Making the invisible, visible. Artist, writer & technologist James Bridle explores the dark side of drones with his experiment, Dronestagram.

In October of 2012 I was spending a lot of time reading war logs. I’d been fascinated by the figure of the drone for a while – specifically military drones, the unmanned aerial vehicles operating in declared and undeclared war zones across the world for over a decade, to little public notice.

I was taking my time working out exactly why I was fascinated by the drone, making sure it wasn’t just some juvenile fantasy, the lure of flying killer robots, the sublimated erotic charge of the military. I’d been drawing life-size 1:1 outlines of the machines on city streets, trying to understand them and their impact. These drawings – and I’ve done many more since – articulate some useful things about the drone: their scale, their physical and democratic invisibility, their technological sophistication and corresponding illegibility, their situation in civilian contexts. But bringing them back to cities I knew was only half the issue. Hence the war logs.

Since the outset of the covert drone wars in 2004, organisations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK and the Long War Journal in the US, have been attempting to accurately account for the use of drones in undeclared conflicts in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia – and possibly elsewhere.

For a long time, the governments involved made deliberately misleading statements about these attacks, or refused to comment on them at all. The human cost was mounting, with little information about who was being killed or why they were being targeted. Using eyewitness accounts, local media in a variety of languages, and research on the ground, these organisations compiled records of drone strikes:

“February 16 2012: An early morning strike on a house in Spalga, near Miranshah, killed up to six alleged militants. Four were seriously injured. At least three Pakistani security officials in the area confirmed the attack, which a number of reports claimed was against the Haqqani Network.”

“March 30 2012: Four alleged Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants died (possibly local leaders) and three were ‘critically injured’ after a US drone struck their vehicles, according to Yemen military and security officials. The attack, in Azan, Shabwa province, came as the men left Friday prayers according to Associated Press. However, a civilian, Mohamed Saleh al Suna, 60, was also killed and six others injured in the strike, officials and eyewitnesses told Reuters.”

Drone shadow in Istanbul. Image from James Bridle.

The reports were sometimes detailed, sometimes bare sketches of available information, but they did at least communicate, and attempt to record, what was happening. But so much was missing. From the outset, my project of drawing drones in the street was about making pictures to give shape to the ideas, but these reports came with no pictures. And how strange is that? In an age of mass media, at least the second century of mass media, how could these places remain unseen? Wadi al Abu Jabara. Beit al Ahan. Jaar. Dhamar. Al-Saeed. Tappi. Bulandkhel. Hurmuz. Khaider khel. Why were there no pictures of these places? The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 was captured in watercolour by Scottish artist and correspondent William Simpson, and distributed across the British Isles by lithograph, but we can’t even see the places where drone strikes happen?

Then a Yemeni reporter I followed on Twitter did something extraordinary. To illustrate how close a particular drone strike was to the capital, Sana’a, he posted driving Google driving directions. “Turn right out of the presidential palace, go south on Route 45 for 1 kilometre…” etc. And you could zoom right in, down into the streets and houses, schools and hospitals, of distant, dusty Yemeni villages.

At the same time as we’ve been developing a vast, global network for warfighting, a grid of spy satellites, communications relays, airfields, hardened fibre-optic links, forward operating bases and autonomous weapons, we’ve also been developing a civil network of immense power and reach. Without excusing the overwhelming corporate nature of this network, we have as a civilisation developed superpowers: among many others, the ability to see through satellites, and zoom in to any part of the earth we want to investigate. It’s not the same as being on the ground, far from it (something any drones-for-good programme should always keep at the forefront of its thinking), but it’s a start. We don’t need permission to see these places any more.

So I started posting images of these locations to Instagram, the popular photo-sharing site. After all, if these social media are supposed, as all the marketing speak says, to bring us all closer together, to provide a glimpse of each others’ daily realities, shouldn’t we use them to see a little bit further? Read the report, research the location, open up an online map, take a screenshot, post it online. That started in October 2012: since then, I’ve posted some 85 landscapes, the latest just a few weeks ago.

Dronestagram was an experiment that got popular quickly – with interesting results. Covered by the international media, its online following built rapidly. As of nearly two years later, it has 14,000 followers on Instagram, and 10,000 more on Twitter and Tumblr. It was written about in newspapers and magazines, appeared on news programmes, sometimes as curiosity, sometimes as critique. 

What’s most worrying about most of the reporting of Dronestagram in the media is how badly it’s reported. Described as a website, or an app; called out for “spying”; bewildered by the processes and timeliness of online maps; the coverage does not give anyone great hope for the technological literacy of the media. It’s not a surprise, but it’s a shame.

How can we expect the media to adequately report on the drones themselves, intensely complex nodes at the intersection of robotics, communications and geopolitics, when it’s incapable of disambiguating social media platforms? When another Dronestagram launched a year or so later, a French website for the sharing photos taken from civilian radio-controlled helicopters, the same outlets asked the same questions, unable or unwilling to meaningfully distinguish the issues in play.

The most frequent comment that appears in the Instagram feed, which allows anyone to comment on the landscape images posted, is “I don’t like this, but…” Users of platforms like Instagram (or Tumblr, or Facebook) are usually given only one choice in how they interact with its content: a “like”, a gold star or thumbs-up. It’s a small thing, but one of the more interesting effects of Dronestagram is to point out the structural biases and inadequacies of the systems we use every day, the way they’re constructed to promote or encourage a single, simplified way of being in the world, one which ignores the complexities of real life, and attempts to impose a regulated, flattened uniformity. From the banal boosterism of the Facebook feed, to the zero-sum leading questions of the political pollster: “I don’t want to like this, but…”

The comments on Instagram frequently devolve into shouting matches (I don’t edit them, and I don’t engage in them). From US citizens yelling “death to sand niggers” to Pakistanis raging against the idiocy of US policy, there’s precious little engagement on either side. Online comments are a fundamentally broken discourse, but it’s nevertheless encouraging when even the tiniest bit of cross-cultural dialogue occurs.

“I pray America and Israel to be destroyed,” commented an Instagram user called @shuaayb the other day, his avatar the flag of the Islamic State. “Don't wish for us to be destroyed, wish that our leaders become less stupid,” responded @mvpallazzolla. “The majority of America doesn't support it, yet we are powerless to do anything about it.” “Sorry I meant the government,” responded the chastened Jihadi.

Networked technologies are the substrate on which not only military drones and civilian quadrocopters run, but also our daily communications and national politics. Drones are the charismatic megafauna of contemporary networked technologies: glamorous, increasingly high-profile, often distracting, but also bellwethers for our literacy in, comprehension of, and ethical engagement with the world around us.

There are many different readings of and uses for Dronestagram, as there are many different readings of and uses for drones themselves. No technology, in and of itself, is good, or bad, or neutral. Melvin Kranzberg, who formulated that law, also noted that “although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.”

What matters is what we choose to do with the technologies around us, and in order to properly account for that use we must fully understand and critique them, and do so democratically, with the fullest engagement and understanding of as many of us as possible. 

James Bridle is a writer, artist, publisher and technologist usually based in London, UK. His work covers the intersection of literature, culture and the network. He writes for publications including WIRED, ICON, Domus, Cabinet, and the Atlantic, and he writes a regular column for the Observer. He also speaks at events worldwide.

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We’ll be sharing lots of stories from people and organisations using drones for good over the next couple of weeks. Check out our homepage, 'In focus: Drones for good'.