drones are not dangerous: normalisation, new journalism, and the new drone culture



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“I’m covering a conference on drones,” I shout. She fingers my black-and-yellow laminated press pass while Drake throbs on the speakers behind us. It’s a Friday night in October at the offices of a trendy NoHo startup and Kathryn, 23, masks her confusion with certainty. Her eyes meet mine, a coy expression on her face. “Sales is like the engine of the Titanic,” she grins, a phrase we jointly coined a few minutes ago, and she can’t stop repeating it.

I’m persistent, though. “Drones!” I remind her. She clearly has no idea what I’m talking about. Even in New York, my bubble follows me around like a shadow from Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as I grasp at straws to communicate with this fellow human being. I have it: “Drones are cool! They fly around and do stuff for you. Like imagine a makeup delivery drone!” Her eyes sparkle as she processes this new insight. “Wow!” she exclaims. Gideon, also 23, walks over and puts his arm around me. Kathryn turns to him. “Listen!” she squeals, “sales is the engine of the Titanic!”

Gideon is a co-founder of the digital media startup whose party we’re at, an agency that “develops brands through creative and social strategy.” The company is newly profitable and his youthful blend of honesty and enthusiasm is infectious. “I wanna build an incredible team,” he tells me. “And then we’re gonna build some great apps!” Gideon’s sister, Juli, 21, writes for Scientific American. I met her earlier that afternoon at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) at NYU – “the first ever massively multidisciplinary conference about aerial robotics, with a focus on civilian applications.”

day 1: how I learned to stop worrying and love the drone

Friday is the first day of the conference. I walk into the atrium of the NYU Skirball Center late in the afternoon. The 4 o’clock keynote has just concluded and attendees are milling about in the lobby, observing one of several impromptu drone demonstrations. I plant myself in a circle of onlookers watching a demonstration of the Phantom Vision quadcopter.

The drone itself is small, about the size of an Xbox console. It is colored white with red stripes, with four vertically positioned fans providing lift, and a front-mounted rotating camera. Controlling the drone is a small remote control with two toggles for pitch and yaw, and an iPhone mount for displaying the live video feed from the camera.

Exhibiting the drone is a thirty-something guy who looks like he just walked off the set of Baywatch, with his artificial tan and his muscles bulging through his tight-fitting shirt. People are shouting questions from all directions—about Arduino boards, battery life, and camera resolution. “Apple won’t let us hack the GPS coordinates of the iPhone,” he sighs in response to a question, explaining that while the drone can return to a prespecified location, it isn’t able to track the operator’s location in real-time. I feel like I’m observing a therapy session for young, nerdy, White, male drone enthusiasts who have finally found themselves at home.

I notice a twenty-something girl furiously typing into her phone in the periphery, her dark hair and petite frame catching my eye. We make eye contact and she comes and stands next to me. “Who is this guy?” I ask. She turns to her program, pointing at the name “Colin Guinn, CEO of DJI Innovations.” I tell her that I’m going to greet him as “Elon” and she giggles. “I’m Juli,” she says, holding out her hand and introducing herself as a 21-year old writer for Scientific American who is attending her first conference.

A few minutes later, I approach Guinn, greeting him with an enthusiastic “Elon!” He freezes momentarily and then recovers. “I was with him a few days ago!” he laughs. Something seems off about him; he seems too polished, too smooth, to be an engineer or a designer. Only later do I learn about Guinn’s previous life as a reality TV star (he finished 2nd place in the fifth season of the Amazing Race in 2005). Eight years later, a DJI Innovations press release touts Guinn as “one of the top thought leaders and experts in the field.”

As the afternoon session concludes, the crowd disperses outside on LaGuardia Place. I catch up with Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, 28, a drone hobbyist facing a $10,000 fine from the FAA for operating a drone for commercial purposes “in a careless or reckless manner.” His lawyer has appealed the fine to the NTSB, filing a motion to dismiss challenging the legal basis for the FAA’s regulatory jurisdiction over the case.

In the motion Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, distinguishes between military drones—used in “overseas military operations where remotely-piloted vehicles have been used to launch deadly attacks, in some cases inflicting civilian casualties”—and civilian drones—used “for beneficial purposes such as search and rescue, agriculture, mapping, aerial photography, wildlife monitoring and research.”

Schulman insists that public confusion about military and civilian drones is driving the FAA to crack down on hobbyists such as his client. It’s a theme that will reverberate throughout the conference.

I ask Pirker and Schulman about the sparse representation of women at the conference and in the drone community at large. “It’s like this,” Pirker laughs. “Men want to get into something and conquer it. Women want something they can use that looks pretty.”

The demo session on Friday evening is a glitzy mix of flashy videos and live drone flights. Thick wire mesh encloses the stage for the audience’s protection. Henri Seydoux, the French CEO of drone manufacturer Parrot, is true to form as a futurist, reminding the audience that many mainstays of the modern age were merely gadgets before they became ubiquitous. “You don’t build for a business case,” he insists. “You build motivated by dreams and science.” He is quick to qualify that drone research has a long way to go, although parts of his message are lost in translation. “Do Not Means: The drones are not dangerous,” reads one of his slides.

Then there are the hackers. Robin Mehner of NodeCopter Core is an irreverent German with a massive blond beard that seems ripped straight from the mountains of Appalachia. “They were doing SDW in C++, and we were like fuck this shit!” he exclaims. His British colleague chimes in: “Open source, fuck yeah!” They demonstrate using 16 lines of code to control a Parrot Quadcopter and have it take off, rotate counter clockwise, and land. “This gets people excited about programming,” Mehner announces. His final slide reads “Drones for Good” and “Drones for Peace and Love.”

Eirik Solheim, a Norwegian journalist who resembles Dr. House in both appearance and mannerisms, screens a hilarious video in which one of his drones comes upon a startled moose deep in the forest. He then dons a pair of First Person View goggles and pilots a small drone through the auditorium, its camera projecting on the main screen, taking it through stairwells and behind the screen. The effect is profound; in my notes, I write: “Drone becomes an extension of the self. Redefines drones. Love it. ”

The session ends and I cross paths with Juli, the science writer. “I have it,” I announce, “the perfect question.” She looks at me expectantly. “Should drones be covered by Obamacare?” After all, if health care is a human right and drones can be used as healthcare delivery devices, shouldn’t they be? She bursts out laughing as we start walking towards SoHo.

“Do you ever meet people at these things?” she asks. “Like meet cool people whom I could see myself hanging out with?” She nods. I think back to all the conferences I’ve attended over the past few years. “My track record isn’t too strong,” I admit, realizing that while I often have interesting, even memorable, experiences, I rarely make close friends. (But does anyone these days?) “People just want to give me their business card,” she sighs, and I nod knowingly. (Jacob Silverman calls this “Networking into the Abyss.”)

Juli asks me what I write about, and I mention my current fascination with a New Journalism approach to tech criticism. Her eyes light up: “I learned about that!” she exclaims, rattling off the differences between New Journalism and Gonzo Journalism. Even I’m surprised. She tells me she’s half-Japanese and I ask her if she reads Murakami. (She does!)

What I love most about Murakami is his depiction of ultra-modern corporatized Japan and the loneliness of his characters, all of whom are deeply alone along with, we suspect, millions of their fellow citizens. Yet they nonetheless manage to find snippets of human connection amidst otherworldly existential occurrences and often manage to find soulmates, united by a shared misanthropy and a shared sense of weltschmerz—a sense of world-weariness driven by the realization that material reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind.

Juli and I are walking on Thompson St. when we spot a news reporter getting ready to broadcast. “We’re with the International Drones conference,” I announce, flashing my press pass. He’s flustered, and Juli struggles to suppress her laughter. “What’s going on over here?” I inquire. He tells me there was an assault in the area. “Very good,” I tell him, clarifying that I’m referring to his role in spreading awareness of the incident. I turn to leave, then look back. “What channel can I find you on?” I ask. “Channel 2,” he announces, a bit too haughtily. “Oh, Univision,” I respond, without skipping a beat. This is too much for one day. Juli apologizes on my behalf as she takes my arm and pulls me away, chuckling. Meanwhile, the reporter has turned red and we hear him shouting behind us. “CBS! CBS!”

day 2: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house

On Saturday, I wake up late, and it’s almost 2 p.m. by the time I make it to NYU. On the way, I drop by the LSD conference being held next door at Judson Memorial Church (Horizons NYC 2013: Perspectives on Psychedelics.) The crowd seems even more bizarre than the one at the drones conference, and there are hardly any approachable girls in sight. I turn down offers of “hemp lollipops,” and slip out after picking up my press pass.

When I arrive at back the drones conference, there’s a film being screened in the main auditorium, an over-the-top promotional video created by DJI Innovations called “The Future of Possible.” Baywatch guy / Elon / Colin Guinn is the star, and he keeps repeating “algorithm” every few seconds until the word acquires almost psychedelic properties against a backdrop of mountain passes and desert vistas. “WTF,” I write in my notebook.

Upstairs, I drop in on a roundtable discussion on “Drones and the Freedom of Information Act.” The speakers are unrelenting in their criticism of government abuse of power, attacking the proliferation of secret law and the Obama administration’s lip service to transparency. FOIA remains on shaky ground, it seems, with a federal judge recently rejecting an ACLU lawsuit to compel disclosures about the government’s drone assassination program. Shawn Musgrave of MuckRock refuses to give up. He encourages attendees to file FOIA lawsuits to uncover exactly how state and local governments are using drones.

Meanwhile, I’m torn by the idea that what I’m attending is actually a “Drone Normalization” conference—that I, Hamdan Azhar, in my quest to become the next Hunter S. Thompson have unwittingly become a tool of the “drone normalizers”, evil people who seek to “normalize […] military use of the robotic killers by promoting the cheap hobbyist models any civilian can buy.” I raise my hand and bravely confront the panelists.

“Targeted killings have been a part of American foreign policy for generations,” I begin. “Obama brought them within a regulatory framework, he normalized the practice, he said, ‘I have lawyers and civil libertarians and human rights activists who are now part of the protocol by which American citizens are targeted for assassination.’” A hushed silence has fallen over the room. “Isn’t that basically what you guys are doing with drones?”

“I think it’s the opposite,” says Musgrave. “When people don’t have information, they tend to ignore it. The more people know about it, the more efforts there are to stop it.” Parker Higgins from the Electronic Frontier Foundation chimes in. “I don’t think it normalizes it,” he says. “The first step to changing surveillance practices is transparency, especially for practices which are only infrequently effective.” He mentions that the only instance of successful law enforcement use of drones was to catch a group of cattle thieves in North Dakota.

Many of the sessions consist of platitudes, banal statements that are self-evident and at best, only hint at a more nuanced analysis that remains elusive. One of the speakers in a session on “Drones and the Future of Public Space,” for example, reminds the audience that “Droning in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq is totally different from droning in California,” a statement that I find almost comical and immediately tweet to my 552 followers (@hamdanazhar, follow me maybe?).

James Bridle is one of the few speakers who tackles these issues head-on in his talk. “Drones are weapons of contemporary war, their use shapes these wars,” he says. Though Bridle is only stating the obvious, I feel like standing up and applauding. The 31-year old British artist and activist isn’t finished. “The CIA’s war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is made possible by drones,” he intones. “Our lack of understanding of these technologies precludes any meaningful debate,” he argues. “All of our contemporary politics is shaped by technology—if we lack technological literacy, we lack any sense of agency.”

Here’s what remains unanswered: Is the lack of technological literacy an unintended side effect of contemporary technocracy? Or is it an intentional component of the technological stratification of society?

Bridle speaks poetically about one of his artworks—“The Light of God”—that depicts a laser beam shooting down from a drone in the heavens to pinpoint the target of a bomb drop in the middle of the night. “Technologically augmented vision reifies existing privilege,” he suggests, enabling certain people to literally see the world in a different way.

I catch up with Madiha Tahir, a journalist and Ph.D candidate at Columbia University who has written extensively about the drone war in Pakistan. “This is an interesting conference,” she tells me, “but I’m disturbed by certain technophilic tendencies, in everything from the military when it wants to use drones, right through to the Occupy movement,” which has supported using drones to survey damage from Hurricane Sandy.

There are two issues with this, she tells me. “First, it mistakes technical problems for political problems. Second, the ideologies behind these technologies—even in their civilian uses—are ideologies of harm, surveillance, and risk.” I ask Tahir if it’s fair to expect a 14-year old drone enthusiast to pause and reflect on the existential ramifications of drones. She shakes her head. “The hobby culture has allowed itself,” she begins. “To be co-opted?” I interject. “It’s like they meet and they’re like we’re gonna have a dialogue. The hobby culture is funded by the military!” she exclaims.

I bring up Evgeny Morozov, one of the premier critics of “naïve rationalism” and “solutionism,” and she nods excitedly. “It’s the same phenomenon in international development,” she tells me, “where a focus on techniques and technologies results in a displacement of politics.” Tahir is animated now and her spunky black hair catches my eye while keynote speaker Missy Cummings, one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, drones on in the background about how amazing drones are. “The technical discussions,” Tahir reiterates, “are a way of masking the political issues.” “Drones exist in an institutional, economic, and power context.”

I remind her of the 14-year old boy, the drone enthusiast. What would she say to him? “Well, it would be nice if a lot of these guys took the humanities and social sciences seriously.” “Post-Orientalism,” I interrupt, with a glint in my eye. She smiles. “Yes, post-Orientalism.”

“What do you think about big data?” I ask. “People think, ‘Oh, the government’s going to read my email.’ It lulls people into a false sense of security. The reality is far more pernicious.” “They’re creating statistical datasets to define what’s normal so they can pick out outliers and say ‘I’m going to surveil you because you might be a suspect.’ The state is attempting to construct a new normal, it’s a way of disciplining the population and outlawing resistance.” Morozov alludes to this when he speaks of the “ultimate conceit of Silicon Valley: if only we had more data and better tools, we could suspend politics once and for all.”

On the subject of the NSA, Tahir angrily tells me about cryptographers who are asked to solve abstract math problems that are completely stripped of their real-world contexts, problems whose solutions often lead to death and destruction. In Morozov’s words, “our debate about technology—a seemingly neutral and nonpolitical issue—conceals deeply political (and, in this case, outright authoritarian) tendencies.”

I am reminded of one of Audre Lorde’s pieces, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Are big data and drones “the master’s tools” that we can only in vain seek to re-appropriate for humanitarian use? Or are they politically neutral advances in science and technology propelling mankind into infinity and beyond?

A panelist in the session on Public Space spoke about “militant transparency” when he was asked about potential abuses of privacy with drones. “Besides,” he said, “any abuse would be subject to all sorts of civil libertarian big data pushback.” Even as a big data enthusiast, I was struck by the delicious irony of the term the speaker had coined. Big data, the cornerstone at the heart of the modern surveillance state, as a tool in the arsenal of civil libertarians.

After my interview with Tahir, I head back into the main auditorium, just in time to catch the end of Missy Cummings’ keynote. “Everyone in this room is a futurist!” she squeals. “You wouldn’t be here otherwise!” While I process this, she continues with a blatant non sequitur. “Oh and Rand Paul, please, he’s such a manipulator.” I am laughing out loud by now and without Juli by my side to shush me, this could get out of hand.

As the session ends, I try to follow Missy Cummings and corner her into an interview, Breitbart-style. But she ducks into a conference room at the last second and I find myself surrounded by a group of five girls, undergraduate engineering students at Smith College, who are also trying to fan-girl Cummings. I ask them if they’re pro-drones or anti-drones. Abby, 20, responds primly: “pro-drone, as long as they’re used properly.” “What about drones when they’re used to kill people?” I counter. “Well, not specifically then,” she responds matter-of-factly, though I can tell she is taken aback.

I head back into the main auditorium to find Juli interviewing Andra Keay, a “robot startup evangelist,” who had earlier spoken about gendered identities and robots. I ask her about the Singularity—what Morozov calls “Kurzweil’s ugly and ridiculous thesis” that artificial intelligence will soon surpass human intelligence. “I think it’s distracting,” responds Keay. “I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it.”

Kurzweil, she tells me, is a technophile, by which she means someone who fails to properly appreciate the social implications of technology. “The Singularity could be an evolutionary dead-end,” she cautions. Nevertheless, she remains optimistic about drones. “I know so many people with drones,” she exclaims. “They don’t do any harm.” When I ask her about military funding, she mentions that most health and communications technologies were also the results of military funded research. “Military funding is not harmful,” she insists. “Military use is harmful.”

day 3: while you’re destroying some village in the middle east

There are no talks on Sunday—the day is reserved for an all-day hackathon at an NYU building on Broadway, with presentations scheduled for 6 p.m. None of the demonstrations are particularly impressive, but that’s beside the point. The “Why” attendees have been weeded out by this point, and only the “How” types are left. Drones, once an abstract notion, have come into stark relief for the remaining participants. After working for hours in teams and learning the basics of programming and industrial design, the vanguards-to-be of hacker/maker culture have discovered a sense of agency in an atomized world of drones.

When one of the organizers asks, “Who’s going to go home and buy a drone?,” one girl responds, “Who’s paying for it?” This is my moment of truth: “Obamacare,” I shout out, and everyone laughs. Faced with the exuberance of the hackathon participants, I briefly wonder about the difference between creators and consumers, whether by creating something out of nothing, the hackers had transcended the rest of humanity, destined to remain mere consumers. Creators are consumers, too, I realize.

Juli, the science writer, has skipped the hackathon, and I tweet at her. “Amidst a room full of drone hobbyists, I wondered again, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” While the hobbyists had been bonding over their love of their quadcopters, hacking, and the inevitable, incredible future, Juli and I had bonded too—over our skepticism of the technophiles, our jokes about Elon Musk, and our shared love of Murakami for speaking poignantly to man’s sense of atomization at being a cog in the technocracy.

Ironically, I realize that all of us—Juli, myself, and the drone hobbyists—felt that we were rebelling against the “ruthless capitalist technocracy” that we’re inevitably part of, thereby making our rebellion all the more ironic.

When I turn my attention back to the hackathon, one of the teams is presenting a crowd-sourced beer-delivery drone, while another uses Google Glass to perform flips with their drone. Then a girl comes up to the stage.

She presents an immersive 3D globe that slowly lowers itself over her teammate’s head. Within the globe is projected a 3D image overlay from a camera mounted on top of the drone. The crowd “oohs” and “aahs” as the girl inside the globe describes her vision. “This way, while you’re destroying some village in the Middle East, you can at least see what you’re doing,” she says calmly.

Stunned silence follows. Then applause.

Images via Mahwish Chishty






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Hamdan Azhar

Hamdan Azhar writes about culture, politics, finance and technology. A data scientist by day, he lives in Manhattan | @hamdanazhar





3 Comments

  1. Sammy H.

    very interesting read with a different perspective.

  2. Sammy H.

    this is a vivid and nuanced portrait of a side of the drone debate that we don’t often see discussed but has major implications for the role of technology in our lives

  3. Video of Day 1 of the Drone Conference is available at http://bit.ly/darcvideo

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