Some revelations come unannounced – no trumpets, no drums. A small window opens, and in the instant before it closes again, you see where things are headed.
This was not that kind of revelation. This one had trumpets.
And a trombone.
It was last July. The tail end of a hot day. My wife and I were having a drink on our porch, listening to a parade passing through town, which is how I prefer my parades: distant, with a drink in my hand.
We didn’t know what was being celebrated; it didn’t matter. A beautiful summer afternoon slowly tipping toward evening, grateful shade growing out of the west. The cops had closed off Main St., the fire department was out in all its finery, the high school band, flushed with the moment, was rushing the beat.
A classic, American scene – I imagined small dogs barking, batons flashing into the late sun, people sweating in folding chairs. It felt good to be still, to breathe in that sweet smell of drying grass and meat-flavored smoke. I remember thinking aloud (no doubt softened by the heat, like an eggplant) how lucky we were to be alive - in this place, at this time. From where we sat, looking out toward Marvin Mountain, sipping our G&Ts, all seemed well-enough with the land.
The kids next door were tossing a football over the telephone wires in the cooling air and I told them to watch out for the flowers. They’re good kids. The barn swallows were out early, dipping down out of the blue, disappearing against the houses. A woodpecker flew over, stitching up the sky. Beautiful.
And then I saw it.
There’s a language to the visual world, just as there’s a language to the aural one. We’re used to seeing certain things, hearing certain things.
This was different, untranslatable – a break in the norm.
At first, pathetically, I thought it was some kind of bird hovering in the middle distance; then it dropped at extraordinary speed, drew a ruler-straight diagonal to the north – the way a dragonfly might - and stopped again.
We were looking at our first drone.
What I felt was an almost overwhelming sense of trespass, of vulnerability. There was something deeply invasive about it. This thing went where it wanted, arrogantly. I wanted to hit it with something. We watched as it rose a half mile into the sky over Brewster, then zoomed down to within fifty yards of our roof; if it had come down and hovered above the cornflowers, studying us sitting on our porch, there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done.
The issue I have with the rise of the drone industry is the issue I have with many of the other technological developments ‘improving’ our lives – the eerie advances in robotics, say, or the designer crops, or the nanotechnology ‘breakthroughs’ busily ‘hacking life’: Nobody’s fucking asked us.
There’s no real discussion. We have no say. No vote. The dollar leads – and trust me, this is all about the bucks – and the culture, properly house-broken, trots after it like a dog. Whether we like it or not.
What do we get? We get the right to be grateful.
Back in 1996, in a ‘Forum’ discussion in Harper’s Magazine (90% of which ended up on the cutting room floor, edited out) I got into a thing - let’s call it a ‘conversation’ - with the self-described “cyberspace cowboy,” John Perry Barlow. The subject was technology and choice. There was nothing coercive about the changes being wrought by the digital revolution, he claimed; we could “choose” to be on-line, or we could “choose” not to. We could “choose” to have e-mail, or we could “choose” not to. The new technologies weren’t closing any doors – they were just opening new ones. It was all about choice. Which was how we did things in America, no? Fifty different breakfast cereals in aisle three - something for everyone.
Even then his argument struck me as stunningly naïve or knowingly duplicitous – vintage bullshit. Technology – good or bad – just didn’t work that way. It never had. Technology shaped the culture around it. It closed doors with a vengeance.
My choice? My choice would be to get with the program or live like the Amish, piloting my horse-drawn buggy between the semis in rural Pennsylvania.
If new technologies foreclose options, if, like a cowbird invading a phoebe’s nest, they quickly push alternatives over the side, it raises a very basic question: What kind of ‘improvements’ are we encouraging? More to the point, who’s deciding what kind of world lies ahead? The biotechnology folk? The whizzes at Monsanto or Microsoft? The A.I. wunderkinder at MIT’s Media Lab?
If the science and technology elite are piloting the plane (and they are), should we be concerned that the folks at the controls include megalomaniacs who truly believe that “the only thing wrong with the universe . . . is that it is currently running someone else’s program?”
But let’s keep it simple for the moment. Let’s talk about drones.
In a recent New York Times article on the growing ‘sport’ of drone racing (I thought sport involved actually moving the body - guess not), Charles Zablan, COO of the International Drone Racing Association, is quoted as saying “We don’t even know what this is yet or what it could be, but we know it’s fun and cool.”
People like Charles Zablan are always saying things like, ‘We don’t know what it is, we don’t know what it does . . .’ It’s like some sort of membership badge or something. They think it gives them a kind of intrepid, ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ aura, when in fact it’s more like: ‘To stupidly blunder where no man has blundered before, probably because he knew better.’
We have no idea what this even is yet.
We have no idea where it goes.
We have no idea what it will do.
I think I do. I think a lot of us do. It’s not that complicated.
Check me on this: The ‘unmanned’ drone, let’s say the Reaper that recently killed Mohammed Emwazi, aka ‘Jihadi John,’ is currently (and controversially) useful as a weapon of war precisely because it’s unmanned, allowing us to deliver death without risking our soldiers’ lives, right? The thing can be piloted remotely - at no risk to the individuals at the controls.
So, what, exactly, prevents these benefits from transferring to domestic hobbyists like, say, Timothy McVeigh? Are domestic drones nicer than the other kind? Don’t we have experience with bad people flying things into other things? Should we think about the fact that the word ‘drone’ is almost always paired with the word ‘strike?’ Of course, there may be technical glitches currently preventing some maniac from flying an armed drone into a crowded stadium, but does anyone seriously believe, given our citizens’ ingenuity, that those problems won’t be overcome?
Now hold that thought and consider the fact that the Technology Consumer Association estimates that 400,000 hobbyists will get drones for Christmas this year, ho, ho, ho. Or that 1.1 million are projected to be sold in 2016. Or that Jeffrey Bezos of Amazon is making an enormous investment in drone technology (he approves the UK’s ‘relaxed’ drone regulations and feels the FAA is “catching up”), so that in a few years the air can be thick with drones delivering stuff to the nation’s doorsteps.
Consider that drones are already blundering into commercial air space (the FAA gets about a hundred near-miss reports a month), crashing into the seats at the US Open, delivering drugs and hacksaw blades to penitentiary inmates (or trying, anyway), getting in the way of helicopters and planes fighting wildfires out west, smashing into the South Lawn of the White House.
The Newspaper of Record worries that there’s potential for “mischief.”
Mischief is toilet-papering a house.
So here we are. As the ‘inevitable’ future unfolds, the Congressional watchdog sleeps the sleep of the innocent - not surprising, given who’s paying the rent. Ah, but there’s hope, a candle in the dark and so on: A proposal by the FAA would require drone operators to register their drones in a database, though, as an aviation lawyer quoted in the New York Times points out, “We shouldn’t really expect that the people with the most nefarious intents would register in the database.” (No, we probably shouldn’t.) The proposal would also require that drone operators always be able to see the aircraft without the aid of binoculars, cameras or other devices, that the drone not weigh more than 55 pounds, be flown higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 miles per hour, and “not be flown over any persons not directly involved in the operation.”
That’s great. Maybe we can deploy an army of flying cops to hand out tickets.
1.1 million of them. For starters.
The problem is that the powers-that-be could care less about the end game. Or what the collateral damage might be. The problem is that billionaires like Jeffrey Bezos (already busy lobbying against regulation that hasn’t happened yet, and no doubt using all the means of persuasion at his disposal) are in the business of making more billions, not pondering the downside. Does he know where this is going? Please. Does Mark Zuckerberg lie awake worrying what effect his gargantuan investment in virtual reality may have on the human mind which evolved over millions of years in response to un-virtual reality, otherwise known as the physical world?
Jeffrey doesn’t have a clue. He’s making bank. What could be wrong?
Quite a bit, as it happens. Considering that drones with incredibly powerful optics are already bringing us close-ups of movie stars’ double chins, the implications for our privacy, for example, are terrifying. But dare to suggest that we’re constructing Bentham’s Panopticon, which was a building designed to allow all the inmates of an institution to be observed by one watchman (except that this building has a million eyes, like a fly), and that once it’s running there’ll be no stopping it, and you’ll quickly find yourself either patronized or demonized or both; that is, cast as a child asking questions about something that doesn’t concern it, or as a robed Inquisitor dragging Galileo before the bench.
If you point out that Jeffrey Bezos isn’t Galileo, you’ll be told that science must be given complete and utter freedom to do what it does. That whimsy and error are the parents of invention. That the free market (which has never been free) will sift the useful wheat from the apocalyptic chaff.
If you ask, “At what cost to the people?” you’ll be told, “At whatever cost necessary,” and if you dig in your heels and ask, “Necessary for what? For who?” you’ll be told that that’s not for you to decide, and that the free market will figure it out, and if you get pissed off and ask how the ‘free’ market is deciding whether and how fast we should proceed with editing genetic code in plants and animals, it will be suggested that you go back to your Luddite’s hut and eat some berries.
On bad days I figure the dollar rules our lives as it rules our politics. That nothing beats business.
That given the extent to which the hi-tech industry in America is run by the unholy trinity of the research university, the federal government and very big business - with all three focused like raptors on the grail of profit - the fix is in.
That no one’s going to say to the hobbyists that they have no constitutional right to bear drones, or to Amazon, “Sorry, but you can’t spend a billion bucks to develop a mechanical army that could be turned against us with breathtaking ease.”
That no one’s going to play the parent and take away the hand grenade before Jeffrey pulls the pin.