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.
THIS is a week where we are face to face with the horrors of nuclear war. Our mediascape offers little respite from images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and rightly so. But here we still are – with ten of thousands of nuclear warheads distributed across the world. With superpowers still brandishing (and even refurbishing) their arsenals. And with our own island about to sign off on a pumped-up version of its own flaccid nuclear phallus. It would be easy to run to the hills, waving hands in despair.
As I’ve been surfing the cultural archive of the bomb this week, I have some questions about how the threat of nuclear weapons freezes our minds, as well as rouses us to activism.
Go online, and you can easily find a copy of Peter Watkins’ The War Game [bit.ly/1TbT5fL]. This is the 1965 drama-documentary about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Britain, banned by the BBC. It’s a period piece, for sure. At times, it’s a dull conveyor-belt of Cholmondley-Warners giving expert testimony.
But it’s also obvious why nervous BBC managers kept it off the screen. Just like in his as-it-happened documentary on Culloden, Watkins had a brilliant eye for bringing extreme situations down to a raw human level.
He shows the family cowering under its table, tending to an already sickening child. The post-bomb firestorms that blacken and incinerate ordinary citizens. The food riots that lead to summary executions, commanded by a bespectacled man who clearly had an alternative career in meter-reading.
What also strikes the modern viewer is how many of The War Game’s scenes – where a previously orderly suburb is blasted to pieces, its inhabitants staggering around in bewilderment and rage – have become a staple of our 24-hour news media.
It could be the consequences of drone strikes in Gaza, Syria or Iraq, or the aftermath of a storm hitting New Orleans or a Thailand village, or the dusty city-dwellers moving through the debris of 9/11 or 7/7. But we are hardly shocked any more by the sight of modern life eviscerated, turned into tatters and ruins, at a stroke.
So to return to some of the post-explosion photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrific and heart-stopping as they are – the skinless bodies, the eyeless heads, the bodies turned to instant shadows on the pavement in the heat of the blast – is to raise a flutter of uneasy questions in the 2015 breast.
We may have been memorialising the Holocaust and the two atomic bombs for the last seven decades, but remembering hasn’t overtly humanised us. We are only a few clicks away from enough images of mass murder, dismemberment and injury to satisfy the most incurable psychopath.
Indeed, what Martin Amis calls “horrorism” is an available media tactic all round. I will never be able to watch a Daesh beheading clip – the very thought makes me reel. But I can also barely watch the Wikileaks video showing US guncopter pilots picking off civilians in the Iraqi streets.
The burned Iraqi on the road to Basra – who inspired Tony Harrison’s great poem A Cold Coming – is probably as close as contemporary imagery gets to the charred icons of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. But say we did produce a further avalanche of horror images, in an attempt to represent the hundred thousand civilian deaths generally agreed to be the consequence of the second (illegal) Iraq War.
Would that keep our outrage at a peak, ready to be deployed when the next intervention is called for? Or – a dark thought – might some part of our visual conscience now be as cauterised and nerveless as the face and limbs of any of these victims?
I think there is a deeper numbing that the era of the atom bomb has inflicted on our everyday moral responses. You’ll remember the joke that went around a few years ago, when our set-top boxes began to receive the History Channel: “They should call it the Hitler Channel, there’s so many documentaries about him on it.”
But the joke had an elemental truth buried within it. Fascism, Nazism and Hitlerism are endlessly fascinating for the historically minded, because the processes behind their rise and fall can be so clearly identified – whether in terms of economics, ideas of race and nation, the use of mass media, etc.
We nowadays see familiar economic resentments meet the enduring purisms of racial identity, and keep our warning lights on for “neo-Nazi” tendencies across Europe. Yet it at least feels as if errant hearts and minds can be grappled with, perhaps changed, with appeal and argument – daily, yearly, across an electoral cycle. Historical, in the best sense.
But the atomic bomb, the tens of thousands of warheads, and their Cold War justification of “mutually assured destruction”? All things are a product of history, of course – even startling scientific discoveries.
But nuclear weapons do seem more like the opening of Pandora’s Box, uncontrollable demons escaping, than the warrior’s arms chest. And at the back of our minds, no matter our busy plans and schemes for the present, we know we must manage what Amis calls “Einstein’s monsters” – lest they end human history altogether, in a series of planetary flashes.
I suggest this awareness has run like cold steel underneath our affairs for much of the last 70 years. We have sensed – but kept largely buried – the terminal consequences of a malevolent (or miscalculating) “finger on the trigger”. And though I couldn’t praise the generations of CNDers enough, I think this has also driven us culturally in often heedless, manic directions.
For example, we usually identify the rise of consumer hedonism in the West with a number of drivers. Say, the need to stimulate demand to cope with over-production. Or the increasing use of Freudian psychology in the Mad Men era of advertising, their pitches getting deeper under our skin.
But might not another factor be the implicit awareness, in the era of the Bomb, that the future could be blindingly cancelled at any time? And thus to focus intensely on the present – to live, love and furiously purchase and pleasure-seek like there’s no tomorrow – was an understandable response?
I’m beginning to think we have underestimated how much the hair-trigger possibility of nuclear conflagration has affected us, and in particular our civic willpower. By comparison, the environmental crisis does feel eminently historical. Our graphs of human-made global warming don’t just give us timelines into the past, but deadlines into the future too.
Take action now, on whatever green guru’s script you choose, and you might be able to mitigate the worst of the changes we know are coming.
Yet when you watch the closing sequence of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, with that crazed cowboy bestriding his missile, hat-waving himself and our civilisation into oblivion, there is true madness in his laughter – and ours. The end of the world comes as a bad joke about our technological prowess, our ingenuity and potency. The human virus consumes itself – and good planetary riddance.
For me, this is why the anti-nuclear politics at the core of Scotland’s independence movement (and Corbyn willing, perhaps to return to the UK Labour Party) has always been so powerful – and so wonderful.
It is a demonstration that we choose not to be paralysed by the sheer scale of the nuclear system. That we can keep our minds unfrozen, our political will concentrated upon an act of nuclear non-proliferation. That we refuse to sink into the waters of cynical despair, and dare to make history.
I’m not a spiritual person, but it’s difficult to avoid the language: we save our souls, and recover our humanity, by opposing the renewal of Trident.
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