Whilst not so very long ago the notion of the drone evoked a sense of foreboding not unlike that which accompanies the digestion of a Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report, or a revisiting of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, recent events suggest that consideration of this technology has been defanged, recasting it with the banal aspect of cameras at gas stations or the perfunctory urine samples for a job interview.
This turn strikes me though as an unfortunate one, reflecting a failure to appreciate the deeper, more sinister dimensions of the proliferation of these eyes in the sky… and this along two distinct, if related, directions. For one, certainly, it hardly requires too much thought to be distressed by the manner in which drones are largely in the service of organizations whose spectating of the general public is hardly a welcome one, organizations directed towards the ends of surveillance and manipulation whether through espionage or force. And indeed much ink has flowed in critical reflection on how the control of the drones largely devolves to institutions whose existence stands in, if not inimical, at least very uneasy relation to democratic ideality. From the outset, let me acknowledge this. However, there is another dimension to this matter, to which I would like to direct the predominant focus of these remarks. Namely, it is how drone technology epitomizes another more broadly implemented technology, one whose asymptotic ubiquity makes the comparative infrequency of its mention suggestive the panopticon.
The panopticon… an ominous word corresponding to a portentous notion. Originally, an architectural schema of Jeremy Bentham for the ideal construction of a prison, the principle underlying the logic of its construction would render it a blueprint for more than a building; for the basis of a disciplinary society. Hence Michel Foucault remarks in his seminal consideration of Panopticism:
[T[he Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form: its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.
But what is that political technology? To recapitulate the outline of Bentham’s first casting of the project, we can echo Foucault’s own description well enough, namely, “…at the periphery, an annular building; at the center, a tower…” Within the “periphic building” cells are so arranged as to enable them and their inhabitants to be viewed from the central tower, though in a manner whereby they are precluded from seeing back into that tower, or, if you like, from watching the watcher. “Hence, the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” The basis of that automatic functioning then is surveillance, and, moreover, a particular sort of surveillance in which, again as Foucault puts it, the seeing/being seen dyad is severed. “…in the periphic ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”
The significance of this dissociation is thrown into sharper relief by a consideration of the relationship instantiated by the gaze itself as central to the panopticon. To proceed after a roughly Lacanian fashion, the gaze of another represents the compromise of one’s experience as a free, as an unfettered subjectivity. The encounter, though, of the perceived, fixed look of another constitutes an experience of, if not one’s outright objectification, at least that very possibility. That such an encounter can arise not only with regard to other “uncontroversially” sentient beings (e.g., people, cats, or octopi), but also ‘mere’ objects (e.g., paintings, televisions, gaping elevator shafts) proves to render the phenomenon’s significance all the more unsettling.
Yet what marks these various occasions of the gaze is at least a potential to relate with the onlooker in a manner that can aspire to a reassertion of one’s subjectivity, one’s freedom. Among the salient features of the panopticon, though, is the annulment of this potential for relationality. By contrast, the watcher remains invisible and thus immune to the defiance of the watched, at least inasmuch as that defiance is manifested through their own gaze, their own fixed return of the gaze of the overseer. In virtue of this, the negation of the person as a subject within the panopticon is radicalized. And, maybe even more remarkably, this depersonalization extends not only to the watched, but even to the watchers. For, in contrast to how their position might be seen as an exhibition of sovereignty or power under a different more monarchical dispensation, within the disciplinary society enacted by panopticism, they are merely functionaries of a power which is decentered from locus in any singular individual.
With the drone, this depersonalization becomes even more pointed, with even the need of a human agent becoming dispensable. We thus arrive at an order which approaches a total inversion of the instrumental relation, a space where the human is subordinated to the technological. This, however, is perhaps the essence of the disciplinary society . To recur to Foucault:
‘Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type
of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a ‘physics’ or an ‘anatomy’ of power, a technology.
With panopticism, society accedes to an order, a space whose operation is predicated on its own members’ objectification. It represents an anatomy of power that ultimately ossifies the subject. The drone incarnates that panopticism with a novel mobility which permits its extension beyond the fixity implicit in architectural metaphor. Is then our acquiescence to the drone but an acquiescence to a ossuary society?