Drones — they are the whining heralds of a brave new world that snuck up and overtook us when we weren’t looking. Depending on whether or not they are dropping off a package or dropping a bomb, they embody our grandparents’ greatest dreams and most depraved nightmares about what “space age” technology could accomplish. We couldn’t take them back if we wanted. All that’s left is to reflect with a mixture of awe and unease on what we have wrought upon ourselves.
I have had three distinct impressions of drones in the last five years. I was, of course, aware of them in between, but only at three specific moments have they been something more to me than an abstract item of the ambient news.
My first impression was wonder. It occurred when drone footage hit the internet of Jamie O’Brien surfing Pipeline. Here, for the first time that I could remember, was the God’s eye view, the unseen, omnipotent eye hovering just above the gaping maw of the beast capturing every divine movement of the young master. After years of recycling the same handful of POVs, we suddenly saw surfing with fresh eyes.
My second impression was annoyance. I was sitting in a crowded lineup at Duranbah when a buzzing came across the sky. The spidery black craft floated some twenty or thirty feet above us, its four propellers whirring, its camera making tiny, precise adjustments as it scanned us sentient beings. In the calm of the lineup it was the noise I remember most and the sense that the space had been irrevocably transgressed. I glared up at it; glared, in truth, at my own impotence in the face of the mechanical gaze.
My third impression was horror. In the runup to the 2012 election, Conor Friedersdorf wrote an article for The Atlantic about why he would not vote for President Obama. In it, he mentioned the president’s drone war in Pakistan. I am about as concerned with the lives of average Pakistanis as most Americans, which is to say that I pretend to be when asked, but actually am not. But something about Friedersdorf’s description of how a drone war actually works lodged itself into my chest.
It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment.
Wonder, annoyance, horror. It is a strange wrinkle of our age that the same craft that terrorizes poor farmers in one area of the world can capture divine images of rich hedonists in another. There but for the grace of money go we. In either case, the drone is an avatar of power — the power to kill without being killed, the power to see without being seen. The power to take reality and process it into a multimedia commodity which is digitized and pumped into the ghostly gears of the internet to be firebombed into computer screens around the world.
In the case of the surf drone, we are both the beneficiaries and victims of this power. We suffer the intrusion of machinery into our fiercely organic space in order to go home and enjoy a few of the images it beams back to the mothership.
In situations like this, there are those who will say we all win — they tend to be the people making money from the mediatization of surfing. I indirectly make some money like that, but if you asked me to choose between a world filled with beautiful drone pictures and a world that is entirely drone free, I’d choose the latter every time. The reason is not because I don’t like to look at the images they enable. It’s not because I want to hold back the amazing march of technology. The reason is because the photo drone prioritizes the right of those observing surfers over the right of surfers to use the ocean without being observed.
Technology is beneficial up until the point that it begins to corrode the very communities it was created to benefit. If we can’t go to a good surf break without having machines buzzing over our heads, surveilling and perhaps using our images (however peripherally) in some professional surfer’s latest web clip, drones are no longer benefiting the vast majority of surfers who are trying to simply enjoy the ocean and the cursory escape it affords from the mechanical and digital world.
Of course, anyone can take your picture as you walk down the street, but you would most likely balk if they did it in your own home or your favorite bar. As we mediatize the last micrometers of our world, we mediatize ourselves and tacitly accept the implacable, unquestionable power of unseen eyes into the most minute corners of our beings. It’s in this moment that we must recognize the beauty of the few remaining spaces free of TV and surveillance cameras, free of choppers and anchormen asking for the next quote, free even of the now ubiquitous camera phone and all of its quotidian narcissism. If we cannot, then we will lose at least part of that which made the whole thing worthwhile to begin with.
This article originally appeared on The Inertia and is republished here with permission.