For the duration of my discussion on the concept of “post-drone,” I have been trying to imagine the consequences of letting a specific technological object spread to its breaking point. From the very beginning, drones have undergone massive transformations that have pushed them further along a trajectory towards ubiquity, naturalization, and overall autonomy. In speculating on what the future might look like for these complicated flying robots, I hope to outline what is at stake in our larger relationship with enormous technological systems.
For the final installation in this blog series, I would like to focus on the “far-term” post-drone. Whereas the near-term future presented us with a glitchy, malformed pseudo-drone that caused more harm than good, and the mid-term future envisioned a world where society was forced overcome the initial bubble presented by drone hype, this far-term future is one of total immersion. I am here talking about a world where we have ironed out all of the kinks and bugs in the system. A time far from today where humanity has already acclimated to large networked systems of autonomous robots. Little by little, we have moved past the initial culture shock, and have figured out how to coexist with our machinic counterparts.
In some ways, this future might take on what I’ve imagined to be a “sea of drone” – a kind of amorphous everywhere-ness that has come to characterize the fabric of the physical world. Nalo Hopkinson’s imagining of the “Granny Nanny” in her Afro-futurist novel Midnight Robber comes to mind as an apt depiction of what such a sea might look like. Set in the far future, this fictional system is composed of an Internet-like web of “nanomites” that have become embedded in the organic fabric of the planet. In this fictional version, the Granny Nanny system has come to dominate daily life and acts like a sixth-sense soothsayer that mediates between the physical world and bodies that inhabit it. Even more interesting is the way in which Hopkinson has decided to characterize this particular technological web as a religious deity. Granny Nanny is more than just a bunch of robotic nanomites embedded in the fabric of the planet. She/it has taken on the fascinating role of omnipotent world-builder – a notion that is underscored when it is revealed that Granny Nanny is the narrator of the story.
What is underscored in this personification of advanced technology as a “sea of drone” is the fact that the form that these objects take will change dramatically from what we are used to today. The far-term post-drone imagines a world where robotics and surveillance infrastructure has completely disappeared into the background of everyday life. Like water from the tap, drone technologies will almost certainly become naturalized to the point of standardization. The “sea” comes into play when we imagine a world where there is no need for physical infrastructure. Nanobots and bio-mimicry will become commonplace, and it will be impossible to differentiate between the prevailing robotic infrastructure and the natural world. Gone are the days of the rare Predators and Reapers. Instead, we find ourselves swimming in a foggy ocean where surveillant anxieties and police vision have become a fact of life.
To round off this discussion of the far-term post-drone, it is crucial to interrogate the consequences of such a ubiquitous technological system. When structures of vision, power, and automation become commonplace, it becomes rather difficult to remove yourself from the equation. In other words, once we build the system, it will be difficult to press the undo button. For a bit of theoretical context, Antoinette Rouvroy has debated at length the benefits of megatechnical systems of “autonomic computing.” For Rouvroy, such a system would entail massive emphases on predictive algorithms, statistical social tracking, and the overall elimination of political contingency. In other words, an updated version of the Minority Report. In discussing the socio-cultural ramifications of such a system, Rouvroy explains:
“Autonomic computing, as a vision, is an ideological vision. Together with the increasingly ‘intelligent’ and ‘autonomic’ systems it is aimed to reinforce, it crystallizes, the dominant technological, economical and political projections or worldviews of our western time, but the specific representational regime it implements may, this time, make it more difficult for individuals and groups to dissent.”
Taking a bit of a dystopian turn, Rouvroy warns against the use of massive technical systems for predictive governmentality. The fear here is that an extreme version of the post-drone (perhaps imagined as an infinite sea) might lead to the possibility that the human will be eclipsed by the non-human.
Overall, this conception leads to questions of how far these systems will progress before they leave the reasonable realm of control. If we are to take the current trends of automation, computerization, and datafication seriously, then there must be a space for us to imagine a future where we cross into the realm of dystopian robotics. This might look like something akin to Tim Maly’s short story The Lost Drone Army – a plausible future where swarms of autonomous aerial robots have been mistakenly set loose upon the world. Or perhaps we might even be able to make parallels to our original discussion of Crichton’s Jurassic Park – a world where control has been handed over to the technology. Yet if anything else, the chronology post-drone presents us with an ominous puzzle to contemplate as the world around us becomes increasingly roboticized. In ten, fifty, one hundred years from now, the world will likely be shaped by powerful emergent technologies. Although we may not be ruled by drones, I find it hard to imagine a future where society will not have to coexist with them.