Remote Control Politics

Mark Bowden has published a new article in September’s Atlantic Monthly titled The Killing Machines: How to Think About Drones.  The article analyzes just how the power relationship of a chief executive, the military, the opposing forces and the civilians in their midst are all affected grossly by the shift from ground force operations to remote-control drone ops. The article is sharp-tongued, and it is easy to disagree with several of his analyses; but as a whole it is an example of how the extension of reach afforded by robotic technologies- even when humans are still in ultimate control- can change the dynamics of how politics is waged internationally. Bowden is convinced that victimhood changes when machines strike- even when they are nothing but the fingertips of human decision systems; and he is equally convinced that drones won’t be used domestically for a long while because “they are nearly as easy to shoot down as a hot air balloons” and because they would confuse our legal system.  But these arguments ignore the march of progress. Hummingbird-sized drones that we cannot distinguish from nature aren’t just hard to shoot down; they are impossible to shoot down. Domestic surveillance wasn’t avoided because of legal challenges; if anything, we have an addiction to accepting the power of new technology first, and dealing with its legal train wreck later, if ever.  


And every point Bowden makes, from how drones can be perceived as an unfair advantage, how they disassociate risk from one side of the battle equation, and how they banish the concept of surrender — all of these challenges will metastasize as drones take on more automated activities, with local decision-making and image processing taking the place of remote human decision-making.  This article is certainly worth a quick read.

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