‘Drones’: so hot right now! They film your wedding and then get shipped overseas for the next airstrike in the Middle East. Can you imagine a ‘Drone’ sitcom? “Meet Buzz: at night, he’s a deadly assassin in the covert ops. But in this economy, he’s gotta pay the bills. Can this hot cadet deliver the perfect shot for his next wedding gig?”
Where did the term ‘drone’ even come from? I did some research, and the word itself seems to originate from the 1930s, when U.S. Navy commander Delmer Fahrney was asked by an admiral to develop a remote-controlled aircraft similar to the British ‘Queen Bee’. As a homage to the British name, Fahrney named these aircraft ‘drones’ after the male honeybees whose sole purpose is to mate with the queen (which is where the term ‘to drone on’ originally comes from).
Before we delve too much into this topic, it’s important to emphasize that the term ‘drone’ is as specific as the term ‘car’ – probably even less so. When I think of ‘drones’, I think of essentially toy helicopter-like flying vehicles that have some autonomous capability but are largely human-piloted and weigh less than a few kilograms and cost no more than a few thousand dollars. Other people may think of the ‘MQ-9 Reaper’ , the ‘hunter-killer drone’, which costs $16.9 million and can weigh almost 5 tons.
When we’re talking about surveillance, we’ll probably be talking about the smaller of these UAVs: things like the DJI Phantom 2 (probably the most popular commercial drone for filming). Anything significantly bigger than that will not be able able to fly close enough to the ground without significant noise and safety risks – which are a concern even for these smaller drones. The Phantom 2 has an advertised flight time of 25 minutes before the battery needs to be replaced or recharged. I would bet that this is actually closer to 15-20 minutes in realistic outdoor conditions. So, right away, before we can even discuss privacy concerns, the efficiency of these types of vehicles needs to be greatly improved for them to pose a threat that other, pilot-operated vehicles do not.
In many respects, I think ‘drones’ are a red-herring with respect to privacy concerns. They are flying robots that are easy to visualize and fear, but they distract away from the much more subtle, pernicious technologies that pose much greater risks to our privacy. What about smartphones, email, Facebook? Surely our private emails and pictures are more important than videos of public demonstrations or images of outdoor events like the one you linked to? What about already existing closed-circuit cameras? George Orwell’s home nation now boasts 1 camera for every 11 citizens .
This brings me to the title of this post: Luddites. To be a ‘luddite’ is now synonymous with being ignorant of some form of technology or innovation. This stems from a group of English factory workers who rebelled against forms of autonomous machinery that threatened to take over many jobs in textile plants in the early 19th century. Interestingly, many economists believe the fundamental Luddite concern is a fallacy, the appropriately named Luddite Fallacy, which wrongly equates new forms of technology with job destruction and economic downturn. In fact, the late 19th century was an incredibly productive time in Britain precisely because of the machines the Luddites rebelled against. Technology can of course automate-away many jobs, but it can also create jobs in other, often unexpected, industries (who would have thought ‘data scientist’ would be an in-demand position 30 years ago?). With that said, there are now pressing concerns about the current digital revolution and how the new wave of automation will affect our society and its widening income-gap.
When we talk about privacy, the important question for me is how do we stray away from Luddite-esque fears of conspicuous technological advances while still ensuring that we are cognizant of subtle, subversive attempts at governmental oversight?