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The Drone Is A Lie: How UAV Technology Grew Into Urban Legend

Drones are fictional, Adam Rothstein says. “They are a cultural characterisation of many different things, compiled into a single concept.” I think this is persuasive and useful, conceptually, so let this be the assumption from which the rest of the argument proceeds — an expansion on one I’ve briefly explored before.

You have no family; you are a construct, a robot; you were not born; you will not die; you have only the home I give you and learn only the things I teach you.

– Helena Bell, “Robot

If drones are fictional, what’s the task of drone fiction? What does fiction do, ideally? Fiction immerses. It captivates and moves. It sweeps along. Its project is to make never-happened as real and true and believable as one’s own experience. We know good fiction by the degree to which it does this, even fiction that remains mostly opaque for reasons of style or subject matter. Even fiction that’s difficult to approach is still meant to be a device by which we approach something.

Drones are the Big Bad Wolves of the 21st Century but when did they stop simply being unmanned aircraft and become a cultural touchstone? Cyborgology’s Sarah Wanenchak discusses the rapid descent of UAVs from cutting-edge technology into mechanical boogeymen.

So drone fiction is the means — possibly the only means — by which we can approach drones. If this is the basic project of drone fiction, we should be able to gauge its success by the degree to which we can approach drones at all. And if that’s the case, this project isn’t done. It’s still getting started.

In the piece linked above, Rothstein argues that:

Drones are a cultural node — a collection of thoughts, feelings, isolated facts, and nebulous paranoias related to a future-weird environment filled with New-Aestheticish-resonating robot, GPS technologies, digital cameras, and instantaneous communication via micro-technology.

It’s precisely this nebulousness — which nevertheless allows for a useful flexibility and accommodation of “many different things” — that creates a problem within the concept of drones-as-fiction. Drone fiction begins with that nebulousness but so far hasn’t moved beyond it. The potential for approach is there, but the journey still has to be made. I argue it can proceed in three different and not mutually exclusive directions, focusing on three different kinds of characters and stories:

The Casualties

When we think about characters in drone fiction, it’s probably easiest to think about those affected by what combat UAVs do — the wounded, the dead, those left behind to pick up the pieces. Indeed, some might argue that humanising and personalizing the casualties of UAV attacks is the most important goal of drone fiction done well. Fiction elicits empathy though placing the reader in the midst of what’s going on; As Olivia Rosane argues, it brings events out of the numbing realm of numbers and news reports and forces us to engage with powerful emotion:

It is this full understanding of personhood that only fiction can provide, and that is why we need fiction about the drone strikes. We need fiction so haunting that we cannot hear a news report without thinking, “A person died in that drone strike, even though he would rather not have died in that drone strike.”

Emotion in the context of drone fiction matters. It might be what matters most. Emotion is unignorable, and arguably the most powerful motivator for any human action. Feelings aren’t facile, are too often devalued in most realms of social theory, but we need them in order to understand why we experience the world the way we do. And if fiction and emotion are inseparable, our drone fiction has to be emotion-laden.

A comment on my previous post on drone fiction claimed that “Speculative fiction about near-future capabilities is far more important than fiction that explores our feelings about drones (not to say the latter isn’t also important)”. I’d actually take some issue with this; I would argue that one can’t meaningfully separate capabilities from emotion. All the implications of what something can do, what it might do, what it might mean for how the world looks and works and for whom — all of these are emotional concerns. Emotions make them meaningful. We can’t understand why and how the capabilities of technology matter without understanding our own feelings about it all. And how we feel about technology has a tremendous amount to do with what we imagine are possible and appropriate functions for that technology to perform.

The Operators

The drone operator-as-character is perhaps less obvious, but to my mind just as important, in part because it’s a side of drones that we don’t often consider. And in part because it’s simply more difficult to approach. It’s easier to imagine people and families damaged by war; albeit painful, it’s familiar. But what it means to participate in combat is in a state of flux. It’s difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand. And with UAVs, things can move into the territory of the unexpected — witness the UAV pilots who, rather than being distanced from people in theatre by virtue of the assumed dehumanizing effect of technology, actually found themselves more profoundly connected to the distant people they saw every day.

The fictional entity of “drone” is often imagined sans operator; it has its own mysterious agency. Drone fiction needs to recognise that and then move past it. Who are these people? What is it like to experience war through their eyes? What is the relationship between the operator and the drone? The operator and the rest of us? This figure as a character might in fact be so difficult to deal with that fiction is the only tool that makes much sense for the task.

The Drones

Drones as characters. Drones with agency, drones with no agency, drones as we imagine them, faceless and threatening and omnipresent. Drones as inhabitants of their own worlds, their own experiences, their own relationships with people — those who made them, those who operate them, those they kill. Drones as killer robots, drones as children sent off to war. Drones as self-aware and drones as mindless things. Drones as extensions of humans and drones as extensions of themselves.

This is probably the most difficult. That’s why this is the kind of fiction we have to write.

Like I said, none of these three are meant to be — or should be — taken as mutually exclusive. None of them exists separately from the others. We can’t consider the casualties of drone attacks — or the people tracked and surveillance — without considering the human minds and hands behind the technology, and we can’t understand those until we understand the technology itself. All of them matter; we have to tell stories about them all.

We need more drone fiction. Of any kind. But any drone fiction that’s successful in doing what the best fiction does — providing a path to the otherwise distant or unreachable — must, sooner or later, deal fairly with the above.


Sarah Wanenchak is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. Their current research focuses on contentious politics and communications technology in a global context, particularly the role of emotion mediated by technology as a mobilising force.


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