A few weeks back when the COVID-19 Coronavirus really hit the news, I was fascinated to see an outbreak in the news of drone stories coming from China. Over the past few years the drone has become a kind of, pardon the pun, a floating signifier for all that is rational, automated and “unmanned” about modernity in China. Never mind that drones loaded with disinfectant chemicals flying around “fighting the Coronavirus” are of limited value and probably not too good for human health in highly populated areas.
Drones, however, were deployed as a technical signs, typically with a cadre of attentive, uniformed humans servicing it or guiding it in some way. The drone as a mechanical/technical mediation between the humans and the disease, however, worked to try and increase confidence in the struggle. Not, I think, unlike the way that AI/algorithms are deployed as neutral arbiters in social trust networks—suggesting an underlying rationality to the messiness of human interactions, the drone images seem like AI in a physical form to rationally combat the chaotic scourge.
Of course, the calm cool technical facade fell completely away when The Global Times released a video of people on the street—many of them very old—being harassed by drones with human voices blaring at them to wear masks. What the video offered that the sill images didn’t was a a vision of drones as a kind of roving mechanical thug, or a tool in the service of thugs (whose voice was that, after all!)
Global Times – Walking around without a protective face mask? Well, you can’t avoid these sharp-tongued drones! Many village and cities in China are using drones equipped with speakers to patrol during the #coronavirus outbreak