Drone Ethnography

Adam Rothstein has a knack for naming things of which we’re as yet only fleetingly aware of as cultural forces. Here he is guesting at Rhizome with a piece on drone ethnography:

Okay. I thought it was clear, but if you want me to spell it out for you, I will. You are obsessed with drones. We all are. We live in a drone culture, just as we once lived in a car culture. The Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is your ’55 Chevorlet. You just might not know it yet.

I have thirty-five browser tabs open, and each contains a fragment of the drone-mythos. Each is a glimpse at a situation, a bird’s eye view of the terrain. So many channels, showing me the same thing: near-infinite data collection. With the help of Google, I’m drone-spotting—I’m turning a new critical perspective that I’m calling Drone Ethnography, back on itself.

All of us that use the internet are already practicing Drone Ethnography. Look at the features of drone technology: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Surveillance, Sousveillance. Networks of collected information, over land and in the sky. Now consider the “consumer” side of tech: mapping programs, location-aware pocket tech, public-sourced media databases, and the apps and algorithms by which we navigate these tools. We already study the world the way a drone sees it: from above, with a dozen unblinking eyes, recording everything with the cold indecision of algorithmic commands honed over time, affecting nothing—except, perhaps, a single, momentary touch, the momentary awareness and synchronicity of a piece of information discovered at precisely the right time. An arc connecting two points like the kiss from an air-to-surface missile. Our technological capacity for watching, recording, collecting, and archiving has never been wider, and has never been more automated. The way we look at the world—our basic ethnographic approach—is mimicking the technology of the drone.

Go read the whole thing. Go on.

3 thoughts on “Drone Ethnography”

  1. Interesting. Drones do more than just look; because they’re as yet mostly used by the military their actions are mostly violent: launching missiles. But that won’t last. At first I suspect we’ll see other forms of force projection; awhile back we had a long discussion of how drones might be used by political activists, criminals, and citizens who resent being spied on by police to bring down official surveillance drones. But then other uses will be found by the street. I’m expecting that the availability of cheap or surplus drones from China, for instance, will allow graffiti artists to draw truly huge tags on the sides of skyscrapers or the roofs and walls of institutional buildings. They might also be handy for advertising; skywriting and banner-flying are very expensive right now because of the expense of expert pilots and aerobatic planes required.

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