These Cryptical Skies
Drones and the Image of Nowhere
Like many Americans, she was trying to make a life that makes sense from things she found in gift shops.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Windhover
Search for a natural or artificial canyon, forest or deserted municipal quad. Perform Teach Yourself to Fly in this space.
— Pauline Oliveros, ‘Teach Yourself to Fly’, Sonic Meditations
Kindness in a World Without Work
Unmanned aerial vehicle. Unmanned. It seems such a curious, ludicrous word to have knocking around in so contemporary a discussion of machines and modernity and ethics. It is so eighteenth-century, so florid, so ribald, so deliciously anachronistic, like something that Congreve or Sterne might use. But, it could be that the word and its verb is entirely purposeful here, and not at all misplaced.
I found my response to the lately announced prospect of Amazon’s use of delivery drones to be not at all what I might have ordinarily expected. During one period in my life, I spent much of my time studying what I then took to be a significant monument in the historical fabric of Western urban modernity: the development of the London Underground in the 1930s, with all its riddles of land ownership and acquisition, changes in the spatial and temporal dimensions of home and work, the material and cultural emergence of suburbs and their nuanced sensibilities, the provision of services and amenities for them, as well as the literatures, the architectures, the listening habits and so forth that were formative of these things. Couple this old interest to my excitable penchant for futurologies of any kind and it is easy to see that I could be expected to have been vitalized by the news of Amazon’s plans.
Yet, rather than a ripple of intellectual pleasure at the knottiness of problems relating to how the low sky might next be commercially and judicially re-constellated, or a bubbling delight at puzzling out how this new approach to distribution might be made efficient, or simply a pneumatic happiness at the manifestation of yet another technological hope from the fantastic tomorrows that I grew up with – video calls in watches, jetpacks, that sort of thing – instead of any of these sensations, I was gripped by something like a faint anxiety, social in character.
I say something like an anxiety because I don’t yet know what to call it. But, unmanned might help us along. By habit I am a diffident, even reticent, person, which may perhaps explain why, in place of any frisson, news of Amazon’s initiative only prompted in me an unsettling concern regarding proper grace and delicacy in the decorums of the acceptance of goods, or the acknowledgement of service, the consideration of correct gratuities and such. How does one receive a drone? That is the question. What kind of we do we cultivate when we do that?
This anxiety was of course short-lived, at least initially. Companies other than Amazon, Uber for instance, have long since relaxed consumers with regard to appropriate etiquette in this area. On arrival at our destination in an Uber car, on leaving the climate of someone’s well-tended vehicle and easy conversational hospitality, with appropriate comity, we simply express our thanks. Then we depart. It is as if there has been an ordinary, sociable, even familial obligation transacted, one unpolluted by financial exchange; perhaps of the same order of essential mutuality that William Morris had in mind as the treasure of the lovely life to be led in the future London he imagined in News from Nowhere… and yet it is not that. There has been payment, there has been tipping. It is simply unmoored from the experience of the ride by having happened via app at the time of booking.
There’s another dimension to this sociability. Meditation on Amazon’s dreams of the lossless transfer of information and automated delivery, from browser to picking & packing and unpiloted dispatch, may also come to remind us perhaps of our involuntarily cheery replies to the greetings of our Car2Go Smart cars, or the fact that at a certain recent point we realized it was in our personal interests to be polite to our telephones. Not the people on the other end of the line so much as the telephones themselves. We cannot be sure why this is so.
We may not know why we talk to machines. In any case, why might not be the right kind of approach to the matter. We don’t know even if we are at some special point of transition between one commonly accepted relationship to machines and another one. Nevertheless, in living memory, talking to machines, talking to the machines themselves, as it were, has become an unexceptional thing, and we are surrounded by accounts of that intersubjectivity or, at least, what appears as such. From the catastrophes of Gustave Meyrink’s account of the Golem to the mode of existence and mentality granted to David in the last twenty minutes of Artificial Intelligence, and a thousand variations in between, any number of facets of the human condition have been explored through details of the mode of address of humans to machines, and vice versa. And if, during the last century, in their fables of totalitarianism, George Lucas and Douglas Adams brought drones and droids too close, made them too readily human, all too understandable, and failed to sufficiently push them away, to enigmatize or further encrypt them to the point where misunderstandings are less easily made, others, like Gilbert Simondon and Norbert Weiner, did not do that. The concepts that Simondon and Weiner established around the technological existence of machines (Simondon’s perceptual practice of individuation and the identification of milieus) and their capacities to communicate (Weiner’s coining of the term ‘cybernetic’) have played a significant part in freeing ideas of the agency and association of machines from romantic, anthropomorphic sentiment.
Fritz Lang made his film Metropolis in 1927, right at the moment when synchronized sound became a commercial viability, right at the moment when mechanically-produced visual images could appear to speak, where a mechanism could appear to speak. The metaphors of his famous film are not limited to this. A robot, Futura, is constructed to plausibly impersonate a human, Maria, and to shape and direct the actions of humans towards revolt. More, the political desiderata of the film, the agency of the machine in the liberation from labour, is figured by images of the de-humanization of uniformly trudging workers who are homogenized and reduced in their identity to the repetitive tasks they perform and the character of their dormitories.
Cinema has perhaps been the art form that has been most compelling in the representation of communicative machines. Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Silent Running, 2001, Wall-E and I, Robot are just the start of a long list of films in which the general intentions of machines, in expanded and restricted forms, have been explored. In all of these films, machines are both given and delve into human qualities. But, rather than seeing them as narcissistic failures on the part of their directors, I’d like to be able to assert that in this area of culture and through this mechanical art form, machines might already be trying to tell us something about their own prehension of humanity. What is clear, in any case, is that, by reconstituting a notion of machine sentience, whilst preserving ideas about embodied information and certain understandings of social and communicative capacity, Simondon and Weiner, in their different ways, succeeded in de-humanizing the machine. Unmanning it.
Theirs was one step towards evading the perceptual constraints of homophily. In the current context of a widespread revisiting of their work, it coincides too perhaps with the passing of the old visceral dread of machines that flows from the absence of some vital spark in them. Of course, one can never tell with these potentially oceanically-overdetermined, psychical relationships to objects, but it may be that the de-humanization of machines is the source of my own anxiety towards Amazon’s drones, and that my worries about how to be polite to them stem from the difficulty of determining what politeness would mean in this context, and how it may or may not meaningfully appear as the recognition of a general shift in modern sensibility.
‘Politeness’ isn’t quite the word required here, for whilst it is rooted in social deportments in urban environments where one might be unsure of the intentions, mood or proclivity of others in an encounter, there is at stake here another kind of fear of machines. It is one that William Morris understood. The fear is that automation will take away someone’s job. The fear is that one’s garden (I don’t have one of those) or one’s balcony (I don’t have one of those either) or wherever it is that one places the landing mat for Amazon’s drone to be able to deliver its burden will become some kind of piste upon which a fundamental economic enmity might play out. William Morris’s view of machines, the one that he laid out in an essay in 1885, ‘Useful Work and Useless Toil’, is simple. Freed from capitalism, machines, automation, will be free from that part of labour dedicated to commodification. People will then be rewarded with time, time to reflect upon themselves and the running of their society, time to create, make, farm, discourse, idle, speculate, swim, educate themselves and others, act, write, build, everything; become more.
Morris’s position, central to the aesthetic ideology of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and North America, has recently returned to both left and right in the political spectrum in the form of the concept of the basic income. Rejecting the melancholic view that every technological innovation, every increase in automation destroys jobs, cultures and identities (which they will, and which has long been celebrated in a strong tradition of socialist thought), proponents of the basic income see automated manufacturing as an opportunity to uncouple one’s identity from one’s source of income, unlink work from wage and cloud the distinction between work and leisure. Redundancy brought about by automation is genuinely seen in this model as the occasion for vast improvements in personal productivity and the cultivation of a society given over to art.
So, appearing as it will from the background noise of leafblowers, strimmers, automatic vacuum cleaners and other contributors to the cacophony of suburban industry, the advent of Amazon’s drones marks a complex, potentially fraught threshold of political identifications and recognitions that the term ‘politeness’ isn’t able to satisfactorily hold in relation to each other. The term that might help with that is kindness, a word that at once evokes principles of care, charity, generosity and empathy towards the potentially misunderstood stranger whilst, at the same time, being able to address the issue of kindred characteristics, in terms of the similarities and differences between people and drones.
The Burnaby Commune
My Dad, I remember, once, no, more than once, told me that you have to talk to crows. Starlings too, if you like. They are good company. But, you have to be certain to talk to crows. Formal greetings, amiable acknowledgements and the like will all do. They are happy enough with easy profundity too. Just be sure that they know who you are and where, and that they don’t mistake you. Crows see things, they know and remember things, and they tell of them. I have lived by this paternal advice but, in fact, I am not at all sure if the memory itself is true. It is one of those impressions whose striking clarity suggests to me that I have likely made it up to fill in for some absence or other. Who knows? But, in any case, it seems somehow so. It is a kind of knowledge, I suppose, of something.
I’m of a family which seems to me uncommonly sprinkled with preternaturally insightful individuals: diviners, seers, or people just oddly capable of assessing the forces playing in a situation, making accurate guesses about forms of intention which may be hidden even from their agents. And, I feel I know more than an ordinary share of witches. Yet, unlike my grandfather, who was as blithe as a bird about his divining ability, my dad, who grinned sheepishly at the mention of his, or my, brother, who continues to hotly deny his own capacity, I remain drably ungifted in the area yet transfixed, if clumsily, by what is proposed there.
A month or so ago, and more in wry resignation than bitterness, I was thinking about this whilst watching a thin and seemingly endless line of crows trek across the sky. At about seven on a September evening, chilly at the time of year, and myself too early for a rendezvous at a gallery, I found myself sitting on the sill of a shop window; sipping something, filling time, gazing towards the north shore and the mountains. And, there it was. Again. This line of crows. It is a constant, a temporal geographic feature of Vancouver; a recursive part of the city’s longue durée. I like to think of it as something that Maurice Halbwachs might have seen as a concrete part of the collective memory of the city. Anyway, each evening, the birds that are going (not all of them do) head up from the west of the city, joined by others along the way through downtown and they follow a route east to Burnaby, to gather, to roost, to commune. Fact is that they converge at Burnaby in a similar manner from all directions. But, this particular route has an urban poetic, as I say, an almost memorial character … recalling, maybe even honouring something. It presents a picaresque image too, one filled with allusive sociability, Chaucerian character and incident. The crows, as they flap steadily along, alone and in twos or threes, don’t seem to be flocking; they seem to have none of that spectacular, organically unified mentality that starlings exhibit as they gather before nightfall. Instead, they caw, chat and detour, lag, scrap and drop out of the line, to rejoin it again having inspected some interesting thing or other. In all ways, rather than conveying the effect of coordinated movement, the crows have the look of a large group of otherwise unrelated but amiable individuals who, happening to be going in the same direction to the same event, nevertheless carry their own agendas.
As a line in the sky I have often wondered to what extent this activity (it seems to be more than mere behavior) might be an analog to other images of commuterly regularity. George Lucas, in his second bite at the Star Wars franchise, densely populated the skies of his cities with uncongested, rectilinear routes. In doing so, he simply seemed to repeat a familiar trope of modern urban fantasy; one seen in the propositional drawings of urban thoroughfares by Ludwig Hilberseimer and Le Corbusier, for instance. In fact, until the second world war, the ordered, reliable, knowable, policeable sky never was a modernist wish. In his application of regularity to aerial movements, as much it seems through the necessary economies of animation techniques as personal ideology, Lucas has been able to defeat the incalculably allegorical condition of the sky and its actors. It is quite an achievement, really.
Clearly, and since we haven’t ever seen Amazon’s drones in action in large or, indeed, any numbers, these crows probably constitute something of their ‘object petit a – hood’. Is there a parallel here? Is this what they are going to look like? We think of crows as mischievous, vindictive, hilarious, rogue-ish, thieving, warring, resentful, vengeful, arrogant, amorous, unruly, garrulous, raucous, innovative, witty, enigmatical, sometimes charmingly bedraggled, sometimes shining creatures. That is a lot of things to think about one animal, and from this complex vantage we generally regard them as rather OK, as charismatic. But some of us call a lot of them a murder and we will on occasion join to kill them in large numbers, for whatever reason we can find, and as readily as they seem to kill each other. We have a vast and vivid pedagogical literature of gothic moralities built around the human-like assemblages that we use to scare and ward them off.
Ward them off. Crows, like bats and, well, drones are part of that species of flying fucking pointy black things that might get caught in our hair, tear at our eyes and ears, entangle themselves, whirring, flapping, screaming; terrifyingly, hysterically. The panicked crow, uncontrolled, disordered, is the very totem of unreasonable horror; perhaps all the more so for the equation between calculating violence and mystical intelligence that, in repose, it otherwise describes. It is important to recognize this fear as a kind of neurotic one in which actual danger has no real part to play. Thus figured, it is difficult to imagine how one might interact with such a drone or how it might fit its unregulatable, poetically excessive self into the cognitive schema of a modern, settled social order and the way in which that society circulates and distributes its goods. But it seems better to attempt this and see what failure brings than try to compare the drones to humans. That is, it seems better to rethink perceived relations between animals and machines, and to imagine a civil compact that might arise from that, than to lose the machines entirely to the guises of humanity.
Crows have a great capacity to support allegoresis. Seen as a feature in a meteorology of information and as a cipher for the erotics of information in commodity form, it is possible that crows can put drones in a certain kind of light. Certainly when the birds commune in their thousands in Burnaby, people report a gathering sense of unease, a sense of being noisily appraised, discussed, recalled, possibly even hailed. As a form of knowledge then, crows and drones have commonalities. They share information and have a capacity to locate you in a kind of spatial perspective. In that sense, crows do point to the ways that delivery drones are also instruments of surveillance and represent a counterpart to the symbolically subjugative aptitude of Western visual perspective. Delivery drones, like crows, know who you are, where you are and what you are like.
Possibly this recourse to canonical, modernist, Western spatial narrative is the most important thing to draw out from this othering and making-strange of the delivery drone. This is not so much in the sense of visual vanishing points and so forth in conventional perspective techniques, but more in the sense of the fabular construction of mythical space. Chaucer’s ‘Manciple’s Tale’, one of the travelling episodes in The Canterbury Tales, depicts the crow in a way that gets at some essential human weakness that perhaps seemed bawdily legible to Chaucer, and is certainly readable now. Those readings may not represent quite the same things, however. Ted Hughes’s collection of crow poems seems to be part of a modern, European theological rage. But again, their boughs are cast in such a way as to support a range of interpretative morphologies. And there they are. Crows. Again.
Yet, from the point of view of Vancouver, there are a host of older, local, more complex and often contradictory stories about crows that bring different types of worldview and different epistemes to the drone. Some of these stories appear as low-stake affairs and their affective regimes are equally low-impact, relating accounts of cherishable, yet eventless, affability. Others are more intricately wrought narratives of vanity, deceit and victimhood, outlining trans-historical reasons for the modern behavior of crows. These are indigenous stories and, produced with different social and pedagogical intentions, different modes of signification and different understandings of symbolic cartography, questions of travel and purpose. What they offer, apart from a regionalized tempering of a global enterprise, is a type of mediation of modern and non-modern vantages on association and intersubjectivity where, despite the consistency of the character of the crow, the fungibility of things is denied and haeceities underlined.
Acoustically, although we are stuck with a particular image for the crow in its expletive, exclamative bark, the vocality of crows is in practice an impossibly accomplished, plurally allusive, even deceptive thing. The aesthetic and perceptual value of listening to crows is something one discovers with time and appropriate absorption. It is quite possible that our newly unmanned aerial vehicle could be both a harbinger of that kind of creative-cognitive, explorative time, as well as an object of that interpretative attention. William Morris saw art as a form of new and properly speculative association coming about in exactly this manner. That his views on the sociability of art arose from a kind of technophany, as we’ve seen, shouldn’t be a surprise.
The salient aesthetic quality of the drone is, well, it is its droning. The sibilant, monotone buzz of the whirring blades of a UAV supplies the kind of sound that really caught the attention of those experimental musicians who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had enough of conventional musicking and who sought not only new sources of sound to relate to, but also the new models of social cohesion that those relations might be rhymes for. Lamonte and Zazeela Young are very good examples of this. As is Pauline Oliveros. There are lots of important things to say about Pauline Oliveros as someone who has a long established and influential project concerning the intellectual practice of staying with, communing in, inhabiting, extended tones, drones. She also has a history of working at a kind of interface between technological and animal perception (listen to her Alien Bog, 1967, for example). Moreover, she has been able to bring the kinds of profound attention to sounds that are made possible through aesthetic leisure to bear on a set of social questions relating to gender and sexuality, animality and ecology.
If we think of Amazon’s drones as being as much part of an acoustic ecology as they are a part of technical and commercial milieu, then it might be worth thinking of Oliveros’s piece ‘Teach Yourself to Fly’ (1972), and think about it possibly in terms of how an Amazon drone in its blue and gold livery might perform here.
But not just that, for there are other concerns about gender identity at play in her work. There is a sense in this vignette that presents the drone to thought as a means of access to human difference; one that lies ahead of the moment when one of them says not, like Pinocchio, I want to be a boy, or even a girl, but rather a they.
Teach Yourself to Fly goes as follows:
Any number of persons sit in a circle facing the centre. Illuminate the space with dim blue light. Begin by simply observing your own breathing. Always be an observer. Gradually allow your breathing to become audible. Then gradually introduce your voice. Allow your vocal cords to vibrate in any mode which occurs naturally. Allow the intensity of the vibrations to increase very slowly. Continue as long as possible, naturally, and until all others are quiet, always observing your own breath cycle. Variation: translate voice to an instrument.
Rob Stone is a lecturer at Emily Carr University, Canada. Author of Auditions: Architecture and Aurality (MIT Press, 2015), he lives in Chicago and Vancouver.