James is a London-based writer, artist and publisher. He talks to us about the physical and political invisibility of drone warfare, and how he addresses that through projects such as Dronestagram, Drone Shadow and Watching the Watchers.
He reflects here on the relationship between military and surveillance drones, and surveillance itself as a form of violence. He also talks about how to get beyond the drones themselves, as the “pointy end” of a huge and complex system, in order to better understand the issue, and talks about what studying the experience of drone pilots can tell us about living in a networked world.
How little do we know about drones?
Drones are a slightly mysterious thing, which is very strange in an age of pervasive surveillance, technological network communication and constant visual imagery. They are something that is so visible in the media at the moment, but can remain deeply invisible in many ways. Drones particularly are designed to be invisible because they operate at altitude, they operate above our heads. We don't look up and look for them very often. In military terms, they are capable of operating so high above that we can't see them, and they are equipped with cameras that can look far further than we can.
But they are also politically invisible, because we don't fully understand how they operate and the systems that surround them, and that form them. They are invisible by virtue of the fact that we can't fully comprehend what they are capable of doing.
What's the difference between armed military drones and those tiny little drones that carry no arms, and are seen as “cool”?
For me, military drones are the interesting place to look, because military technology is always slightly further ahead of civilian technologies. Most of the drone technologies, things such as quadricopters (a kind of remote-controlled helicopter that civilians have access to), emerge from military history. That is true of most of our technologies, by and large, and particularly of network technologies. Essentially the first digital computers were designed to develop ballistic missiles, artillery, and then later to simulate nuclear explosions. We developed the Internet itself in the 1960s and 70s as a direct response to the threat of nuclear war, by decentralising computer systems. A lot of contemporary computer vision systems, whether they are surveillance cameras or things like the X-box you have in your living room, are capable of looking back at you. Those are all products of military research. If you want to know what is coming down the technological pipeline over the next decade or two, you look to what is current in the military sphere.
Like most aerial technologies, drones began purely as a surveillance platform, and that is true with the whole history of flight. When aircraft were first introduced in warfare, they were there for 'spotting' - you just fly up over the enemy trenches and look down. Of course it rapidly became clear that once you are up there you might as well drop something, and so very quickly we got into the area of bombers. Over about a five-year period since the introduction of surveillance drones into the military, they realised that they could arm them and use them as weapons as well.
Surveillance is a form of violence because it is a direct and deeply unequal power relationship. The person who is being surveilled is of a lesser power order than those who are doing the surveillance, and that distance only increases with technological difference. If there is a drone 5000 feet overhead that you can't see, you have no power and no agency, and the drone operators and the systems around it have all the power and the agency. So you already have a deeply unequal power relationship which always ends in violence. Surveillance always becomes weaponised over time.
Can you tell us something about this photograph of a drone shooting a missile...
Most people have some kind of mental image of military drones, and that is usually drawn from images they have seen in the media, which can be quite deceptive. But there is one particular image that is more deceptive than most, more than almost anyone realises. If you Google “drone”, the first image result is a picture of what appears to be a Reaper drone firing a missile, and because it is a first result on Google it has been endlessly transmitted through the media, endlessly reproduced. You see this image everywhere, from the front page of newspapers to activist reports, and political white papers.
I consider it to be the canonical image of a drone. I call it the 'canon drone' or the 'render drone'. Because it's a render, it's not real. The origins of that image are in a 3D hobbyist forum online; some guy a few years ago created it, modelled it in 3D, painted it in PhotoShop, and put it on a background of some mountains. But that drone doesn't exist. There are all kinds of fundamental problems with the image if you look at it closely enough, but it seems that doesn't happen very often, and so the most widely distributed image of this incredibly liminal, strange technology is itself a dream. It is a piece of imagination. It doesn't aid our understanding of the technology at all.
Can you make a link between the physical, political and emotional invisibility of drones?
The key appeal of drones to policy makers, to those who decide where we go to war, and to the military, is that shooting them down has no human cost. They are actually quite a vulnerable technology; they are not that difficult to destroy, and it's a lot easier to shoot one down than a fighter jet. But doing so doesn't produce any body bags, and that is the greatest political cost for Western politicians in going to war. It is the PR cost of losing soldiers on our side. Drones mean that doesn't happen anymore, so they are all for this. It renders the physical cost of these things invisible because most people only care about deaths on their own side. Politically therefore, it renders them invisible as well because there is no political cost involved in doing this. And it seems to render it morally invisible as well. There has been an understanding in warfare that the human cost is how we count the cost of war, and we tend to count that on our own side.
So drones are capable of rendering themselves invisible, not just in the physical space but in the political and moral space as well.
How did you go from a subject that fascinates people such as drones, to actually doing something about that fascination?
For a very long time I have been interested in trying to better understand our interactions with technological systems, our interactions with the Internet, which have been viewed as something that was separate from us. There were these clear distinctions between real life and the virtual, the online. Most people now would reject that from their own experience. We know that relationships made, forged or broadened online are very real. We have deep and genuine emotional experiences mediated through these technologies. But we're not going very good at articulating that, largely because the places where those things occur are not physical spaces, they are not tangible. We can't go inside them, we can't touch them, and we can't describe them. For a long time I have been studying the very literal physical infrastructure of the Internet. There is this myth of the cloud, for example, as some kind of magical faraway place, which in fact is very real. It is very large buildings on the edges of cities filled with computers, it's cables on pylons and fibreoptics under the oceans.
I realised looking at the drones for long enough that they replicate so many of both those emotional intangibilities, and the kind of invisibilities and actions made possible by the Internet. The primary things that drones do are they allow us to see and act at a distance, and seeing and acting in this context are very connected. That is essentially what we do through network technologies every day, but they also remain totally invisible and the connections that permit that remain invisible. The drones for me are just avatars of this much larger network. Just as the mobile phone in your pocket is a gateway to a far larger network, the drones are a gateway to a far larger system of politics and warfare.
People are generally very aware of what is happening with drones now... there are so many studies, art projects, reports in major newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian... Why, in this context, is the government still operating on the same 'speed' without any problems?
One of things about the drones is they appear to be an obvious natural extension of previous weapons of war and technologies. They appear to be simply fighter planes without a person in them, or they appear to be just flying surveillance cameras. By and large they absolutely are. When something is regarded as being a technological achievement it largely avoids moral questions, because technology is largely seen as being neutral. It is regarded by most people, particularly if they don't have a great personal technological literacy, as being outside any kind of criticism - because the technology exists, therefore it is employed and it must be to some extend be necessary in this situation. But the technology is being developed in order to push the situation into certain areas.
There is a huge amount of outrage possible around this, but a lot of the responses focus on body counts of populations that, ultimately, the aggressor nations don't really care about very much. They believe that other cultures, other nations, have an intrinsic lower value of life. Therefore simply pointing out the inequality of the damage inflicted rarely seems to do much and really hasn't done much before. The thing that largely ended 20th century conflicts that were 'end-able' in this way was political embarrassment at home. The drones have been designed so that is no longer a valid argument against them, because they are unmanned, and that is a calculated political decision to work out how we can continue to fight these wars.
There is also a very concerted political effort to represent this as a technology. It's the same argument we heard ten or twenty years ago around missile strikes, that they were 'clean' and 'surgical' etc, which is never true, and never has been. But because they have been essentially performed by robots, there's a huge amount of leeway in public expectation. There is an assumption that because it's being done by technology and not by people, there can't be a kind of moral problem with that because the moral problem is only there when people are involved. But people are always involved, people have designed these systems, people operate them, and people continue to argue for their use.
Moving onto your projects, how did you come to start your first project on drones?
For a while I was grappling with how to represent some of these ideas and how to talk about the invisibility of invisible objects. How do you represent that? How do you do it without simply showing more pictures of the thing? Which, as we've established, is fraught with its own kind of difficulty. It was through simply thinking about these things. I became slightly obsessive and started making models of them - I had plastic models of drones that you can buy for children. But turning this thing over in my hands, I realised it was such an imperfect representation of it because of its scale. Something was totally lacking in my understanding of this thing. I wanted to actually stand in front of one of them and look at it eye to eye, but I couldn't do that. So the best thing we thought we could do in order to simply understand the scale was to draw a 1:1 representation.
So we went out into the car park of my studio and, using a schematic downloaded from the Internet, we literally outlined the shadow of one of these things on the ground. As soon we did that, we realised we'd hit upon something quite serious and something quite powerful, because it immediately communicated the scale of these things, which is the size of a small plane. That is what most people don't really understand or grasp about military drones. The first reaction from everyone is - “wow, I had no idea how big it was”. That is pretty telling already, that you could have no sense of the size of this thing. Just by drawing the outline it also emphasises its invisibility, the fact that it is this void at the heart of the discussion, the void at the heart of the network, the void at the heart of the war around which all these arguments circulate, but they struggle to coalesce because the central piece is missing. So we try to put that central piece into the world in order that the discussion can happen around it.
What was the reaction to the drone shadows?
Sort of surprised... mainly asking how is this allowed? Which I'm always a bit skeptical about, because I don't think these things have a very direct effect on power. This isn't a threat to anyone immediately in any way. My hope is that it creates a debate and creates an image in people's mind that makes it stick. But a lot of the immediate reaction tends to focus on just the extraordinariness of putting something like this next to the White House, and for me that will do for now. It's a start.
How did Dronestragram come about?
In contrast to understanding the physical object of the drone itself, I started looking at the areas in which they operate, and really the same kind of invisibility applies. When you start looking at conflicts which take place outside declared theatres of war - the CIA assassination program in Afghanistan, tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia - these are landscapes to which none of us have any kind of access. That's why it is possible to fight the kind of war that's being fought there, it's also why in some ways it's necessary to fight the war there. These are areas outside government control, and they are also unvisited by the media. There are no journalists on the ground, there are no soldiers on the ground. And I realised reading reports of drone strikes that I had no sense whatsoever of where these things were occurring. Again, this is a matter of visibility - I simply couldn't picture them, and that struck me as deeply strange. Partly because that's new, essentially.
For that last almost two hundred years, journalists and illustrators and then photographers would be present on battlefields. The landscapes of conflict were part of the reporting of those conflicts, and they deeply influenced our understanding of them. We talk about the media activities around the Gulf War, the first genuinely televised war, but before that there was photography in Vietnam, and water-colourists on the battlefields of Crimea. We have an understanding of warfare that is documented by people. This isn't the case with the drone war. We may occasionally hear the names of places where strikes have occurred, but there's no formal reporting and so that's very unclear. I don't know what these places look like. And yet it struck me at the same time that we spent the last twenty years building civilian online systems that are designed to allow us to see things more clearly. We have mapping tools - Google Maps, Microsoft, Bing - which are these incredibly catalogues of satellite imagery of the earth, updated regularly and accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. That's an extraordinarily powerful thing. We've also built social tools - the social networks which are supposed to bring us all together and connect us and make communication easier - except there remain these huge blind spots in that world view.
For the Dronestagram project, I started researching the sites of drone strikes using data gathered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which gathers eyewitness and local media accounts of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. I started finding as best I could the locations of those strikes on online digital maps, recent satellite photos of these locations, and then taking screenshots of those landscapes, photographed as the drone would see them from the air, and posting them back to social networks. I posted primarily to Instagram, which is a place where people go everyday to get a daily glimpse of their friends' realities - it seemed like an appropriate place to post another distant reality, a different connection that's made possible through the same tools.
Because the drones are networked objects themselves, they are doing the same thing, the sight and action at a distance. The drones are a sort of dark mirror to the public internet and to all public network technologies. They are using the same effects to very, very different ends. They are tuned to secrecy and to violent action rather than the more rosy hopes you may have about social media, but our understanding of these things are entirely connected.
The reaction to Dronestagram has been fascinating as well. The different communities see it in different ways – as a technology project, an art project, or a political project. But also, the media's reporting of it as a project revealed this fundamental inability to talk about social networking in a coherent way, to describe what I was doing coherently. It made me realise that if the media can't report a story about online communities very well, it's going to have a hell of a hard time describing the systems that support the drone war.
How did you come to the idea of turning the camera around and “watching the watchers”?
Spending huge amounts of time with these digital mapping tools, you realise just how comprehensive they are, but how little explored. You have a very Borgian, one-to-one map of the world that takes incredible exploration, in some cases with historical views as well – so you can look at a point on the map and step back a year or two years, and see it from very different circumstances. I wanted to use that to explore the physical locations of the drones. It seemed to me that if the drones are in a lot of cases surveillance tools, then we can use some civilian surveillance tools to turn that gaze back on to them again. I would research the posting locations of various units that flew the drones and then go and look at those air bases on satellite maps and try to find images of them. This is a chance operation. Sometimes, they have been captured, sometimes they haven't. There have been a surprising number of cases because they've had long postings. So you can go and explore an air base in Iraq or in testing places in Arizona and the Western United States, and you can see these things sitting on the tarmac.
I've got this image from 2008 of the Grey Butte Field, which is an airfield in Arizona, owned by General Atomics, who built predator drones. As you go through time, you can see is that the resolution of the imagery improves but then the field shuts down and they are gone again. And you can dot all over the world doing this. There are plenty of them around, particularly in the south-western US where there are lots of these kinds of facilities.
One of the more interesting ones that's come to light recently is a CIA base deep in the desert in Saudi Arabia. It's a long way from anywhere else, and there is an investigative element to finding it because the base isn't visible at all on Google Earth. But because of the competing nature of these , if you go and visit this location in Bing Maps, a Microsoft Service, although from high up it appears to be a featureless desert, as you zoom in it reveals the contours of this totally remote airstrip with a series of bunkers. There were no drones visible in this one, but various other journalists and researchers confirmed that this is a base they are planning to fly drones out of.
This is a job that would have been performed before by very specialist observers, military intelligence personnel, but now we have the ability to zoom in and explore them ourselves.
What have been the consequences of “watching the watchers”?
It's actually had quite serious consequences, and will continue to do so. One of the characteristics of the drone war and anything the drones touch is this pervasive secrecy. They permit all kinds of secrecy, and one of those secrets was that drones were not operating in Pakistan – that they were operating over the border in Afghanistan in the declared war, but nothing was happening in Pakistan. For almost ten years, the US and Pakistani governments totally denied that there were any predator aircraft stationed within Pakistan, and then some time in 2009-2010 images appeared on Google Earth from 2004 of predators parked at an air base. That immediately became international news and as a result it forced this release of the information about huge portions of the drone war that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
There's something fascinating to me about that, that it was uncovered almost inadvertently by civilian technology. We've put this incredible array of technological power into space, satellites are constantly photographing the Earth, and it's a huge amount of information that any of us can access. But it still requires very human research, it still requires us to think about where to look and spend genuine time exploring it. There is an incredible unconscious collaboration possible there between alternative information gathering systems and directed human research.
How did you then move on from the invisibility of the object and territory, to looking at the invisibility of the system itself and the connections?
Once we started looking at the drones and the locations in which they operate, the next stage beyond that is to start to understand the networks that surround them. Because these are primarily systems. The drones are just the pointy end of a very, very broad system, so you are trying to understand the kind of intelligence that is informing them.
For a long time, there was a discussion going on between journalists and some politicians about what they called the 'kill list', meaning very literally the list of names of people that are being assassinating by drones. Where do those names come from? Who compiles that list? Politicians pretty much straight up denied there was any such list, ignoring the fact that there was an assassination program going on. When that started to be admitted, the US Department of Defense started coming with their own set of terminology to describe this process, and the term that emerged was 'disposition matrix'. Now, no one is really sure what the 'disposition matrix' is - all that we know is that it's some kind of intelligence gathering system that results in a kill list, a list of names, and someone being killed by a missile fired by a drone. Everything else remains utterly unclear. But in order to understand the politics and actions of the drones, it's vital to understand the systems behind it as well.
One of the things I have done, not really to understand the system but rather to communicate the impossibility of understanding such a system, is to build my own intelligence gathering tools. To write software that trawls the Internet for information about the drone programs or information about the disposition matrix, that tries to make connections between people and places and things related to this program, and then finds many unexpected connections. What you immediately see is it starts to pull everything. I ended up on the system fairly quickly myself because I do work about the drone program. Automated systems don't discriminate. So the intention of the work around the disposition matrix project, which I called 'A Quiet Disposition', is to try and communicate the fallibility of automated intelligence gathering systems. The fact that they inherit a huge number of biases from their creators, but that they also have a tendency to unfold computational surveillance (which is what backs up the physical surveillance performed by the drones), is inherently all-inclusive. It starts from a position of deep suspicion and gradually extends until it covers everybody.
More broadly, how are things transformed and translated by drone technologies?
The key to the drones beyond the immediate strategic military value is what they permit physically, legally and morally. They permit incursions into physical areas. They can fly to places where other vehicles, weapons or can't go. They also permit changes in the rules of war and they permit you to fight these new kinds of war. But they also translate everyone else around them, and everything they touch.
People are transformed by the drones in very important ways. We see how drones translate not just physical and legal spaces, but how the secrecy around them somehow translates people and organisations as well. There is a particular series of cases that has happened in the UK where people with dual citizenship have been stripped of their British nationality by the British government, which has translated them into the state of being a different national, and they have then been struck by a drone. You have the case of Mohamed Sakr, who was a London-born man with dual British and Egyptian nationality. He fell under the suspicion of the UK government and, while he was out of the country, the Home Secretary at the time stripped him of his citizenship. That translated Mohamed Sakr into a different legal zone, and a year later he was killed in an American drone strike. By signing of a piece of paper, he moved into a different zone where different actions are possible, with none of the oversight would be expected for a British citizen.
That happens at every level with the drone issue. The Metropolitan Police in London have been talking for a while about the use of drones (they made a big noise around the Olympics last year, which they were going to police with drones). But if you actually go and ask them any specific questions about this, they will be rebuffed. I have asked a number of questions through Freedom of Information about which drones the Metropolitan Police possess etc, and they have a blanket policy of not talking: “we will not confirm or deny any information about unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs”. That is in contrast to them being quite willing to talk about cars or helicopters or other pieces of equipment. But drones have this special quality which extends this zone of secrecy over everything, which is incredibly damaging to any form of public transparency or accountability. Drones are not just secrets themselves but they are used as vehicles for that secrecy, they are used as an excuse and as a way of covering up, because we have essentially allowed that to happen. It's absolutely vital that we don't allow that to continue.
What about the pilots who fly these drones?
One of the more fascinating qualities of the discussion around the drone war is this pervasive belief that the drone war is somehow distancing, like it's video game warfare. (KEYWORD: DRONE PILOT FILM) Because it's this played by pilots sat in a trailer thousands of miles away from where the action is taking place, viewing it through this computer monitor. The idea is that it's somehow emotionally disconnected and distancing. That's the charge that has always been levelled at the online, at the network, that people who believe that the digital experience is a valid emotional experience, are told that they are of lesser value than real life, physical experiences. But there is in fact an increasing body of evidence that the drone pilots suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders to the same, if not to greater levels, than combat pilots. There are various reasons for this. They are watching this violence on the screen, and they are actually watching it far more closely than any formal fighter pilot. They may have spent days, if not weeks, surveilling a location, watching these people. When they fire a missile they will follow that missile all the way down to the ground, through a camera in the missile itself. They are in many ways much closer to it than any other kind of war fighter. So, it shouldn't really be a surprise that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders.
But building upon that, that should fan out for all of us, to all of our network experiences. We spend so much of our time now in virtual spaces, or rather in just the one space that there is, which is a space entirely mediated through technology. Any time we interface with the network those spaces collide and they are valid, and they are emotional, and they are important, and they are cultural. We need to understand those effects better and by studying some of the more kind of charismatic occurrences of this space.
What I take away from this growing understanding of how drone pilots are affected, is how the digital world affects all of us. There is no such thing as a separate virtual world. The actions that we take through networks are incredibly significant, as significant as any actions that we take in the physical world. This is pervasive, and growing, and more important all of the time. And just as we should reject top-down political instantiations of technology like the drone program (which says to us “you don't understand this technology”, as a way of saying “you don't understand the political requirement, what we really have to do, which is what power always says when it is performing violence). we should also reject the idea that our daily lives are somehow of less significance because they are carried out through technological networks, and those don't have important political, cultural and emotional repercussions as well.
What has been the biggest unexpected outcome of the work for you?
It's long been my belief that simply by putting physicalisations of digital, virtual objects and processes into the world, it's possible to have a greater debate about them. That simply by creating an object or an image, it is enough to have a debate. But it's not just about making something visible, it is also about drawing attention to it. There has to be a strategy around these things not just for producing them but for shaping them in such a way that they draw attention to themselves, that they explain themselves to a greater degree.
I did a work called the 'Identification Kit' which comes out of my interest in modelling, and particularly in the military history of modelling. It's a big plastic flight case filled with 3D printed models of drones, and it represents the recognition targets that military gunners would use to train themselves to be able to recognise planes, and to shoot them down. But they also produce those kits for civilian spotter organisations. From the First World War through the Second and into the Cold War in Europe and America, there were these Civilian Observer Corps, whose job was to watch the sky for enemy action, and they too trained with these recognition models. The hope of producing a kit like that is not just to physicalise the object, but also to train people in recognition, to train people in the same kind of research techniques that I do. To say that not only have I made this work, but I have made it work with tools that are accessible to you as well.
In my work, I always try as much as possible to work with tools that I understand and I think anyone else could as well. There's no trickery here, I'm am a terrible programmer, I'm self-taught in all of these things. Most of the tools are used are free and online, and available to anyone. The job is not just to render visible, it's to call attention to the process as much as to the object, to the fact that this is a work for all of us. It's the most important job that all of us can do, to develop literacy in order to uncover these things for ourselves.
Interview with James Bridle
First published on July 10, 2015
Last updated on July 30, 2020