This is a viral video shot by a drone. The flying robot is manoeuvred around the dead city of Pripyat, Chernobyl, which was itself destroyed by the poor management of a technology that one might characterise as mass destruction contained and harnessed for civilian ends. How does a drone see a landscape like this?
Its operator manipulates it to, at times, emulate the gaze of a human observer, hovering at head height beside a broken window to make the viewer feel embodied even when there is no body there. Then suddenly it pans across the landscape, like we’re being carried by some great magical or technological force of authority, like a helicopter or an angel. The drone raises itself to the height of a titan to stare right into the eyes of murals and friezes that towered above Pripyat’s human inhabitants. While the drone ponders these soviet artworks, someone sings “I am stumbling toward the promised land.”
The hope promised in those murals, a future of prosperity for all, is everywhere in ruins. Across the world, society has been reclaimed by a kind of wilderness, by a drive for growth at all costs. The drone flies above a tattered hammer and sickle sign atop a multi-storey factory building, and for a while I forget that it too was made in a factory at least partly by human hands. Does a drone see itself as a victor over the human body, or a product of it?
An amusement park sits in ruins. The ferris wheel is not turning, the cybernetic loops between revellers and machines are paused, and so the machines cease to be machines in the same way, just material sitting there. The drone itself will in a few years be a non-machine like this, a lump of material decomposing in a landfill and pouring its poisons into the earth.
Thousands of drones will one day fly around the world capturing millions of hours of footage. A tiny proportion of that footage will spread virally across the datasphere, and some of that will reach me wherever I find myself, no doubt sat at a computer as I am now, shirtless and groggy. One day I will look out of my window while trying to convince myself to work, and I will see a drone peering back at me. The little machine will have captured my body in humiliating detail and in moments the data will be in the cloud, my hair and my scars and my sweat all disembodied and made reproducible anywhere, any number of times.