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What is Post-Drone? Part 1: Imagining the Robot Apocalypse

What is Post-Drone? Part 1: Imagining the Robot Apocalypse

For the past year or so, I have been thinking about drones a lot.  So much so that it is difficult to go to a bar or sit down for dinner without mentioning our unmanned aerial counterparts.  In conversation with some of my more tolerant interested friends, I often use references to different movies or books to clarify my own investment in today’s drone debacle.  Of these conversational aids, I frequently turn to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park for a little help as to why exactly drones concern me so much.

Aside from my ‘90s nostalgia for a career in paleontology, what really interests me about Jurassic Park is the Mary Shelley-esque narrative of technological monstrosities run amok.  Based on a fictional island theme park that features genetically engineered dinosaurs, the film follows a group of scientists as they fight for their lives after a storm cripples the surrounding infrastructure.  Just like the infamous Frankenstein monster, these “marvels of modern science” eventually find a way to break out of their cages.  In true blockbuster fashion, calamity ensues.

Still from Jurassic Park

It is at this point in the conversation that I ask: What if we substituted the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park for drones?  It’s a bit of a stretch, I know.  Most of the time, people just drink their beer and laugh off the suggestion.  To be sure, dinosaurs have all of the cultural appeal, and their place in sci-fi mythology is hard to beat.  But on a more fundamental level, who’s to say that the plot of the film would be any different if you substituted man-eating carnivorous reptiles for unmanned lethal robots?  I can already hear my friends sighing as the conversation starts heading towards the Terminator region of technological politics.  But bear with me.  Even if he is an asshole, James Cameron has a lot to teach us.

One such lesson is the major overarching theme that ties all three of my previous cultural references together: the notion that when taken to an extreme, technology will almost always come back to bite us.  The Frankenstein monster, Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs, and yes, even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in The Terminator franchise all exemplify what science fiction does best: reveal how we are, and never will be, fully in control of our technological creations.  Indeed, the reason why the sci-fi community’s cultural imaginary has been so very good at telling these kinds of stories is that these authors are building off of the genre’s long tradition of giving close readings to technological practices – fast-forwarding them to their breaking points in order to see where we might end up.  Whether it takes place in an alternate universe or in a not-so-distant future, stories about genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, or bringing the dead back to life can help us shed light on the sociocultural realities that are often missed by much of the scientific community.  As N. Katherine Hayles has so eloquently phrased it in her work on cybernetics, “literary texts often reveal, as scientific work cannot, the complex cultural, social, and representational issues tied up with conceptual shifts and technological innovations.” (Hayles, 24)

But back to our drone theme park.  Whether or not the pitch would get picked up by Hollywood is beside the point.  What I would like to begin talking about here is how drones – in all of their actual, cybernetic capabilities – resemble so many tropes in so many stories about technologies run amok.  Three beers into the debate, I can already see that some of my friends have pegged me for a conspiracy theorist.  I get that.  Who wouldn’t?  After all, there are a lot of dismissive complaints directed towards those who question existing power structures.  Coupled with my discussion of dinosaurs, and my argument seems all but lost.  It is at this point that I must turn to Jeff Golblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcolm, for some cautionary advice.  Sitting at a dinner table with Jurassic Park’s premier financier, John Hammond, Malcolm provides some needed foreshadowing:

“Don’t you see the danger, John, inherent in what you’re doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”

Golblum/Malcolm’s comment is concise in identifying the casual lack of humility with which the scientists at Jurassic Park have instrumentalized genetic technology.  Taking this analogy to its rhetorical limit, I would here like to suggest that Western military infrastructure (namely, the American military-industrial complex) has done with unmanned drones what Michael Crichton feared would be done with genetic engineering.  That is to say, that drones as they exist today signal an entry into a world where ubiquitous robotic surveillance will come to redefine the way that we see the world around us.  It’s a Pandora’s box of artificially intelligent flying cameras.  A slippery slope that leading to autonomous killing machines.  Whatever the euphemism, the sheer enthusiasm with which unmanned technologies are being developed is likely to herald a new arms race – the consequences of which we cannot yet imagine.

Taranis Drone

Overall, it is because of our collective inability to perceive the future of our technological creations that I believe a conception of the post-drone is so important.  It is with a nod to previous efforts to imagine the future of a technology that this series of blog posts gets its namesake.  For to understand what is post-drone, we must take the drone-object in all of its resplendent techno-artifice, and fast-forward 10, 50, maybe even 100 years from now to see where we might end up (all in good sci-fi fashion).  This first post presents but a taste of what I’d like to accomplish, employing methodological strategies that draw from critical theory as well as science fiction.  Crichton’s dinosaurs will stay with us throughout our discussion.  As will soon become clear, I believe that a cursory understanding of the ways in which drones are a Frankensteinian (a T-Rex adjective would here serve similar purposes) concoction of robotics, surveillance, and autonomy will aid us in our quest to understand what it means to be post-drone.  In conjunction with this, I believe that it is important to contextualize any further discussion within a historical tendency that favors technology for technology’s sake.  In his treatment of the ethical dilemmas posed by the Manhattan Project, Langdon Winner reminds us that

“Technological accomplishment has become a temptation that no person can reasonably be expected to resist.  The fact that something is technically sweet is enough to warrant placing the world in jeopardy.” (Winner, 73)

As we stand in our current historical moment, it is difficult to say whether or not the furthering development of drone technologies will bring on the robot apocalypse.  However, it is not my prerogative to try and decide whether or not we’re all doomed before the dust has settled.  Rather, in the following three posts in this series, I will employ some rather risky creative leaps to begin a sketch of what our post-drone world might look like. 

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