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Don't Mistake Our Intelligence for Knowledge

Drone Realism Research and Notes

Originally gathered, written, and published as a part of Don't Mistake Our Intelligence for Knowledge, a research event and presentation at the San Diego Museum of Art, 2013

Drone is More than a Noun

What exactly do we mean by drone? The definition has changed over the years, but today it refers to aircraft that have the capability of autonomous flight, which means they can follow a mission from point to point...This differentiates them, on the one hand, from radio-controlled aircraft, which need to be piloted, and on the other from uncontrolled vehicles like balloons or ballistic rockets. Usually drones also carry some sort of payload, which at a bare minimum includes cameras or other sensors as well as some method to transmit data wirelessly back to a base. That definition fits a $140 million Global Hawk drone, circling over Afghanistan and transmitting video to Air Force intelligence analysts in California. But it also describes the $500 foam plane that my children fly on weekends.


-- Chris Anderson, “Here Come the Drones,” Wired, July 2012


What makes a drone and how does it function? Who is flying drones and why? How is this technology not new? How are we already a drone culture? How is ours a drone economy, a drone government?
Is there a politics of verticality? What is the essential logic of drone technology and what existing logics does it extend? How is the proliferation of drones in warfare, surveillance, law enforcement, and entertainment shifting our collective world view? And, how does our current world view dictate our use of drones? What does an aerial perspective offer? What does it deny? What is the long-term cognitive effect of seeing topography flattened? In what ways is drone surveillance affecting the aesthetics of factuality, of realism, and the way we recognize truth? What do they recognize as true? What about abstraction? What is the difference between looking and seeing? What is the difference between knowledge and information? Algorithm and heuristic? Analysis and interpretation? Land and landscape? How do we determine our own scale? And who gets to hold the ruler?


Drone is more than a noun. It is the verb of the telepresent moment. It is locatable, bird’s-eye seeable, searchable, and autonomously command controlled. Loitering, humming and buzzing algorithms swarming in form. We are already droning, moving in sequence, caught between intelligence and information, necessity and novelty, velocity and inertia, aesthetic understanding and applied knowledge.

Sentences, Algorithms, and Security

Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home the Earth, for the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. It is a dangerous time...I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky...


-- Carl Sagan

At the beginning of the re-release of the Cosmos tv series with Carl Sagan, co-creator Ann Druyan gives a sincere foreword, speaking about the time in which Cosmos was first conceived and created, when, as she describes, “the United States and the Soviet Union held the whole planet in a perpetual hostage crisis called the Cold War. The wealth and scientific ingenuity of our civilization was being squandered on a runaway arms race that employed more than half of the world’s scientists and infested the earth with 50,000 nuclear weapons.” Nothing and everything has changed; we are still living under the sentence of that proliferation and still squandering the wealth and ingenuity of our civilization in the name of national security. And, perhaps the ever-present possibility of nearly instant nuclear annihilation is the underlying cause for our paranoia. We have, in the words of Hannah Arendt, already destroyed the future. Vigilance at all costs is necessitated. 

Wendy Brown, in a lecture titled “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty,” given at the Center for Citizenship, Identities, and Government in 2012, sketched the paradoxical relation between this preoccupation with security and defense and the waning relevance of national borders and the diminishing grip of state sovereignty. Globalization and technological speed have made borders appear as antiquated formalizations, and yet we observe at the same time, a massive blooming of construction: walls of all kinds are popping up, from Internet firewalls to 9-foot, steel border walls. We’re frantically attempting to separate and secure country from country, 1st-world from 3rd. (1) 

We see these paradoxes everywhere, we value one thing and express another. Similarly at odds, the United States’ security agencies have widened their net in recent years, sanctioning (at times illegal) spying on their own citizens, (2) while at the same time notions of individual freedom are at an increasingly high saturation. Individual liberty is paramount, but it is also, paradoxically, being rendered a scarcity by the same agencies that seek to protect it. They tell us we are free and then monitor our reactions. And they do it with the same technology through which we perceive our own surrogate liberty. 

Since the attacks of September 11, The United States has spent more than $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security. The National Security Administration has a budget of around $6 billion a year and the ever-maturing capability to monitor the movements, transactions, and communications of 10 billion people (American citizens included) simultaneously and in real time. Global Hawks provide “long-dwell presence” above ground, traveling in a network of five orbits that cover the world to record and collect information. And at this point the NSA is intercepting and archiving so much information (e-mail correspondence, cell phone calls, text messages etc.) from ‘enemies’ at home and abroad that, in order to store it all, they [have begun] construction on a $2 billion dollar monumental data storage center in a remote corner of Utah. It will be a sprawling 1 million square feet and capable of holding over a yottabyte of data, which is equal to about a septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text. (3)

But these statistics are fairly meaningless. Money is a tyrannical abstraction and numbers don’t make anything feel real. But, if we think about our own daily use of the Internet, there is a reality that implicates us. “Total information awareness is not just a post-9/11 government agency, but a democratic cause of the Internet. 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.”(4) We are coloring inside the lines of drone. Making the same shapes. Looking at things from above in flattened glimpses. Creating the world over as a Borgesian archive that can only be read or organized by algorithm.



1. Wendy Brown. “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty.” Milton Keynes: Center for Citizenship, Identities, and Governance, 2010. Keynote lecture,

2. Amy Goodman with Denis Moynihan. “The NSA Is Watching You.” Democracy Now!, 2012,

3. Jame Bramford. “Post-September 11, NSA ‘enemies’ include us.” Politico, 2011.




On Drones, Aerial Perspective, and Realism

I’m an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horses mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, maneuvering in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations. 
     Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I coordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads toward the creation of a fresh new perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.


-- Dziga Vertov, 1923

How do we recognize what we see as true? How do we deconstruct the codes and cues of visual factuality from the naturalization of everyday appearances? What is realism now? We know it looks one way or another; it sounds like something, touches with a particular pressure, provides significant detail, is often machine-made. It has a caption, perhaps, or it implies a smell or taste. It is a trace. 

The aesthetic of visual factuality encompasses many devices and has evolved over time, through the development of linear perspective and its contestations, the emergence of photographic technology, cinema, and real-time broadcast. “Factuality is not merely a question of truth or lies, but a more complex semiotic system which provides for varying authority, and appropriateness to be allocated to particular representations of the world.” (1) Visual and verbal images work through their signs, codes, and atmosphere, making us believe, or not, what we see. 

The realist tradition differs across disciplines, (obviously there are genres and disciplines that connote more or less truth value in themselves. Literature elicits less of an expectation of truth than the journalism, for instance) and it’s codes change throughout time. 

Traditionally, in writing we recognize truth value in word choice, through an imposed distance in tone, or through perspective and focalization. For instance, the narrator’s perspective in a traditionally realist novel is onmiscient, seeing things that individual characters can’t see. In film when we see the same action from multiple perspectives, hear the authoritative narration of a British voice, or see what looks like “historic” footage we are inclined to recognize documentary—the lightly interpreted evidence of the real. News media and journalism have traditionally used many of the codes of traditional literary realism to tell their stories: the voice of objectivity, deadpan expression, and an privileged, in-depth, and thus authoritative account of events. 
If we update these aesthetic cues, and continue to speak extremely generally, then: contemporary realist literature relies more on a highly naturalistic immersion than on narration from an all-knowing vantage; the hand-held quality of amateur camera-work and the obvious evidence of filmic production distinguish contemporary cinematic realism, and in news media we see the authenticity of the amateur validating truth: crowd sourcing, images from flickr, insight networks, and Youtube videos. (We really can’t get away from the visual influence of youtube.)


Across disciplines, certain formal structures organize meaning in similar ways to communicate a sense of definiteness. One major structure is perspective. Perspective is both a compositional method—a way of simulating a viewpoint that recreates reality with convincing structure—and it is also a metaphor for a world view—a shared way of perceiving and believing in the physical and meta-physical world. 
We have long lived by powerful orientational metaphors that organize our cognition, communication, and collective sense of perspective. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson outline some of these in their foundational text Metaphors We Live By, suggesting that among other comparisons: conscious is up; unconscious down. having control of force is up; being subject to control or force is down. virtue is up; depravity is down. (2) Control, consciousness, virtue, truth are, beyond stylization, powerfully oriented up. Thus aerial perspective, with it’s wide, seemingly unmoored, all-encompassing view, represents to our brains the maximum in objectivity. 


Beyond perspective, the element of time translates in the visual field to communicate greater or lesser senses of realness as well. “We live in a world that is dramatically different from the world of Renaissance perspective, scientific rationalism, and [even] Modern world views through the end of the twentieth century.” (3) Time has become the crucial element. Authenticity is immediate transmission, where the instant of making an image is collapsed with the moment of viewing. And the visual styles that code the “live broadcast” have become our sign posts for veracity. Their abstraction and their rawness work against the suspicion of the photographic medium and its easy alterability. And, the contemporary establishment of the Youtube look validates their lack of high definition. Fragmentary, pixelated, abstract, glitchy; they are familiar, sensor-painted Monets by machine.

Drone tech (especially military) brings both the structures of perspective and synchronous transmission to their maximum intensity, capturing footage that epitomizes contemporary authenticity. Within a consideration of perspective, not only do they provide a top-down view, but that view embodies multiple perspectives (see Grogon Stare) stitched together into one immersive field, complete with geographic coordinates.
Drone realism is an extension of satellite vision. And, with the rise of amateur droning, (amateur drones now outnumber military drones in the US) “cyber and satellite visualities” appear to be re-articulated “as the (domain of citizens’ hands rather than that of military officials’ and scientific experts,’ eyes. In other words, these interfaces transform satellite images into tactile fields of public cultural engagement. This in itself is significant since for decades they, have been under the exclusive purview of the state, scientists, and corporations.”4 But maybe that’s just what we want to hear. Democratized drone tech not only extends the logic of ownership and domination through vision and movement, but it is the panopticon on steroids. It hides realer realities: that positivism is undying, that the state is still in control, and that there is nothing “post” about colonialism.


1. David Graddol. “The Visual Accomplishment of Factuality” in Media Texts: Authors and Readers. Graddol, David and Oliver Boyd-Barrett, eds. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd, 1994.

2. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

3. Maria Sturken and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2001.

4. Lisa Parks. “Satellite and Cyber Visualities: Analyzing ‘Digital Earth’” in The Visual Culture Reader 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2002. We have adapted Parks’s ideas here, she is writing in reference to Digital Earth Project, introduced by Al Gore in 1998.

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