Thomas Levin of Princeton came to Bard Tuesday to give a lecture to the Drones Seminar, a weekly class I am participating in, led by my colleague Thomas Keenan and conceived by two of our students Arthur Holland and Dan Gettinger. Levin has studied surveillance techniques for years and he came to think with us about how the present obsession with drones will transform our landscape and our imaginations. At a time when the obsession with drones in the media is focused on their offensive capacities, it is important to recall that drones were originally developed as a surveillance technology. If drones are to become omnipresent in our lives, what will that mean?
Levin began by reminding us of the embrace of other surveillance devices in mass culture, like recording devices at the turn of the 20th century. He offered old postcards and cartoons in which unsuspecting servants or children were caught goofing off or insulting their superiors with newfangled recording devices like the cylinder phonograph and, later, hidden cameras and spy satellites. The realization emerges that we are being watched, and this sense pervades the popular consciousness. In looking to these representations from mass culture of the fear, awareness, and even expectation that we will be watched and listened to, Levin finds the emergence of what he calls “rhetoric of surveillance.”
In short, we talk and think constantly about the fact that we are or may be being watched. This cannot but change the way we behave and act. Levin poses this question. What, he asks, is the emerging drone imaginary?
To answer that question it is helpful to revisit an uncannily prescient imagination of the rise of drones in a text written over half a century ago, Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees. Originally published in 1957 and recently reissued in translation with an introduction by science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, Jünger’s text centers around a job interview between an unnamed former light cavalry officer and Giacomo Zapparoni, secretive, filthy rich, and powerful proprietor of The Zapparoni Works that “manufactured robots for every imaginable purpose.” Zapparoni’s secret, however, is that he instead of big and hulking robots, he specialized in Lilliputian robots that gave “the impression of intelligent ants.”
The robots were not powerful in themselves, but they worked together. Like drone bees and drone ants—that exist only for procreation and then die—the small robots, or drones, serve specific purposes in industry or business. Zapparoni’s tiny robots “could count, weigh, sort gems or paper money….” Their power came from their coordination.
The robots “worked in dangerous locations, handling explosives, dangerous viruses, and even radioactive materials. Swarms of selectors could not only detect the faintest smell of smoke but could also extinguish a fire at an early stage; others repaired defective wiring, and still others fed upon filth and became indispensable in all jobs where cleanliness was essential.” Dispensable and efficient, Zapparoni’s little robots could do the most dangerous and least desirable tasks.
In The Glass Bees, we are introduced to Zapparoni’s latest invention: flying glass bees that can pollinate flowers much more efficiently and quickly than natural bees. The bees “were about the size of a walnut still encased in its green shell.” They were completely transparent and they were an improvement upon nature, at least insofar as the pollination of flowers was concerned. If a true or natural bee “sucked first on the calyx, at least a dessert remained.” But Zapparoni’s glass bees “proceeded more economically; that is, they drained the flower more thoroughly.” What is more, the bees were a marvel of agility and skill: “Given the flying speed, the fact that no collisions occurred during these flights back and forth was a masterly feat.” According to the cavalry officer, “It was evident that the natural procedure had been simplified, cut short, and standardized.”
Before our hero is introduced to Zapparoni’s bees, he is given a warning: “Beware of the bees!” And yet he forgets this warning. Watching the glass bees, the cavalry officer is fascinated. He felt himself “come under the spell of the deeper domain of techniques,” which like a spectacle “both enthralled and mesmerized.” His mind, he writes, went to sleep and he “forgot time” and “also entirely forgot the possibility of danger.”
Jünger’s book tells, in part, the story of our fascination and subjection to technologies of surveillance. On Facebook or Words with Friends, or even using our smart phones or GPS systems, we allow our fascination with technology to dull our sense of its danger. As Jünger writes: “Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms—around which, therefore, stands an uncanny but fascinating halo of brilliance—evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe.”
The protagonist of The Glass Bees, a former member of the Light Cavalry and later a tank inspector, had once been fascinated by the “succession of ever new models becoming obsolete at an ever increasing speed, this cunning question-and-answer game between overbred brains.” What he came to see is that “the struggle for power had reached a new stage; it was fought with scientific formulas. The weapons vanished in the abyss like fleeting images, like pictures one throws into the fire. New ones were produced in protean succession.” Victory ceased to be about physical battle; it became, instead, a contest of technical mastery and knowledge.
The danger drones pose is not necessarily military. As General Stanley McChrystal rightly said when I asked him about this last week at the New York Historical Society, drones are simply another military tool that can be used for good or ill. Many fret today about collateral damage by drones and forget that if we had to send in armies to do these tasks the collateral damage would be much greater. Others worry about assassination, but drones are simply the tool, not the person pulling the trigger. It may be true that having drones when others don’t offers an enormous military advantage and makes the decision to go to kill easier, but when both sides have drones, we will all think heavily between beginning a cycle of illegal assassinations.
Rather, the danger of drones is how they change us as humans. As we humans interact more regularly with drones and machines and computers, we will inevitably come to expect ourselves and our friends and our colleagues and our lovers to act with the efficiency and selflessness of drones. Sherry Turkle worries that mechanical companions offer such fascination and unquestionable love that humans are beginning to prefer spending time with their machines than with other humans—who make demands, get tired, act cranky, and disappoint us. Ron Arkin has argued that robot soldiers will be more humane at war than human soldiers, who often act rashly out of exhaustion, anger, or revenge. Doctors are learning to rely on Watson and artificially intelligent medical machines, who can bring databases of knowledge to bear on diagnoses with the speed and objectivity that humans can only dream of. In every area of human life where humans once were thought to be necessary, drones and machines are proving more reliable, more capable, and more desirable.
The danger drones represent is not what they do better than humans, but that they do it better than humans. They are a further step in the human dream of self-improvement—the desire to overcome our shame at our all-too-human limitations.
The incredible popularity of drones today is partly a result of their freeing us to fight wars with ever-reduced human and economic costs. But drones are popular also because they appeal to the human desire for perfection. The question is, however, how perfect we humans can be before we begin to lose our humanity. That is, of course, the force of Jünger’s warning: Beware of the bees!
As drones appear everywhere around us, you would do well to put down the newspaper and turn off You Tube and, instead, revisit Ernst Jünger’s classic tale of drones. The Glass Bees is your weekend read. You can read Bruce Sterling’s introduction to The Glass Bees here.