Drones and fantasy literature

In one of the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo and Chebacca confront a machine with a glowing red eye and multiple, tentacle-like arms. Like a metallic jellyfish, it floats above the icy surface of Hoth, taking readings and observing. It fires at Han, but as soon as it is hit, it self-destructs rather than fall into rebel hands because it has been reporting information back to Darth Vader’s fleet–information used to discover the Rebel base and lead the in Imperial Fleet in pursuit of Luke, Leia, Han, and company.

The probe droid has a sinister look and with good reason. It is the embodiment of state power extended. The state is watching the citizen, even in that desolate wasteland. Big Brother was in the home and this is not that, but, in the (heavy handed) Star Wars universe, the remote state surveillance can summon Star Destroyers.

Nor is Star Wars along. One fantasy trope is that the “bad guys” use carrion feeders or other suspect animals (crows, rats, snakes, etc) to remotely spy on the heroes and normal people. Sometimes there is immediate feedback, sometimes they have to report. Sometimes the good guys make a point of killing those animals whenever they appear, sometimes hiding is a more reasonable option. The common threat is that the bad guys are watching in a way the good guys cannot replicate.

Last week on “Studio 360,” the radio show on PRI that I listen to on podcast, one of the segments was a discussion about drones. It was well worth a listen, [1] but several segments stood out, an artist designing clothing that hides the heat signatures picked up by drones,an interview with people who saw drones in action on the Mexican border nearly a decade ago, and an interview with a former pilot who is now a doctor of engineering. The last suggested that one reason drones live on in the movies and the imagination beyond something like PRISM is the drones–whether in actual shape or looking like the probe droid from Star Wars–are something that people can conceptualize. In this way drones are similar to Big Brother. One doesn’t actually need to comprehend what is going on in order to be taken by the sinister implications.

What struck me was the way in which the popular conception of drones, including the function of the drones and the alignment of the faceless government that dispatches the drones, seems to mirror not just the Empire with its malignant government, but also more traditional embodiments of evil in e.g. Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. These fantasy tropes pre-date drones, although even there the trope is not necessarily novel. The two trends also overlap in movies and television where the scrappy hero is chased by government agencies or people hijacking government property.

I suspect there is an underlying human discontent with being observed, particularly by groups of beings that are out of reach and potentially malevolent. This natural reaction, with the inhuman remoteness of drones and the right to privacy as currently understood in the US constitution mesh to make several simultaneous negative reactions to drones. Drones are also active in a way that PRISM may not been seen to be. The issue at hand is that while drones themselves may be a relatively recent addition to the US arsenal the concept is not new and the use of drones for surveillance against a population puts the government on the wrong side of a lengthy tradition in the popular imagination.

[1] As were the interview with Linda Ronstadt and discussion of Walt Whitman.

Assorted Links

  1. ‘Humane’ Drones Are the Most Brutal Weapons of All-The German army is in the process of purchasing unmanned weapons. This article in der Spiegel examines the decision and argues that there is a delusion that the drones are humane and good, when it is really causing the destruction of human lives to become anonymous.
  2. Islamist sect found living underground near Russian city for nearly ten years-In Russia an Islamist sect was found in a bunker. Some of the children were born there and had never seen natural light. The sect is named for its founder who had declared himself to be a prophet and his house an independent Islamic state.
  3. The New Olympic Arms Race-An article in the New York Review of Books that does a really good job of pulling out the elite-proxy-war aspects to the Olympics, including a bunch of facts that I was unaware of, such as the reason to encourage athletes in certain individual sports rather than team sports in order to maximize efficiency of expenditure and medal count.
  4. Essay predicting that campuses will be completely digital in 3 years-The president of McGraw-Hill publishing wrote a predictive (and, to an extent, marketing) essay calling for a digital revolution, and posits failing grades and preparation of students to the lack of digitization on college campuses, something of which I am skeptical. Perhaps it is just my experience with these technologies (reading on a screen is difficult for me), but I am not convinced of the educational value of digitization, at least for the humanities. Digital options should be available, yes, but a complete digital transformation prioritizes pushing everyone into the realm of the digital and plays into “modern” values that are regressive in terms of actual engagement with texts. I am highly skeptical that students would be any more prepared, and their misguided reliance on technology is leaving them less and less prepared, particularly when it comes to writing. Do note that I really only speak for history and classics in my opinion, and not any other disciplines for whom complete digitization makes more sense.
  5. New York Mayor’s Soda Ban Sparks Debate on Fat and Freedom-Some discussion in der Spiegel of the ongoing debate about obesity in the United States. The article states:”what Bloomberg is doing is courageous to the point of foolhardiness.” There is a clear indictment of the overall health of Americans and the implication is that it is a corporate and cultural problem.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. When Philosophers Join the Kill Chain-An op-ed by Mark Levine in Al-Jazeera about Bradley Strawser, the philosopher who has been defending the moral imperative of done strikes. Levine is highly critical of Strawser, particularly in his attempts to defend the use of drones through the concepts of just war without considering the implications for actual people. Another academic is less than thrilled at Levine’s blunt use of philosophers, but agrees with his overall point.
  2. Remembering Gore Vidal: A Dying Breed– A blog post on the Economist that points out that Gore Vidal was a breed of public intellectual that is not commonly seen anymore.
  3. Court Rejects Assertion that ‘Tenure’ Means Continuous Employment-A law professor in Michigan was fired after she refused to teach the assigned courses, an act that has now been upheld through a court case and an appeal. I am not entirely clear on what the details of the case were, but it seems that she tried to make the claim that tenure entails continuous lifetime employment, something that the court explicitly did not uphold. It seems that this will just help define the parameters of behavior that warrants termination, but it is a definition that bears watching.
  4. Survival Strategy for Humanists: Engage, Engage– A piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how humanities can survive in the future. Not much new here, but it is nice that this sort of argument seems to be slowly picking up steam. The idea is that communication, writing, teaching skills need to be taught and then we should stop writing books that are utterly incomprehensible.
  5. Writers and readers on Twitter and Tumblr-An article on Slate that implies that “coddling” (my words) has a negative impact on art and artistry, so the feel good back-patting that takes place between authors and readers online only serves as a cheap form of therapy, but does not improve literature. I think that the author is not totally wrong.
  6. The “Immeasurable”– An enlightening graph about grading.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?