"Dubai Drones" by Ahmad Makia
“Dubai Drones” by Ahmad Makia

Edward said their thereness is just
a shadow on the sky. Before depredating colonies 
of pests, the selfish herd moves
with all the precision of an equation, unraveled
by game controllers north of Tampa. Of starlings, 
bats, and drones, only drones are native to Florida.

– Phillip Barron, “A Murmuration of Drones”

Murmuration is over. The drones are still there.

Back before the beginning of June, I stated the intention to write something in reflection once June’s “festival of drone culture” concluded. At the time, I was also reflecting on my own writing in relation to drones, looking for some of the dominant themes that seemed to be emerging in my own work. I said then that creative writing – both fictional and less so – was the emergence of things of which one may or not be aware, and as such it has the potential to be endlessly surprising. With so many creative voices brought together around a single theme, creating audiovisual artwork, essays, fiction, poetry, and combinations of some or all, I was interested to see in what areas, if any, there appeared to be a kind of mutual focus.

Of course there were. There were lots of them. For a wonderful conclusion, see Olivia Rosane and Adam Rothstein’s restrospective post. They call attention to a wide range of things that emerged as central concerns, some surprising and some less so, all worth meditating on. But I want to focus here on a singular element, though it’s an element that’s broad enough to contain many other things, a hub from which emerge many spokes.

At the end of my pre-Murmuration post – which identified emotion as my own dominant theme – I mentioned emotion as an entree into considerations of power, specifically as pertaining to need:

Need is by definition a loss of power. And in as much as a drone is a cultural node, it’s a node of political and social power, equally capable of surveillance and lethality, technically exact but inscrutable. A shifting, endlessly accommodating idea isn’t especially trustworthy. But maybe we want to trust. Above all, we want everything to be recognizable. We want to be able to understand.

Early on in my graduate coursework, I was advised in a theory class to always be looking for the power, for where it was located and how it was working. Power is what it all ultimately comes back to. It’s the hub. I think Murmuration is no exception. I’m not even sure how one would write about drones without writing about power.

In Murmuration I saw work that dealt with this explicitly and implicitly, that touched on it from myriad angles, that explored its loss and its flows and attempts to reclaim it, and tried to imagine its potential future.

Most obviously, when we think of drones we usually think of both surveillance and warfare, and combinations of the two. Surveillance and warfare have both traditionally been understood as expressions of state power, ways in which the state directly extends potentially lethal control over human bodies. Power decides who lives and who dies, and which deaths have the weight of significance. A large percentage of the work featured in Murmuration dealt with this, addressing questions of what the exercise of that power actually looks like and what its consequences are. Molly Crabapple’s “Shakira”, a haunting portrait of a four year old Pakistani drone strike victim, literally gave the consequences of the power to kill and injure a face. Likewise, Rosane’s own wrenching short story “Warnings” and Angbeen Saleem’s equally powerful poem “Vestiges” capture the helplessness and fear of people rendered into objects, keenly aware of their own lack of power but unable to protect themselves or their loved ones from the death they know is coming.

The drones in those pieces are distant and ineffable; any potential human operator doesn’t enter the picture because they are ultimately unimportant to the dead and the survivors, who in turn may or may not be important to the human operators on the other end. In these pieces the drones themselves are the centers of power, and that power is largely incomprehensible, even as it watches and kills. It’s simply there.

I believe that to the degree that we remove humans on both ends of the equation, drones take on almost godlike power that generally resists deeper interrogation. Nathan Jurgenson issues a piercing critique of this discursive habit in “The Fiction of the Autonomous Drone”, wherein he points out that the removal of a human operator from the picture makes it more difficult to hold those who truly control a drone responsible for the all-too-human consequences of its missions. In “the Contradiction of Austere Warfare”, our own David Banks points out that drones are the perfect tools of contemporary war precisely because they maximize the efficiency of war as the very basis of power:

War must become permanent and without borders. It must be able to expand and shrink as quickly and fluidly as the global markets it creates and sustains. Drones are the crucial tools that keep war expensive, but also agile and austere…America’s burgeoning austere war harnesses the age-old contradiction of expensive war and efficient killing machines to create a highly customizable geopolitical conflict generator. The drone will go down in history as the crucial invention that made war a managerial decision.

As Nathan says, one of the most insidious things about digital dualism is the degree to which it dehumanizes that which is deeply human, which results in letting some important people off the hook. The dehumanization of drones – often done through incorrectly granting them autonomy – not only in turn dehumanizes their human targets but dehumanizes the entities that control them, states (and potentially corporations) that are nonetheless made up of human beings. To be devoid of the complications of emotion and interpersonal relationships, to be perfectly distant and removed, is to be powerful in a way that we find deeply and viscerally terrifying. In my own short story, “All the Literati Keep an Imaginary Friend”, people profoundly disturbed by the ability of drones to kill without fear or remorse (and of course my drones have no human operators at all) force them into therapy in a desperate attempt to impress emotions on them that make them more comprehensible and less frightening. But in the end, the human therapists find themselves rendered powerless and confessional – something that they perversely enjoy.

But just as protestors in Turkey, Russia, and during Occupy in the USA were able to make use of drones for their own ends, some of the work in Murmuration introduces possibilities for direct resistance. Christopher F. Smith’s “My Little Droney: Surveillance is Magic” renders drones less powerful and less frightening – and more directly approachable for discussion – by making light of what they are. Adam Rothstein imagines a potential strategy for counter-action against drones in “Cascadian Drone Sigils: An Instance of Drone Culture”, where people in the Pacific Northwest reclaim power from domestically used drones through creativity and new forms of folk magic.

In what I feel is one of the most poignant pieces to come out of the festival, Jeremy Antley describes the intimate relationship between a drone and their human operator in “Dronefire”, a short story that explores whether drones themselves might feel ultimately powerless and how they might even experience grief and loss. In Antley’s story, a drone is just as much subject to relentless expressions of power as human beings on either end – and feels the damage just as keenly.

Perhaps the simplest, purest exploration of drone-as-power to come out of Murmuration can be found in “In This, Conquer”, Jordan Worley’s presentation of a drone as the cross that appeared to Constantine I and drove him to establish an officially Christian empire. Worley is calling attention to the ways in which our understandings of the relationship between drones and power reduce drones to watchers and killers, therefore constraining our discourse in ways that have their own consequences:

Drones are machines. They are tools that are meant to increase the safety of the worker, soldier, police officer, and rescue technician that operate them. Drones transport the worker’s agency and consciousness without endangering the operator. Drones allow the operator to act without fear of death or injury. Drones have also been used to assassinate those that would act against the USA and its interests. In the process they have murdered innocent bystanders, destroyed lives, and spread fear. Drones as a symbol of security (safety, protection) have become a symbol of terror and death.

As I said, it shouldn’t be surprising that power is popping up everywhere in these pieces; power always is. And just as we can’t talk about drones without talking about power, I don’t think we can talk about technology without doing the same. What makes drones so powerful as a creative tool are the ways in which we can use them to talk about so many other things. Power moves through drones; so we can write and talk and think through drones. So we have to.

Though Murmuration is over, the conversation isn’t done; check out @DroneMurmur for more. Additionally, there are many amazing pieces that I didn’t talk about here, and all of them are worth spending some time with.

Sarah exercises very limited forms of power on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry