Data and Drones – Week Seven

Data and the Self

Cybernetic technologies and their associated layers of avocations (see Week Six) produces a tension or a dialectic between constraints and innovations, between control and freedoms of use. This tension can be observed in some of the reactions people have to the role of cybernetics in wearable technologies and autonomous flying devices.

There are a number of interesting wearable devices that have become commonly available recently at everyday retail outlets. Data-driven wearable devices like the ‘Fitbit’, the ‘Jawbone’ and the Apple Watch are among a growing number of technologies that can be situated within a broader trajectory of body-mediation technologies, with the mobile phone at one end and the cyborg at the other.  Some of these devices like Google Glass have proved too contentious and been abandoned, whiles others like VR are surging ahead.

All these devices are made up of layers of invocations and produce complex assemblages of avocations, as Chris Chesher calls them. Layers of multiple cybernetic systems, like the movement sensors, accelerometers, infrared, and other visual and audio detection technologies, which collect data about the wearer or the location of the device in space and time.

All of this activity is based on the cybernetic concept of normalisation: what is the normal movement for a ‘walking’ motion; what is the ‘average’ of human sleeping hours? How do we determine an appropriate kilojoule count for an adult? Some folks fiercely object to these devices on the understanding that they somehow making us less human, making us more machine-like, and make us more susceptible to the systems of command and control.

The importance of data

There are obvious epistemological and therapeutic roles for self-tracking devices that are part of contemporary networked cultures of innovation and self-management, but there is a persistent doubt that these kinds of devices are nothing more than snake oil. They consider that modes of information management that reduce the individual to quantified data and metrics is to be inhuman.  Those fears are well-founded – wearable technologies are not miracle technologies, these devices won’t make you healthier, happier or help you avoid getting sick, which is how they are often marketed.

It is possible to understand the fears about these devices, but it is also clear that the types of information that these devices generate, through their everyday cybernetic properties, are very useful when they employ open standards and are shared equally with everyone able to access, compare and manipulate the data without restriction.

These devices enable an entirely different side of the everyday performative presentation of self. They also provide alternative routes to self-knowledge on which online persona formation is based. The very enthusiastic consumer pick up of these devices, replicates previous periods of massive technological adoption and integration into the workplace and home, such as the desktop computer and mobile phone, that appear to be quite linear but represents the exponential growth of the technologies and their uses and roles. The same protests about Fitbits, Apple watches and other wearable technologies were used to protest against introducing the PCs, portable game consoles and mobile phones.  

Initially, the desktop PC meant at the invasion of the home by the office workstation, then the mobile phone was to blame. Most of now carry around more computational power, memory, and storage than desktop PCs of 20 years ago. We imagine Fitbits and other wearable devices now, are nothing what the actual use of those devices or at least it will be league different that sophisticated pedometers.

Critics suggest that users of wearable technologies get trapped into the myth of the quantified self and caught up in the cultures of auditing, archiving and early adoption of technology. This is based on the fear that users become less than subjects, that they become objects and worse, cybernetically controlled objects that are slaves to a neo-liberal system of power – or trapped in the matrix or worse like Cypher in the Matrix they choose to stay there.

Another criticism is that we will only get trapped in these devices, and we somehow lose touch with the sublime sense of the perfect human that was are in danger of losing our natural selves to post-humanism and therefore our humanism – that we will become Cylons.

Now some of the extreme claims that these devices will make you live longer and healthier I’d not put much stock in, but like the pedometer, the bathroom scales, the blood pressure monitor, the breathalyzer, the spectacles, the telescope, the microscope, pocket watch and so on, these are a tool that extends the capacity of the human mind and body.

Katherine Hayles describes the posthuman condition as the serialisation of identity, is the condition that exists between humans and barcodes and pin numbers, birthdays and phone numbers, credit card details and serial numbers. Some might see this as inevitable steps towards fascism, while cyberlibertarians argues that user modes define what a user can do, it is the users that invoke themselves as slaves to a system owned by a corporation – whether it is Facebook or Apple. It is true that at any point in time their details can be used without their permission but it is also true, that no matter how invested in those spaces, the user does have a choice to withdraw from those services. The biggest and weakest link in any cybernetic system: the unpredictability of the human user.

As always the answer to the criticism is in the individual use – that some people don’t record their data, they don’t record it in the way that – other’s go more intense and hack their devices – see Fitbit hacks:


Like the internet, drones have an intimate set of close relations to and associations with the military-industrial entertainment complex, which includes the militaries of nation-states like the US, but also the industrial facilities, design and research and development organisations of companies like General Atomics, even Hollywood is contractually related to this complex, and can be seen most obviously rendered in Michael Bay films like Transformers.

Following the downing of the U2 spy plane over Russia, in 1960 the US began to invest in unmanned aerial vehicles. Between 1980 and 1983 almost the height of the cold war, General Atomics began to work on the MQ-1 Predator an unmanned aerial vehicle(UAV) used primarily by the United States Air Force (USAF) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Examples to consider in the seminar this week:

[Drone Regulation in Australia]

In October 2013, a UAV collided with Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority began investigation and produced a series of regulations and conditions that operators must respect when flying drones. In the seminar this week, discuss the reasoning and logic behind these recommendations and review the videos in the accompanying Prezi.

[Safety Instructions]

There are conditions under which you may fly:

    • You may NOT fly closer than 30m to vehicles, boats, buildings that are not on YOUR private property or you must have explicit permission from the private property owner.
    • You are NOT allowed to fly over any populated areas such as beaches, other people’s backyards, heavily populated parks or sports ovals where there is a game on.
    • You may NOT operate within a RADIUS of 5.5km of any aerodrome, airfield, airport, seaplanes taking off or landing, helicopter landing sites which may be located at hospitals, police stations or other locations that you may not be aware of. It is YOUR responsibility to find out where they are and ignorance is no defence in the court of law. (Have a look at our app RPAS LOGGER which shows you almost all these locations around Australia)
    • You may ONLY operate during DAYLIGHT – NO night flying! Only in good weather and you MUST be in visual-line-of-site of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft – RPA.
    • You may NOT fly above 120
    • What does this translate to? Real Estate photographers will usually NOT be able to conform with ALL these conditions and will, therefore, REQUIRE a UAV Operator Certificate (UOC) which is the CASA certificate to operate legally and they don’t make great wedding videos.

DroneStories Prezi

These rules and policies are not easy to enforce or even follow, and drone flying individuals, clubs and organisations can push back for quite some time before the government will step in. The important thing to consider with these kinds of rules and regulations is the type of narrative or discourse, that is being constructed around drones and drone flying. Retailers, for example, have something to gain from promoting the idea that there are very few restrictions to drone flying. 

The drone as both hero and villain depending on which narratives we choose to invest in and contribute to.

Another narrative is the pioneer spirit: Chris Anderson, the CEO of drone manufacturer 3D Robotics, considered today’s drones on par with the early era of Persona Computer companies of the 1970s and early 1980s, where we are still attempting to figure out what the technology is and how to best package it for personal consumption and commercial application.

However, governments may prevent that wave of innovation, by acting on an entirely different narrative: one of the lawless ‘wild’ fronter that has to be tamed and made safe. The message to this story is that destabilised technologies must be brought under control

Some government are going much further than just regulation toward criminalisation of unlicensed drone use, as in Thailand where unlicensed drone pilots are disciplined and brought under control with the threat of serious jail time.



The Military Industrial Entertainment Complex, however, is more than models and makes, it is also an ideological interface between military training and ideology, recruitment and propaganda, simulation and entertainment.  

We can see the complex in operation in video games in terms of the non-diegetic (non-narrative) elements, such as the heads-up display (HUD).

This overlay and arrangement of information, light and strategic direction,  argues Paul Virilio, produces a highly mediated perspective structuring the parameters of time, place, and space within the soldier’s experience in a permanent state of preparation and anticipation of combat (Virilio 2002, 39). Basically, this view is designed to format you as the operator, player or pilot as a soldier.

In Drone, by Adam Rothstein (Bloomsbury 2015), the drone is described as a heavy object, full of undiagnosed complications.

The drone belongs to a lineage of technological innovations that is more than a century old. A drone is an object of the skies, unlike birds and planes, the drone is the result of fantasy and science fiction, it is both a horror and a hope.

Rothstein’s suggests there are a number of dominant narratives that are currently being employ to talk about drones, and which structure the ways in which we can talk about them.

The first drone narrative is the definitional narrative, which begins with explaining what the technology is and isn’t. This is an attempt to create a boundary between one set of technologies and another set of technologies, which is useful to diagnose and regulate the roles that the technology will fill.

“The drone is an aircraft, not a car, the drone is a computer, not a remote-controlled device, the drone is a robot and not a plane.”

Is it a Drone – a UAV – a Multicopter – a Multirotor – A remote controlled device?

The second narrative that is commonly invoked to deal with the complexity of technologies, is the invention narrative, and these are the stories that are historically grounded stories about the often heroic invention: the Wright Brother invented the airplane; Henry Ford invented the Model T; Lance Hill invented the Hills hoist in 1945.

The important thing to remember about invention narratives is that which is left out – including all the other innovations that are produced, like the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnels but also pay attention to who is left out or included in different contexts.

Invention narratives are not far from historical narratives, which tell us that the first time a drone hit a target with a missile in 1971.

But again it is what the historical narrative doesn’t tell us, including the fact that Video technology was not good enough to spot targets effectively in the field until the 1990s and contemporary drones of today are almost nothing like these early innovations.

That brings us to contemporary narratives, these are the narratives that replicate the patterns of history, but in terms of how we interpret the technology today.

This is where myths of technologies are found, like the myth of robots replacing human labourers because jobs are dirty, dull or dangerous, when for  the most part, robots occupy highly tailored and specific roles and are most often engineered to do that job and for the benefit of the contribution to the economic viability of the enterprises involved.

Robots don’t tend clean toilets, they assembled weld car frames and assemble microchips.

We will see drones replacing some human jobs but these are most likely to be the dangerous one, or the ones that are difficult to get to, and the ones that can be engineered to do more cheaply, safely and productively.

Narratives are incredibly important for making sense of the human-technology interfaces, and it is with speculative narratives in science fiction, fantasy and other genres of fiction and popular cultures that we exorcise our daemons and entertain our fantasies.

We require specular narratives like colonising Mars with robots, drones and droids so that we don’t settle for Amazon delivery drones.

So we don’t just get imperial probe droids but astromechs as well.

Expressing our fears and anxieties over dystopian outcomes is fine, argues Adam Rothstein, but if want technologies to benefit us more than they cause us harm, then we have to imagine the future that we want to see come into existence. These are intentional narratives, stories that we used to justify our actions and guide development in the present.  

The idea of a humanitarian drone, a drone that offers aid, not terror.

The agricultural drone, The anti-landmine drone and drone journalism.

It these types of narratives help to direct the development of technologies, over potential harms, such as the drone that crash into the aircraft, or a stalker uses a drone to track a victims movement, or the terrorist drone delivering anthrax – we can’t predict all the consequences that we will have to address over time.

It is the social narratives that document the networked web of collective and collaborative visions and fears about drones, and it is at the level of social narratives where we can begin to assemble an understanding between the competing narratives.

Through understanding the social narratives and stories about drones, We begin to understand that when I talk about drones, I am talking about a different assemblage of socio-technical conditions than when an engineer, a journalist, a politician or a police officer talk about drones.

Because we mean different things when we talk about Drones, they also challenge our aesthetic narratives.

Drones change the aesthetic narrative of vehicles and invert the logic of the command and control functions of interfaces. Prior to the drone assemblage and the integration of remote control and autonomous programming – the best way to think about operating a vehicle was with an egocentric perspective – as the car or plane is an extension of our body –

Prior to the drone assemblage and the integration of remote control and autonomous programming – the best way to think about operating a vehicle was with an egocentric perspective – as the car or plane is an extension of our body –

But why control the drone like a satellite, why not like an FPS game?

Typically we think of the drone as something that we are looking at, but really it is something we are inside of.

The drone is a time traveller, spanning years of history: from the first flight of the Wright brothers in 1903, to the first spy satellites that transmitted digital images in 1976, to the rollout of the next generation air-traffic control system in 2020.

The drone is a shapeshifter, changing its appearance depending on place and time and what we are using it to do: it’s been a target for training pilot, it’s been a top-secret stealth spy vehicle, and it’s been a smartphone toy.

The drone is a trickster, playing upon preconceptions and emotions, in order to manipulate our thinking even as we control it by remote.

News headlines tell of zombie drones and plans for drone terrorist attacks and government drone-hunting licenses being proposed.

The drone is a monster, capable of terrible acts.

The drone is a hero, uniting multiple technologies into a shape and function greater than the sum of its parts.

The drone is a villain always ready to interfere, threaten, kill or spy on us.

Technologies shape the way we see the world, and drones change the way that we see the world.  As the technology is improved, adapted and expanded, the untangling of the narrative will continue, with the drone and with any technology that finds itself in an important debate in our society: like Uber, like the Google Self Driving Car and Virtual Reality.

The drone is very interesting specular technology and it offers a chance in perspective in the way with interact through technology and the data that it collects, as well as the technologies physical presence and operation.

Drones – at their current level of technology – allow us to observe large swaths of ground for an extended period of times, both CCTV and Satellites and their imagery have particular advantages for different surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.

It has become a trope to talk about drone operation as if it were a videogame. This is because the video game replicates a reality that is separate from reality, otherwise describe as being virtual – a virtual space denotes a difference that is not completely estranged from our notions of real space.

The drone puts the human in an interesting cybernetic relationship with the ground, the air and the movement between objects.