Drone Publics: A Human-made Machine World - Katherine Chandler
Barbara Mennel: Welcome, my name is Barbara Mennel and I'm the Rothman chair and director of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Welcome to our first public lecture of the Center for the Humanities and he Public Sphere's 2020 to 2021 nnual speaker series on the opic of data and democracy. his is the second installment f our multi year speaker series hat we entitled rethinking the ublic sphere following last ear series which was entitled ace and the promise of articipation. This year series merged from our internal
iscussions in the center about ow data algorithms and machine ntelligence shape and transform he public sphere, knowledge roduction and modes of ommunication, how algorithms eproduce existing inequalities, nd finally, how the humanities an contribute to these debates nd concerns. If you have not igned up for our weekly ewsletter, we invite you to do o we'll be posting the link to ign up in the chat at the ottom of your screen. I would like to acknowledge the funders and co sponsors of this series. The Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere, the Rothman endowment, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the chief diversity office, the informatics Institute, the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, the Center for Latin American Studies, the African American Studies Program, the Center for gender sexualities, and Women's Studies Research. And would also like to thank my colleagues Alexandra Cenatus, Sophia Acord, and Kristen Galvin and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere for inspiring conversations about data and democracy, as well as technical logistical and administrative support. After I finished my introduction, Dr. Chandler will
give a presentation accompanying a PowerPoint, please put your questions in the q&a box at the bottom of your screen. I will keep track of them so you can put the questions while she's still talking. And I would repeat them to Dr. Chandler after she has completed her talk. You may also communicate with us through the chat function. We will end at 5:15pm sharp at the latest and we will record this lecture and post it on our YouTube channel at a later point. I do want to point
out the other three talks that we have coming up in the series. So in January 26 at 4pm it's Catherine D'Ignazio from MIT who will talk about "Data Feminism". On February 25 at 4pm it will be Ruha Benjamin from Princeton to talk about "Race to the future." And finally, April
23 at 2pm as part of our Mellon funded synergy symposium we will host Sylvester Johnson from Virginia Tech who will talk about, "Will robots feel pain." Y ou might sign up for the zoom webinars of Catherine D'Ignazio, Ruha Benjamin, and we have currently planned the symposium as a live event but that might also change next time. It is now my great pleasure to introduce Dr. Katherine Chandler, who is an Assistant Professor of culture and politics in the School of foreign service at Georgetown University. Her book Unmanning: How Humans, Machines
and Media Perform Drone Warfare came out with Rutgers University Press in 2020 and it analyzes failed projects to build drone aircraft from 1936 to 1992. She's currently working on a second project on non military uses of drones, which she discussed with a group of faculty and doctoral students last Friday in a workshop and a lively discussion about military history, surveillance and international relations. I'm happy to welcome Dr. Chandler to us and have her share her presentation with us now.
Katherine Chandler: Thanks so much for the wonderful introduction. And thanks so much to everyone for hosting me, I'm just going to share my screen now. So I'm really grateful to all the work that has been done by the center in order to organize this virtual visit which has a number of logistical elements. It's been really, really great
to work with the center here and I'm very grateful to everyone for their support. So I'm going to sort of begin by talking through this problem of Drone Publics because it relates so clearly to the Center for the Humanities and the Public S phere. And I also hope that in my talk, I make the case for using humanistic approaches to study technologies. I started investigating drone aircraft over 10 years ago, the emerging regime of targeted killing, to me illustrated how media and technology were tied to and transformed by violence. Like many scholars, I initially saw the drone as a loop of targeting and military occupation from the air, newly shaped by the war on terror. And I provided you here with a visual image that I think is an icon for how much of drone warfare continues to be discussed today, we imagine the drone as an actor, targeting regions of the Middle East and North Africa, as part of the ongoing war on terror.
In my research, however, I came to really think about the drone and what it was doing in a different way. The title of my book on Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare aims to take apart the different parts of the drone, to show how it networks together a constellation of humans, machines and media, to perform the version of war and to enact ongoing targeted killing. I have this slide which I have called the technocratic regime of slow death, in order to think about the drone not as simply a drone, but as a system that brings together global infrastructures, government and bureaucratic initiatives, operators, analysts, a control interface, a whole entire military network, legal and juridical protections afforded by the US government, industrial initiatives that continue to reform and shape and transform the technology, as well as a nation state that is extensively protected by the drone aircraft.
So I want to really emphasize that when we talk about the drone, I'm talking actually not about the drone, I'm talking about a network that connects all of these changing parts, and that is the regime of technocratic slow death that I'm describing here. So the idea of drone publics draws on this particular image, which I have here as the collective to be protected. So while most scholars writing about drone warfare, and including some of my early works, emphasize the question of targeted killing and the view that the drone provided of regions in the Middle East, particularly, I wanted to reverse that gaze and think about the idea of the nation that the drone is extensively protecting. In a recent article called Making Terrorist Targets, I was thinking about the ways in which the authorization for the use of military force is actualized, through the drone aircraft, carrying out its task of killing in the name of protecting the American public.
So I have this image here to think not about the drone, as this sort of cycle of targeting, but rather a regime that protects certain parts of the population and attacks other parts of the population. And this is referring to a global population. So to further think about this thesis of protection and how protection relates to technological systems. I was interested in this exercise of parsing out what I'm calling drone publics, by briefly analogizing it to the public that we're currently experiencing on zoom. And I want to highlight to all of you how this is a totally imperfect analogy. And again, I'm here using the humanistic term analogy, to point out to you what maybe a humanities scholar brings to the discussion of germ warfare by thinking about the question of drones and the ideas of the technocracy and public life and bringing it to the present moment of drone present moment organizing public life on zoom. So obviously, there's very
different protections that are afforded through zoom, and protections that are being afforded by drone aircraft. But Similarly, there are populations that are being exposed and let to die. And there's populations that are being protected by these technological systems. And it is that division that I want
to highlight and think about in terms of the problems it exposes for the public sphere, and how the challenge of rethinking the public sphere, in the age of data, and democracy needs to address these fundamental imbalances. So I've just provided you here with a brief visual image to illustrate for you again, the sort of imperfect analogy between experiencing in life on zoom and the image of drone warfare. So I want to think about this particular image is showing us the ways in which real time image connectivity through audio and visual information plays out in the ideas of protection and the ideas of making a public. And to briefly make my point, I want to spend a moment, thinking first about the public and then thinking about the ways in which the zoom calls and drone aircraft can be made analogous.
So first, I just want to share with you the idea of a zoom public before we go back to the question of what is a drone public and how they might be related. And I found this widely shared image of the first parliamentarian meeting on Zoom, which was held this past August, by Boris Johnson's government. And again, I think one of the things that's really important is that during the pandemic Zoom has become a standard for what the public sphere is supposed to be. So institutions associated
with the functions of government, education and arts, as well as the normalization for some of work from from home, have made this particular platform, something that is supposed to be a replacement for a public space. And I want to think about the ways in which it does that, and does not do that. And I also want to think about how zoom transforms how we think about public space, given the ways in which it also may teach us how the drone transforms, questions of what is happening in public space. So we might think about how this scene organizes real time image and sound transmissions from multiple transmissions from distinct locations, making it possible to be seen and heard, by anyone anywhere, at least for those participants in the Zoom call. And I also want you to
think about the ways in which the Zoom platform flattens the normal hierarchical relations that would be organizing something like parliament, although of course, they continue to exist, and the ways in which this image blurs the boundaries between personal or private space and the public life, giving us glimpses into people's homes outside of people's windows, as well as , onto people's iPhones into the boardrooms of the Cabinet Room and to the press team. How is this a very different image than the one we typically think about in terms of what the public sphere is? So I want to briefly turn to this question of how I think both the drone and Zoom afford protections before I get to this other problem of the ways in which they are an expression of structural inequalities. And the problems associated with imagining the public sphere as a place where we all have equal access, particularly imagining technologies as necessarily providing equal access. So again, this is an imperfect analogy. And I'm not saying these systems are at all the same. But I do think it's worth thinking about the ways in which one of the real transformations brought about by drone warfare is the ways it changes this the international space of war and the domestic space.
of the nation blurring the boundaries between the two. And as I already suggested, Zoom does something similar blurring the boundaries between my home into the sort of public space of the university lecture, which would have been something we woulden't have thought of five to 10 years ago. And how onscreen access for certain people makes it possible to interact in a battlefield to go to work or school through an internet connection, or through real time video and audio transmission, which occur in the case of drone aircraft through a satellite link, right. And the ways in which these technologies taught tie to changing limits, limits in the case of the drone between nation states between the means for war and the means for peacekeeping, the way in which Zoom is utterly transforming limits between work and home.
And how this way is networking, multiple relations across multiple, multiple people across multiple spaces and times. Of course, I think the two systems also share some similar pitfalls. So I'm going to briefly share a few cartoons, to sort of think about the ways in which this idea of being able to see anything anywhere, of course, obscures the ways in which the camera is always pointed in a very particular direction, and can also hide all the things that are left off screen, perhaps the screen is actually a very poor frame in terms of thinking about what these technologies are doing. And similarly here, the Predator System was known as being able to see through a straw and while I've been assured by military personnel that the newer systems no longer have the visual limits that the predator did, you can see that this is a very tiny camera and a very tiny perspective of how this system is actually operating. And I want to just point out a few more technological breakdowns that again, disrupt the sort of connectivity and the relationality that seems to be provided by technologies like drones, or technologies like Zoom, and think about how the connection breaks down, how they can be hacked, and importantly, how we become fatigued and exhausted by being on screen all the time. Up to this point, I
have been talking about a we as if there is an entire public that is able to participate in either the optics of being a drone pilot, or the optics of participating in Zoom. Of course, this is absolutely not the case. And instead, the sort of privilege of being protected by the drone public or the privilege of being protected by Zoom, and being afforded the possibility of work from home obscures the much broader conditions of structural violence and persons who do not have access to these platforms, and are thusin completely different circumstances and conditions. So I briefly want to go through some of the most recent statistics on the ongoing effects of drone warfare, which in the name of protecting the United States, has carried out since 2001, over 14,040 confirmed strikes and has killed somewhere between 8858 and 16,901 persons. This is according to the investigative, the journal that the Bureau for Investigative Journalism. And these are, of
course, part of the war on terror, which is the longest declared war in US history. And, of course, drones have not been prominent part of this, the most recent administration or the past four years, there's been a lot of discussion about other structural violence is enacted by the Trump administration. But there have been 10 times more strikes through drone aircraft in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen during the past four years under Trump. And these are, of course, do not. It's not just drone strikes that are happening. These are part of a broader war, with ongoing damage to social and material infrastructure. So again, on the backdrop of protection, for some we have on the other hand violence for others. And
similarly, I want to sort of highlight how the protections afforded by Zoom, which of course, should be open and really provide me and everyone else who has the possibility to work from home with the opportunity to protect themselves and protect others against ongoing transmission, but of course, much of the American population is not afforded the opportunity of working from home, even as we've lost 3.8 million jobs. And these have led to massive structural differences in terms of who is hospitalized for COVID-19 time not just to access to technologies, but of course, access to health care, access to education, access to government access to politics. So, as I put stars on both of these, I'm not arguing at all that Zoom or drone warfare are causing these.
These are caused by institutional decisions that are made by lots of actors. And it's those actors that I want to hold accountable, the humans, not the humans who are advocating that we use drones or that we operate on Zoom indefinitely. That is what I want us to think about and to question showing using the technologies to illustrate the sort of technological divides, and the inequalities that these these systems are symptoms of. And I really do in my work on drone
aircraft, and in this initial speculation on Zoom, I think the abolition of drone technology, it needs to rather be a questioning of the humans and the actors and the politics that is organizing the use of drone warfare. And I do believe that the systems can be organized or understood in in different ways. Unknown: Um, Katherine Chandler: So, let me try to come back again to this question of what is the public and how these technologies ask us to think about the public in a different kind of way. And also are revealing of some of the ongoing discussions and debates that happen around the public. And I wanted to briefly
bring in the work of Hannah Arendt and quotes that has long left me thinking both about drone aircraft, and more recently about Zoom. So I'm going to read it for you the second part of the quote, this is after the part that's in italics, which are in the original, but she says that the contemporary non public, the ways in which we no longer have a public sphere, and this is in the human condition in written in 1958. She says the weirdness of the situation resembles a spiritualist ik seance, which a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic charts, see the table vanish from their myths, so that two persons sitting opposite each other, were no longer separated, but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible. And so some of the problems and some of the ways in which the drone and Zoom seem to organize the public also seem to be brought out in this idea of this magic trick, where we are all instantly connected to each other. And I think we can all see how this might describe a zoom call, where it is as if we were gathered around a table, and two people sitting opposite each other are sort of made immediately connected. We are no longer related by anything tangible. And I think this
question of how can we think about relationality, and accountability and responsibility through platforms, like Zoom, which sort of make us immediately connected but totally distanced. And I think there's something similar that's happening in the way in which drone warfare proposes a sort of immediate connectivity to the battlefield, even as it happens from enormous distances. What would it mean to really make that tangible? And how can there be a common world made in these digital platforms that seemed to highlight a sort of flattening of the world? And I think part of what needs to be done in order to make this possible is to think sort of outside of the screen, and think about how the systems are built and maintained, and the processes and ideas that become embedded in their making, and imagine the possibility and the conditions for their remaking. So in the final part of my talk, I want to briefly go through a couple portions of my research, to describe to you how I've examined how the drone was made in order to reveal some of the assumptions about this system and then some current research that I'm working on where I consider if the drum can be put back together to propose a democratizing relationship rather than a divisive one.
Unknown: Um, Katherine Chandler: So, as I mentioned earlier, one of the striking things about my research or as Barbara also mentioned in the introduction was that I thought that I was going to work about contemporary drone warfare until I realized how hard it was going to be to get any form of access to contemporary drone warfare. So instead, I sought out how I could understand what was happening through the lens of drone warfare through archival information. And luckily, I found a vast archive of materials, particularly 120 boxes of documents from the interwar and World War Two that describe the Navy project, which was known by the codename drone, which has since become the common parlance for an unmanned aircraft system. So at that time, it was a pilotless plane. And the project to build the pilotless plane was known by the codename drone, though by 1946, the drone was sort of the common term that we use to talk about drones, to talk about unmanned aircraft. And I'm sharing with you in this particular image,a headline from a New York Times Sunday magazine, from 1946, the drone portant of a push button war. And I'm just bringing this out, because one of the things I realized in my research was that this idea of automatic war, and automation as sort of driving forward, targeted killing has a long pre history, long before the rise of the war on terror. And so this was an idea that had
been tested in World War Two. And I'm going to briefly take you through this project, and I'm going to talk about the cancellation at the end. But in the rest of my book, I explore how the project continues to reemerge in the 1960s 1970s and 1980s. And I'm interested in the ways in which all these failed
projects suggest a different way of thinking about contemporary drone warfare and also what the contemporary drone is or what it does. Um, so I'm going to start with a memo from 1934 from Vladimir's work and who many of you may know, is often called the father of television. Of course, that title is there's others who are suggested as being the the, the inventors of television, but RCA promoted Sorkin. And as the father of television and, and in the 1920s 1930s and 1940s, The idea of what television was going to be, did not yet have a solid foundation, and Sorkin saw television as actually being very useful to military technologies. In 1934, sent a proposal to the US Navy called a flying torpedo with an electric eye. and in it he basically suggested that the new television camera that he had had invented could be a targeting technology for remote controlled torpedoes.
So at this point, the idea of suicide bombing was something that had been done by some pilots of various different nationalities in various aerial battles that had occurred prior to World War Two. And of course, air battles were not carried out at scale, really, until World War Two. So the idea also of what Air Warfare was still also being determined. But this was taken up by the, and this is a rendering of what they imagined this aerial warfare looking like, and again how the television is used to control the aircraft, which is seen as a platform for bombs used to attack the ships below. And these are early images associated with a test of the aircraft. And so you can see again how this appears to be the
drone being used to attack a freighter shipin Guadalcanal. What is not apparent in these particular images is that this is only a test. So it is not actual ship that is armed, it's rather a ship that had been defeated in a previous battle that is used to carry out this particular enactment of television guided bombing, which was then made into a film that was used to promote the project, and to get permission for it to be tested for 46 missions in September to October 1944. But
because the test occurred in 1944, this was also when numerous Japanese Kamikaze missions were killing many US, US Navy, Navy sailors, and also attacking ships in the Pacific and the Navy group that ran the drone mission with the television guided targets, and their particular system as the American Kamikaze. I'm in this was published as a book in 19. self published as a book in 1984. And I analyze it in some detail in my project and in my research, I just want to pull out one of the quotes though and see how the idea of targeting by television both confuses and disavows, both indicates the connections of what can be seen on screen, and disavows the sort of relationality between the operator and the target. And so in the remembrances of this particular project, one of the operators says, "Yeah, I got shot down once or twice, and two aircraft, our fire just brought it down." And this is referring
not to his plane, it's referring to the drone. But the drone becomes the operator suggesting this form of connectivity, and the sort of way in which through the drone, the operator was able to imagine himself as a machine. But then in the next sentence, he displaces, or does this form of relationality, "I didn't have control, but the picture was still on the screen. And all of a sudden, I was looking straight down and couldn't do anything about it. If it had been a piloted plane, I I'd have been
shot down, it would have been a funeral." And so in the final part, through the sort of crash of the air aircraft, and its detonation of whatever explosives have its use, against the enemy, and the possible deaths, its might cause becomes understood instead as the possible funeral of the operator. And again, the idea of the drone here is not just tied to the question of attack, but tied to this question of protection and the way in which the operator is able to through the screen ultimately displace and escape the death that is part of what would be seen on screen. So this project was not actually a success, it was a cancelled by the military. And it was largely seen as a fiasco in the aftermath of World War Two, in part because of infighting among Navy personnel, and within the Navy hierarchy over the direction of the Navy, as well as because the technologies and the the technologies, particularly the aircraft were made out of plywood and very difficult to actually maneuver or to fly. And Vannevar Bush, who many of you may know was sort of the, considered the star of scientific research during the war and to help direct the course of science in the aftermath, described the drone project as an actual fiasco. And so it's the reconstruction of
the history in the 1980s with the rise of new guided missile systems, as well as the sort of precursors of contemporary drone warfare that sparked renewed interest in this project and sort of brought it back to light. And but the the aftermath of this drone project did not stop in 1947. And in fact lived on in the image or its icon, which was what was developed by RCA to make the planes that I described to you and showed briefly in the previous slides. So, we have here the image or the con, which would have been used in all RCA television sets produced up until 1968. And the Orthicon was such an important part of the television that it was called the Emmy and the Emmy Awards are named after it. So we can see a direct link to these
drones from the World War Two, not in the development of military drones, but in the development of commercial television and the ways in which these technologies ended up in all of our television sets. And it's with that in mind that I want to think about how the ideas of connectivity and relationality that are often proposed as sort of the foundations of media, we can think about this, and Marshall McLuhan's extensions of man as thinking about the television set all the way through some of the early thinking about the internet in the 90s. And still today as sort of a medium for connectivity. It's complicated by the divides, and the real separations that are imagined by choosing, by defining who is who is an enemy, and who is a friend through the sort of lens of a camera that comes out so clearly in the American Kamikaze project. And I think this brings us back in some ways to the Orentian public and the problems. The many not just myself have noted with her ideal
of the public is there's no place for violence. And there's no way of thinking about the ways in which inequalities and violence is continued to persist and in the public sphere. So it's with this in mind that my most recent research has turned to drone aircraft being used on the African continent. And this is a project that is about that is defined as you know, using the drone as a democratizing technology, because of its low cost. And its possible uses for mapping and
other forms of aerial photography that are typically not accessible unless you have an airplane, or access to a satellite. So, I spent some time on this project talking to the participants, where they use this small drone to ultimately map the entire island of Zanzibar. The project took a long time. So it took two to three years to map it with this
very small drone. And I went out with them, we would fly about two to three flights a day. And it slowly piecemeal put together a map of Zanzibar, and much of the time was actually spent not collecting the images on the drone, but trying to process them on the computer. And it was more than mosaicking of the images and the software associated with that, that was harder to access than the actual question of the drone. So I
want to share the pictures of this because again, it gives us such a different image of what we think about when we think about drone aircraft. And again, highlight what happens when we look at how drone flight is made and enacted and how you get a very different sense of what the drone is than simply a set of images on screen. This was a really very popular entertainment. The kids in town loved coming to watch the drone
flights happen and everything took place from the back of a pickup truck. I took pictures of the batteries because the batteries had a real hard time keeping a charge. And I'd say about one and three of the drone flights would actually have to be stopped in order to fix a battery or deal with the various different battery problems. So I'm of time I this is a brief video where I show myself to be a drone participant. And again, after sort of illustrating for you all of the