Last winter, Cyborgology contributor David Banks described the Pentagon’s Gorgon Stare system—a nine-camera flying drone that can stay airborne for weeks at a time—as a “panopticon in the clouds.” Like Jeremy Bentham’s infamous prison design (later adopted as a metaphor for all of contemporary society by Michel Foucault), the deployment of surveillance drones serves, in part, to limit the actions of militants by creating a perception that the US government was perpetually watching. Banks argues that, ultimately, these sci-fi-esque surveillance regimes were made possible by recent refinements in automated data management that originally had mundane applications, such as helping spectators follow activity on the sports pitch or producing individualized film recommendations.
There is, thus, a double-sense in which the panopticon has entered the cloud(s). Surveillance devices are not only omnipresent—flying through the air—but these devices are also linked remotely to command and control centers—large, centralized databases that store and process the information produced in surveillance operations. Thus, unlike the historic spy operations conducted by manned U2 spy plans, drones never have to physically return home for data processing; instead, this information is transmitted in real-time.
Recent reports indicate a new development in government surveillance capacities: The Pentagon is working to create swarms of “microdrones,” which are expected to be operational, by 2030, at sizes smaller than dragonflies. Government surveillance is dropping out of the clouds and into the fog—the “utility fog” that is. Fans of cyberpunk and other science fiction genres are already likely familiar with this term, which is used to describe the concept of nano-bots that function in swarms to accomplish various tasks. Neil Stephenson imagined in The Diamond Age, for example, these bots would eventually inhabit the air we breath, interacting with our bodies and, even, warring for control of them. Importantly, nano-bots or “foglets” are (almost) invisible, so that, unlike the panopticon, we are left clueless as to where the gaze is coming from. We could be under observation anywhere at anytime.
In contrast with the now familiar image of drone “pilots” controlling several operations from a single, centralized command and control center, the volumes information produced by entire swarms of nanodrones will inevitably overwhelm the capacity of the human brain to interpret such data in real-time. It becomes no longer practical to direct the activity of a single surveillance unit. Instead, through ad hoc networking and the utilization of its collective computational power, a swarm will continuously update and redeploy its units to best meet its objectives. Humans are, thus, removed from micro-level operations altogether, relying on machines to best organize themselves during a mission. Human commanders simply transmit objectives to the swarms and wait for an outcome. Thus, nano-fogs are distinct from panoptic drones because their command and control systems are separated, with the control aspect becoming decentralized.
We should expect to see similar changes on civilian terrain as well. Many of us already use smartphones and other mobile devices to access personal documents that we store (via Dropbox, Google Docs, and other such services) on servers that may well be halfway around the world. We also use these device to communicate with one another through centralized servers (via Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking platforms). These devices, however, seldom communicate directly with one another, but this may soon be changing. The iPhone 5, for example, is expected to integrate near field communication technology that will allow it to securely communicate with nearby devices, even enabling payments to be made by “bumping” one device to another. Each bump creates another connection in a new fog that is beginning to envelop our augmented society (in which the cloud is already old news). And, as this trend progresses, we may find that the old panopticon metaphor—power manifest as control from above—begins to appear somewhat anachronistic.