A few days ago some students stopped by my office to ask me about an email that they had all just received from the Dean of Students Office. The message announced a ban on the use of drones on campus.
The sudden appearance of the all-campus message suggested that there had been an incident that precipitated the response. The students knew that my Digital Anthropology class has been doing some unusual final mini-projects this semester and were curious if the message was a result of something being done for the class.
Basically they wanted to know if it was my fault. While I was flattered that they thought my class might be pushing boundaries, I assured them that to my knowledge neither I nor my class were involved in drone use.
The email they received, however, was remarkable. I post here with permission of the Dean of Students Office. It read:
Dear…students and community members,
Please be aware that students are not permitted to bring or to fly their personal drones on […] campus. Drones are useful tools, however they can also be dangerous due to malfunction, operator error, or deliberate misuse. At this time, [our] insurance carriers do not cover any property damage, including damage to the drone itself, or personal injury related to drones.
The Dean of Students Office asks each of you for your support and assistance in keeping our campus safe from the potential unwanted effects of drone usage by ensuring drones belonging to students remain strictly for off-campus use.
The Dean of Students Office
Upon reading the message, I was inexplicably hit with the futureness of it all—as if my body had finally arrived at the future for which my younger self had yearned. We may not have flying cars or bases on Mars, but someone was worried about personal flying devices of a kind and they sent out a simple, everyday message about it.
It was an email for a Brave New World.
Just a few weeks ago I finished nice, tidy, small book, Drone, by Adam Rothstein, which provides a kind of minimalist genealogy of drones, so they have been on my mind. Rothstein’s book offered up a nice lineage for the machinery, robots, software, data collection and processing that make drones possible. Drones, he suggests are more than a technology but a way of thinking in our contemporary times—technology, data collection and algorithmic processing. And, he adds, as with much of our technology we aren’t entirely sure what they might be used for or where they may be taking us.
Like drones, we take to the sky, replying our new technological payloads whether we truly know how to use them or don’t. We cannot choose to stop existing in history any more than we can stop drones from being part of that history. But where we do have a choice is in our ability to make a better effort at understanding that process by imposing narrative systems—to orient ourselves better, to improve our command and control of the technological components in our systems, to refine our ability to sense and avoid ethical dilemmas to that could prove fatal, if not to ourselves, than to the people who pass underneath our shadow (Rothstein 2015:121).
While I’m pretty sure the drone email was really concerned with the imminent arrival of the holiday season and the possibility of the new year being filled with the fallout of drone gifting, I couldn’t help thinking of the drone email’s appeals to safety and security and the “correct” use of drones—the only example of which came to my mind was by the military to strike human targets on the other side of the world.