What We Talk About When We Talk About the Drone

By Arthur Holland Michel

Since time immemorial, we have looked up into the sky – into the unknown – in an attempt to understand ourselves. Now, the unknown looks back at us. We are engaged in a staring contest with the drone. We can’t take our eyes off it, even though we rarely, if ever, actually see it.

Where, we ask, did you come from?

“Unmanned drones fly overhead, taking pictures, gathering data. They are electronic eyes watching for signs of trouble…Predators are spindly legged drones, 27 feet long, with a wingspan of 49 feet. They can fly 500 miles at an altitude of 25,000 feet for more than 24 hours.”
-“Predators Bound for Bosnia,” U.S Department of Defense, February 8, 1996-
“[On August 12, 1944] Joe Kennedy…was to take a “drone” Liberator bomber loaded with 21,170 pounds of high explosives into the air and to stay with it until two “mother” planes had achieved complete radio control over the “drone.”
-John F. Kennedy-

While the drone is unequivocally modern, it interacts with our basic human instincts – our desire to hide, our desire to control, our simultaneous rejection and embrace of the uncanny. More than anything else, however, the drone touches on our obsession with the sky. An obsession made up of fear which is as old as civilization itself.

“from some new height, some hidden nest
the rout comes screaming at their quarry, flapping round us,
slashing with claw-feet”
-“The Aeneid,” Book III-
“…another most bitter trouble,
worse than the rest, hangs above me: Harpies, swooping from somewhere
unknown and deathly, snatch the food from my lips
like bitter blasts or lightning flashes,
suddenly out of the clouds they sprang, with a raucous
-“The Argonautika,” Book II-


The drone is a new step in the logic of warfare, and, as it enters the civilian world, the logic of doing things remotely. It is really just another weapon, like a longbow, or a machete; if the Romans at the Battle of Châlons could have used a drone, they would have. Though it feels new, and though it is different and unique, it has a several thousand year genealogy of making war more remote.The drone is another successful attempt to conquer the sky. It is a step in the logic of surveillance.


Despite being a product of age-old desires for speed, remoteness, efficiency, omniscience, and accuracy, the drone feels like a sudden mutation in the evolution of man-made things. We haven’t developed the moral framework to consider the drone, because, somehow, the drone has caught us unprepared.

The drone will force us to come to terms with an uncomfortable fact: that the pursuit of these human desires – speed, efficiency, accuracy, remoteness, omniscience – has a cost for our humanity. The drone epitomizes the paradox of progress.

A century ago, Einstein declared that our technology has overtaken our humanity. Adorno explained.

“Technology is making gestures precise and brutal, and with them, men. It expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility. It subjects them to the implacable, as it were ahistorical demands of objects…not least to blame for the whithering of experience is that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation.”
-Theodor Adorno, “Negative Dialektik”-

The technology of the drone has taken on its own momentum. The drone’s development into smaller, more resilient, more autonomous forms is becoming just another reality, like rain, or taxes. The men and women in warehouses and trailers and laboratories, gluing carbon fiber claws to metallic hummingbirds, making quadcopters play raquetball, these people have no grand, united plan. They are not evil, or good. They are not actively seeking to change the course of history.


The drone evades all attempts at definition. The drone is not just a tool, a machine, a robot, even a being. It is an aesthetic of surveillance, a development in the logic of war; as an open-source technology, a new kind of democratic action. It is a product of our times. It is a symbol of progress. It is an extension of our distrust of each other (and our fascination with each other). For the farmer, the conservationist, and the police commissioner, it is a helicopter for a recession economy. It is a symptom of our addiction to – or, if you will, infatuation with – information, imagery, colours; it is a recording device for human movement and intrigue, and an intervention device for human conflict. It is, in sum, so many things at once.

At best, we can say that the drone is an advance in technology which permits humans to do things they couldn’t previously do.

A Vocabulary Deficit

The debate about drones is divided between those who want to do things that we couldn’t previously do – like explode a Toyota in the al-Jawf province by touching a button in Nevada – and those who want to keep things, for the most part, how they are. The two camps are drawing lines in the air. Policy practitioners and analysts have dominated the conversation, either telling the public that drones have changed everything, or that the drone is just another tool for the same wars (among which we count the war on crime by police departments, and the war on immigration). Despite the fact that everyone is writing about the drone – droning on and on, as it were, about the drone – the conversation, unlike the drone, feels immobile.

We find ourselves suddenly illiterate, unable to find combinations of words that haven’t already been used, even though we’re talking about things we have never before seen.

The aesthetics of the drone, its philosophy, and its history and its literature, are just as important as the policy. Before making policies that feel, at best, like a guess at what is right, we have to understand the drone in philosophy, aesthetics, literature, ethics, and art. We have to understand, in other words, what the drone tells us about ourselves.

We have yet to deploy a literary vocabulary, or an aesthetic vocabulary, to consider the drone. True literacy comes not from understanding the policies, or the technology, or even from reading history, or making art; it comes out of a combination of these things.

The task is not only to figure out what to do about the drone, but more importantly what to about future mutations in the evolution of man-made things; what to do next time a technology leaves us scared and lost for words, because it reveals some aspect of ourselves which we prefer to ignore.

Unanswered Questions

These, as we see it, are central the questions. They cannot be answered in the halls of the policymakers alone.

How do we talk about the drone without resorting to the same, over-exploited arguments?

What will happen in 2015, when civilian drones become legal?

What will happen when they make a battery small enough and powerful enough to power a bird-sized drone long enough to make it truly effective?

What will happen when the moral calculus in war is deferred to the drone?

To what extent is the drone just an instrument? And to what extent is it a thing itself?

How, oh how, can one thing simultaneously inspire so much fear and so many puns?

Drone your sorrows.
“If it were drone when ’tis drone, then ’twere well
It were drone quickly.” –Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 7-
The Grim Reaper.
This Drone issue is really taking off!
“I swear,” said one UAV pilot to another, “that drone  has a mind of its own.”

And, above all, why are we scared? What is it that frightens us about the drone, with its spindles, and its rotors, and its lights, blinking like the eyes of small animals in the night?

Is it merely that we know this is just the beginning? That the drone still has unhatched plans; that we sense some potential inside the drone which has not yet been realized, and that the future of our airspace – and the ground that lies beneath it – is in the hands of our imagination?