As part of an increasingly militarized police force in civilian communities, drones become a regular presence in America’s airspace. Originally an object of invisibility, by also doubling as an ice cream truck, drones become objects of hyper visibility, dropping sweet treats to sedate the general public while keeping tabs on our activities.
The U.S. military uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, for a variety of purposes abroad including reconnaissance, search and rescue, surveillance, and strike missions. Cruising at high altitudes, UAVs are designed to be invisible for maximum efficacy. The U.S. military insists that drones effectively target enemies of the state, but innocent civilians are more often than not caught in the crossfire. Metadata, phone records and online communications, are fed into machine learning algorithms to identify terrorists and their co-conspirators. These individuals, selected with using incomplete data and are placed on a kill list.
Military grade UAVs have been used domestically a handful of times during emergencies and natural disasters, but in light of the current technological trends and social forces, it is not hard to imagine drones being used to further mass surveillance.
48% of Americans disagree with their government targeting its citizens living abroad with drone strikes (28% agree with the practice), and 54% disapprove of NSA surveillance. In a future of widespread domestic usage of surveillance drones, the government attempts to shift public opinion by introducing unmanned aerial ice cream vehicles. Instead of an object of invisibility, drones become an object of hypervisibility. The intention of this piece is to question increasing amounts of surveillance as well as prompt a conversation about out activities abroad: what differentiates our actions abroad from our actions at home?
What especially interests me about drones is this double life the technology lives: military and consumer use. I began with scribbling down the prior knowledge I had before doing slightly more targeted reading.
In the U.S., drones have a generally benign image, existing primarily as a niche hobby. Legal dialogue tends to center on regulating their presence. The form language of these hobby drones completely differ from military drones and look rather comical and a bit clunky.
On the other hand, the form language of military drones are completely different and practically fetishized. While there is discourse in the general public about drones used for extrajudicial killings, many argue it is for the sake of national security; we ought to kill our enemies before they kill us. Individuals are presumed to be guilty based on scraps of evidence and have little to no ability to defend themselves.
I find this dichotomy rather jarring and disturbing. I’m also not convinced that they are completely separate and believe that there is no reason why military uses and practices would not influence or inform consumer or civilian usage.
I scribbled down various phrases and concepts as I researched and roughly arranged them to represent different intersecting and related themes. Blue represents sight, yellow is related to sociality, and red is technology. The secondary colors represent intersections (e.g. green is the intersection of yellow/sociality and blue/sight).
I then derived more themes from “sight:” asymmetry, visibility, accuracy, and uncertainty. I toyed with visibility. A drone is meant to be invisible. What would happen if a drone was visible? Why would it want to be visible?
I began to explore vehicles that are meant to be visible, that want to be seen. Police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances are all emergency response vehicles. People would want to see buses and taxis, so they could flag one down. People would also want to see ice cream trucks and are attracted to them.
I combined drones with ice cream trucks to speculate on what would happen if an invisible body became visible. There are also weird parallels– ice cream trucks in the U.S. have a very distinct song, as do drones. They are both, in rather different ways, delivery vehicles. I was also inspired by stories of police officers pulling people over to give them ice cream, which I interpret as problematic and misguided attempts to repair public image.
As described earlier, in this speculative future (which isn’t too far flung of a future, I suppose), drones regularly perform reconnaissance missions on the civilian public and employ ice cream in a bread and circuses sort of distraction. Children are especially targeted and by constantly exposing them to drones from a young age, the practice of surveillance is normalized and even associated with something positive.
In addition to a conversation about drones, I wanted to also engage in discussions about our relationship with authority and police figures, especially as children. There is a strange paradox; we’re generally taught that police are there to protect us but are also used to scare us. I can only imagine how much more complicated and tense the relationship is for black Americans, non black PoC, and any other oppressed communities.