So on Thursday, May 23rd 2013, President Obama made this speech.
It’s a good speech. I agree with quite a lot of it (by no means all of it.) But it’s not really fair to say that it’s reignited the drone debate – the debate has been steadily building for the last four years, and we have that debate to thank for the culmination of events that led to this speech. It’s not going away – technology never does - so we’re all going to be debating the usage of drones for the rest of our lives.  So I figured I’d weigh in.
There is some disingenuousness in this debate, I feel. People are comparing drone warfare to drones such as this Canadian one that rescued a car crash victim and going “if drones are so bad then what about this, huuuuuuuh?” I think this is because of a lack of clarity on the part of anti-drone people – because we aren’t actually talking about drones, when we talk about drones.
So instead of talking about drones, let’s talk about cameras.
A camera is, at its most basic, a lens and an exposure system that transfers an image to a semi-permanent media such as a digital file or a frame of film. A camera that takes a picture of horrific violence and is used to indict – or exonerate – a defendant is a good thing. A camera that preserves a picture of a lost or distant loved one is also a good thing.
But the same camera system that does this is also present in the security cameras we are caught on so many times a day, that steadily chip away at our sense of privacy in public or semi-public spaces such as shopping malls. These have a noble intention – ensuring that theft is minimized – but they can also be subverted for nefarious ends, and they raise a general question as to how much of our privacy we really have left.
Now let’s take that same camera system and put it in a women’s bathroom, directly over the toilet. No one, outside of the seediest side of Reddit, would defend this. It’s an unquestionable violation of privacy, and a malicious hate crime against over half the world’s population. Yet it uses the same general technology as the camera this woman might later use to capture a picture that turns into crucial evidence at a trial.
The same camera that records a woman’s long-distance chats with her loved ones via a laptop and Skype can be the same camera that is hacked to record a video of her undressing. The debate we have over whether mall security cameras harm us more than protect us is a debate about how a camera is used, not about whether a camera in and of itself is evil. Vastly different ends – but the same basic means.
That’s what drones are. A means, not an end.
The same technology that spots a car crash victim from a floating robot is the same technology that can track that person when they’re not in a car accident at all, but have landed on a watch list because of bureaucratic mix-up or because they have the wrong skin color. The drone is the means, not the end. A drone I buy at Radio Shack so that I can play games with my nieces and nephews is a fun toy; using the same drone to spy on the neighbor is a violation of privacy. A drone that delivers a pizza to my door would be pretty dope. A drone that delivers a bomb would be significantly less dope. It’s not the means we are objecting to. It’s the ends.
Right now, opponents of drone warfare are emphasizing the “drone” part when they should be emphasizing the “warfare” part. Likewise, pro-drone people are making the mistake of conflating a drone that delivers a bomb with a drone that delivers a pizza. The problem is not the means of delivery, but what is being delivered – my instant fiery vaporization, or my tasty dinner.
I sympathize with people who want to exploit fear of the new towards the incredibly noble goal of opposition to warfare. I’m reflexively anti-war and I think that I always will be. I appreciate Chief Royal Head Motherfucker in Charge Matt Osborne’s perspectives on warfare, since he has fought in one and lost more than I can fathom whilst doing so, but this is something we’ll have to disagree on. A precision bomb is a better bomb, but still a bomb. A hypothetical War X with fewer casualties than War Y is still a war with casualties. Sometimes in life we have to choose the least bad option. But we should never stop striving to ensure that there are more options than “bad” or “worse.”
That said: this exploitation of neophobia is a short-term strategy where the clock is already running down. Drones aren’t going anywhere. Drones will patrol nature preserves and guard against poachers. Drones will fire high caliber rounds and kill people. Death by drone is not less ethical than death by carpet bombing campaign or death by smallpox blanket – but it’s not really any better, either. It’s a new means towards an end that has plagued America for much of its life, that end being the disturbing ease and readiness with which it goes to war.
In other words, as Dave Von Ebers wrote – the Global War on Terror needs to end, no matter what weapons it’s fought with.
I realize that’s a lofty goal. So too, at one time, was marriage equality, and every activist in America should take notes on how the LGBT community acted. They changed the debate, won over public opinion, and pressured politicians with both the carrot and the stick. As a result Obama changed his position on it for the better. Whether they “made him” or “let him” is irrelevant, since the same social pressure is required in both cases.
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, “The reasonable person adapts themselves to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to themselves. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable people.” So I don’t begrudge activists for being unreasonable. That’s how progress gets made. I merely think that those fighting for progress could do with a renewed focus on what drones do, rather than what drones are. Because trying to roll back the technological clock is like trying to take pee out of an ocean.
So when someone condemns drone warfare, understand that it’s the warfare they take issue with, not the drone. They can stand to be clearer on this point – but let’s not pretend that in an article, news story or blog post about a missile launched from a flying robot that vaporized a house, that they’re talking about a pizza delivery drone and then ask why they are condemning pizza. They’re not talking about that, they’re talking about war. That’s what we talk about, when we talk about drones.
This post is by Mike From Nowhere. At least, the good parts are.