Being Pro-Drone


[Notes from the March 11th Dionysium Debate at Muchmores, discussing the pros and cons of Drones.]

What is a drone?

According to DIY Drones, an amateur builder’s site, a drone is:

An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)…an aircraft that has the capability of autonomous flight, without a pilot in control. Amateur UAVs are non-military and non-commercial. They typically fly under “recreational” exceptions to FAA regulations on UAVs, so long as the pilots/programmers keep them within tight limits on altitude and distance. Usually the UAV is controlled manually by Radio Control (RC) at take-off and landing, and switched into GPS-guided autonomous mode only at a safe altitude.

According to Robert Valdes at How Stuff Works:

Military commanders use tactics and strategy in combat to inflict as much damage on the enemy while trying to risk as few personnel and resources as possible. This principle was at the heart of the development of the RQ-1 and MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

These high-tech aircraft, controlled by a crew miles away from the dangers of combat, are capable of reconnaissance, combat and support roles in the hairiest of battles. In a worst-case scenario, if a Predator is lost in battle, military personal can simply “crack another one out of the box” and have it up in the air shortly — and that’s without the trauma of casualties or prisoners normally associated with an aircraft going down.


According to Rand Paul, in his thirteen hour fillibuster speech, a drone is an destroyer of lives, privacy and the fourth amendment, far exceeding George Orwell’s worst nightmares:

Many government agencies have been – become buying drones and these hopefully will remain unarmed drones and it’s a different subject but it’s a subject that sort of dovetails from this into the next subject, which is should you have protection from the government snooping, you know, from the government looking through your bedroom windows? And I remember when I read “1984” when I was in high school, it – it bothered me but I – I really couldn’t quite connect…

But now fast forward another 30 or 40 years and look at the technology we have now. We have drone as that are less than an ounce. I – presumably with cameras. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to believe that. But less than an ounce with a camera. It is not impossible to conceive that you could have a drone fly outside your window and see what you’re reading, to see what your reading material is. It’s not impossible to say that they couldn’t send drones up to your mailbox and read at least there – you know, what kind of mail you’re getting and where it’s from. It’s not unconceivable that drones could – inconceivable that drones could follow you around.

Ironic that Paul would use another tactic that gave Orwell nightmares – using irrational fear to whip people up into a frenzy. But he’s not the first to use a dystopian nightmare as an instruction booklet and he sure won’t be the last.

In “Nineteen Eighty Four,” George Orwell described the ‘two minutes of hate’, a daily period in which Party members would watch a film describing the Party’s enemies and express their hatred for them. The object of the hate would be something that would push everyone’s buttons in such a way that even dissidents would join in, despite their own contempt for the regime.

Now we use minutes of fear more than hate, but in a 24/7 news cycle, that’s a lot of minutes.

Speculative Fiction Writer Jason Reynolds posted on Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate: Terror Management and the Politics of Fear

The most horrific thing, Winston says, isn’t simply that he feels obliged to go along with it. It’s that even a true thoughtcriminal like himself finds it “impossible to avoid joining” the “hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer.” Winston helplessly watches as his secret loathing for Big Brother, the face of the Party, becomes, for a brief, but terrifying moment, true adoration. This foreshadows the fate of his desperate revolt. In the end, Winston’s rebellion fails. He is destined to love Big Brother. The Two Minutes Hate gives us a disturbing glimpse into the psychological, and indeed physiological, means by which totalitarian control is possible. Orwell takes the reader right to the intersection of nature and nurture, where political propaganda sets its scalpel and goes to work, ‘healing’ us through the power of ‘proper’ beliefs—the pseudo-salvation of mind and body that comes from loving and hating the ‘right’ faces. Being an accepted member of your tribe, Orwell argues, is invariably linked to being fervently hostile towards the other tribe.

In this way, Orwell’s diagnosis of totalitarian tactics prefigures a recent breakthrough in social psychology called Terror Management Theory (TMT). The idea is rooted in anthropologist Ernest Becker’s seminal work “The Denial Death,” which proposed that all human behavior is instinctively shaped and influenced by the fear of death. Whether we realize it or not, our ‘mortality anxiety’—a quality that appears to be unique to our species—is such a potent and potentially debilitating force, we have to repress and distract ourselves from it. But as Freud says, the repressed always returns, slipping into our conscious minds and affecting our behavior in lots of weird ways.

Recently, researchers tested this theory by asking a group of students, half Democrats and half Republicans, to measure out some evil-tasting sauce that other students would have to eat. In normal circumstances, they doled out equally small portions for people who belonged to their party and people from the other party.

But when the students were made to think about their own death before doling out the portions, they gave their political allies the same small portion of icky sauce. They gave their political opponents a much bigger portion, filling the cup to the brim.

[Research video link thanks to Jason Reynolds’ site Uroboros, in English with Vietnamese subtitles.]

This week’s groupthink object is drones. Next week’s will be something new and drones will be so two minutes ago, like horsemeat in IKEA meatballs, Bloomberg’s Soda Crusade, and the end of the Mayan Calendar. Or maybe it will be a mélange:


[A poster that the New York Civil Liberties Union was apparently plastering all over New York City]


[the same poster that I modified for accuracy]

A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC news showed that eight in ten Americans (83 percent) approved of the Obama Administrations use of unmanned drones against suspected terrorists overseas — with 59 percent strongly approving of the practice. Support for the drone attacks was also remarkably bipartisan.  Seventy six percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats approved of the policy.

In that same poll, respondents were asked whether they supported using drones to target American citizens who are suspected terrorists.  Two thirds of people in the survey said they approved of doing so.

Rand Paul’s thirteen hours of fear may change those public opinions, or it may not. Orwell’s two-minutes were intense, but short-lived.

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

Most Americans would probably still agree that drones are the best way to deal with hard-to-reach spies, drug dealers and militants who make up the ranks of the Al-Qaeda/Taliban/Haqqani/ISI network, but the question the Post and most other media outlets usually don’t ask is – why are we fighting the war this way?

According to US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, (a reason to like WikiLeaks) private individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that are supposed to be friendly to the United States are the chief source of funding for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.

These cables were made public in 2010, but their release just confirmed what we already knew since 9/11.

Why has our government refused to arrest, complain about or even express mild disapproval of Saudis who plotted and paid to murder thousands of Americans? Because we all believe that the real source of terrorist training and ideology is too big to fail. Common wisdom said that telling the truth about Saudi support of terrorism  could have destabilized our economy and the Middle East.

In 2001, we abandoned the rule of law and the courage of our convictions, and in following years the economy and the Middle East were trashed anyway.

Like magicians, lots of organizations use the two-minute fear button to distract us from stuff they don’t want us to look at. The right will say that 9/11 was caused by stateless extremists and Islam, and they’ll tell us to fear Muslims.

The left will say it was caused by American warmongering and imperialism and they’ll tell us to fear ourselves.

Both sides will use the half of the facts that support their argument, ignoring the rest.

If you’re a Democrat, your media will tell you that the erosion of your civil rights is caused by those evil republicans, and we must fear those republicans because they victimize us. If you’re a republican, vise versa. But in fact, restricting civil liberties usually gets bipartisan support in Washington. The Congress that couldn’t come to any agreement that would help us avoid sequestration quickly passed extensions of warrantless wiretapping and indefinite detention.

The Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would apply the same protections against unlawful search and seizure to emails and text messages that already exist for letters, phone calls, and presumably the carrier pigeon.
Now they’re trying to focusing our attention on drones. But drones are a relatively small part of the surveillance industry in the US.

Drones are effective when they’re being used to hit hard-to-reach targets in areas like Waziristan. But dissidents in America would be much easier to find by using more established means, like TrapWire, the nationwide surveillance program that siphons data from surveillance cameras in stores, casinos, and other businesses around the country, feeds those reports directly/automatically into the [National Suspicious Activity Report] Initiative and the FBI’s eGuardian system.

How often has the government or the media mentioned the money they’ve spent on TrapWire, a program that appears to be as effective as the TSA at catching terrorists?  How often do they mention search and seizure of emails? How often do they  mention the heavily fortified $2 billion spy center they’re currently building in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Utah?

The Drone debate grew out of a facebook post Dionysium’s host, Todd Seavey, put up about the fact that 34 colleges and universities applied for permission to fly non military drones over campuses across the country.

Josiah Ryan, editor-in-chief of conservative education blog Campus Reform said:

“I find it troubling that this is the first most students have heard of secret plans to fly military-grade spy machines high above their dorms, classrooms and quads,” , told
“The constitutional right to privacy does not end on campus. The presidents of each of these 34 institutions owe their students, donors and taxpayers an explanation.”

Yet most of these drones were meant to research weather patterns and large-scale natural occurrences on the ground

  • Cornell University.. applied for a permit to use a university-built unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to collect atmosphere and weather data as well as to track airborne spores in a study drafted to combat potato blight.
  • the University of Michigan for use on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay for “gathering data as a drifting surface buoy that repositions via flight.”
  • the University of Florida, which applied for a permit to fly a NOVA “in support of ongoing aerospace, geomatics, ecological and aquatic research.”
  • the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the purpose of attaching a camera to a remotely controlled plane to take “low-altitude pictures” for a river restoration project.

Other examples of drones being used for good, not evil:

  • Safety inspectors used drones at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to survey the damage after last year’s tsunami.
  • Archaeologists in Russia are using small drones with infrared cameras to construct a 3-D model of ancient burial mounds.
  • Environmental activists use the Osprey drone to track and monitor Japanese whaling ships.
  • Photographers are developing a celebrity-seekingpaparazzi drone. GALE drones will soon fly into hurricanes to more accurately monitor a storm’s strength.
  • Boeing engineers have joined forces with MIT students to build an iPhone app that can control a drone from up to 3,000 miles away.
  • Last summer, using a laser 3-D printer, University of Southampton engineers built a nearly silent drone that can be assembled by hand in minutes.

Civilian use of drones would not all be good, and I don’t want to ignore the fact that civilians, like the government can and will use it for bad purposes. But like all things, new technology has potential for evil or good. In the future, political conflict may not be between the West and Islam, bourgeois vs proletarian or between conservatives and liberals; it will be the – it’ll be between the dynamists and the stasists.

In her book The Future and Its Enemies Virginia Postrel describes the positive effects of creativity and enterprise that generate open-ended, unpredictable progress. She also warns against those who would stifle it or stop it altogether.

Postrel refers to those who embrace the idea of an open-ended future as “dynamists” who believe in:

  • spontaneous order
  • experiments and feedback
  • evolved solutions to complex problems
  • the limits of centralized knowledge
  • the possibilities of progress.”

Their opposites, people who are opposed to the idea of an open-ended future, are “stasists,” They fall into two broad subcategories:

  • reactionaries, whose central value is stability
  • technocrats, whose central value is control.

According to Postrel, technocrats, probably the largest sector in the government don’t want to stop or reverse change; they just want to tame it, to bring it under centralized, expert control by subsidizing and regulating businesses, controlling international trade and immigration, and requiring their stamp of approval before anything new can be allowed to flourish.

One person who would probably be called a ‘dynamist’, Matt Mulenweg, whose company, Automattic, was the secret force behind  talked about online discussion forums becoming a “ Fifth estate.” Examples of the power of the Fifth estate included:

  • companies such as Dell shifting the direction of their products in response to online outcry started by a single blog post,
  • authors who have millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook and able to speak to their audiences directly for the first time,
  • a Twitter hashtag (#f***washington) becoming a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of frustrated citizens
  • a blackout of Wikipedia to protest proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation overloaded phone systems in Congress.
  • Wikipedia, where thousands of people all over the world have collectively created a reasonably accurate encyclopedia with no centralized control and without  being paid.

Mulenweg said “they’re just barely the beginning of the story… If we want to predict what’s going to happen, especially if we want to be able to take advantage of what’s going to happen, we need to understand those possibilities at a much deeper level than we do so far.

Another dynamist was Aaron Swartz, who was involved in the development of RSS feed and Reddit who recently committed suicide. Few people close to him doubt that an overzealous federal prosecution team contributed to his death.

If you want to know which side of the dynamist/ technocrat  equation the government is on, compare the prosecution of the too-big-to-fail bankers to the prosecution of people like Swartz.

Part of the challenge for dynamists is to show that past crises like 9/11, the economic tsunami of 2008 and the Arab Spring were the result of failures due to rigid, centralized, bureaucratic control.

Another challenge – to show that  flexible, spontaneous order can do better. For instance, what would you do about the problem of drones, TrapWire and other potential invasions of what’s left of our privacy?

Just as a thought exercise, pretend that elites like Rand Paul and Obama will never really provide any solution to any of our problems, no matter what they say. Imagine that no political party will solve any of our problems either. And you’re not a dictator. How would you arrive at a common consensus?

Flexible, spontaneous order doesn’t mean anarchy. As Aaron Swartz said in his post Fix the machine, not the person

An organization is not just a pile of people, it’s also a set of structures. It’s almost like a machine made of men and women. Think of an assembly line. If you just took a bunch of people and threw them in a warehouse with a bunch of car parts and a manual, it’d probably be a disaster. Instead, a careful structure has been built: car parts roll down on a conveyor belt, each worker does one step of the process, everything is carefully designed and routinized. Order out of chaos.

And when the system isn’t working, it doesn’t make sense to just yell at the people in it — any more than you’d try to fix a machine by yelling at the gears. True, sometimes you have the wrong gears and need to replace them, but more often you’re just using them in the wrong way. When there’s a problem, you shouldn’t get angry with the gears — you should fix the machine.

If you have goals in life, you’re probably going to need some sort of organization. Even if it’s an organization of just you, it’s still helpful to think of it as a kind of machine. You don’t need to do every part of the process yourself — you just need to set up the machine so that the right outcomes happen.

For example, let’s say you want to build a treehouse in the backyard. You’re great at sawing and hammering, but architecture is not your forte. You build and build, but the treehouses keep falling down. Sure, you can try to get better at architecture, develop a better design, but you can also step back, look at the machine as a whole, and decide to fire yourself as the architect. Instead, you find a friend who loves that sort of thing to design the treehouse for you and you stick to actually building it. After all, your goal was to build a treehouse whose design you like — does it really matter whether you’re the one who actually designed it?

Or let’s say you really want to get in shape, but never remember to exercise. You can keep beating yourself up for your forgetfulness, or you can put a system in place. Maybe you have your roommate check to see that you exercise before you leave your house in the morning or you set a regular time to consistently go to the gym together. Life isn’t a high school exam; you don’t have to solve your problems on your own.

Instead of being afraid of technology like drones, we should use and master it and use it to watch the watchers and keep them in line. Drone tech today is similar to the early days of the internet.

Some of the Fifth Estate can and will step away from their computers, grab their Arduino boards and head to the skies.

* Thanks to Todd Seavey, Pamela J. Stubbart and everyone who came to the wilds of Williamsburg for a great debate/discussion


About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
This entry was posted in Singularity, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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