilian clothes, looking fearful but determinedly defending their heritage.
Since then, I’ve seen that my tweet has been distributed (or as they say, re-tweeted) thousands of times – my original text retained, and framed with several languages from both hemispheres. Yes, there have since been reports of museum lootings and destruction of artefacts, though with Cairenes and the army combining again to protect the treasures within.
But in the meantime, my text and image just keeps getting passed on from hopeful idealist to hopeful idealist around the world. People seem to want an idea that defies the narratives of chaos and destruction shaping most news reports on the Egyptian uprising.
It’s a subtle and moving image. What it communicates is that revolution isn’t just about unleashing the unruly masses, but also can be a wise and informed act of self-determination. That an uprising can be just as aware of what needs to be protected, as well as what must be overthrown. Does it misrepresent what’s happening on the streets of Cairo right now? Undoubtedly. But in the politics of the networked world, it can be just as important to transmit inspiration as information.
The multitudinous revolutionaries of the Egyptian street need as much help as they can get. As an image of national transformation conducted with civility and wisdom, I’d be more than happy if it helped to re-define the national brand of the new Egypt – where the soft power of reason and democracy triumphs over the hard power of Mubarak’s police state.
And one last thought, as the rocks fly across Liberation Square. Compared to these heroes, we in Scotland have such a tiny, peaceable distance to travel, in the journey from devolution to statehood. It would be a delight if the vitriol on both sides of this argument in the coming Holyrood election was thinned out, as we remembered the sight of millions of unarmed Egyptian citizens making light of army tanks and state police.
If it happens at least once, I’ll tweet it for you. Don’t expect it to go viral, though. And “The Devolution May Well Be Re-Revised” isn’t that much of a chorus line, either.
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