How Life on Earth Under Drone Surveillance Is Like 'The Truman Show'
The following is an excerpt from the new bookPredator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominanceby Ian G. R. Shaw (University of Minnesota Press, 2016):
In 1979 the United States was rocked by soaring oil prices. The country faced one of the worst energy crises in memory. Nowhere was this felt more than the small Vermont town of Winooski, where another ice-cold winter threatened to chill its 7,500 residents to the bone. With temperatures under twenty below zero and snowfall over seventy-five inches, the cost of heating homes was proving worrisome. But a cunning plan was hatched. A group of city planners approached Mark Tigan, the city’s director of community development. These entrepreneurs had an idea that could shelter townspeople from the blizzards and slash heating bills. “I didn’t hear one organized voice against it,” said Tigan, “since it meant that they’d never have to shovel snow again. They thought of it as their little piece of Tampa Bay.” The idea would be lauded and mocked in equal measure. Why not build a gigantic dome over the town? A bubbled utopia sealed from the frosty outside.
The Winooski dome would measure 1.3 square miles, stand at 250 meters high, and be constructed from crystal-clear plastic. Fresh air could be circulated by large intake fans, and the dome would be held aloft by air pressure slightly higher than outdoors. “I like to think of Winooski as a place where new ideas are thought up all the time,” said Ken Meyers, president of the town’s “Dome Club.” The town applied for $55,000 of federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The sphere attracted considerable national media attention. One Kentucky paper wrote, “Science fiction writers have predicted a future where people are forced to live underground like moles. Most people think that is pretty depressing. But living under a plastic parasol that can shut out bad weather, fallout and other unpleasantness doesn’t sound all that bad, especially in New England.” A local teacher even penned an ode to the artificial bubble: “Dome over Winooski, / Not far from the lake; / Transparent and plastic, / Still real and not fake.”
In May 1980, after considerable excitement, HUD rejected the request. Despite widespread curiosity, many residents were fearful of the project. Who would clean it? Would life inside feel claustrophobic? Enthusiasm for the bubble didn’t die immediately, however. The town hosted a dome symposium that attracted one thousand participants, including renowned inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, who had designed geodesic domes around the world. The next decade, another type of dome stirred the human imagination, only this time it was built for science. In September 1991 a crew of eight men and women stepped into Biosphere 2, a 3.15-acre research facility in Arizona. This enormous greenhouse, resembling a prototype for a space station on another planet, was engineered to create a series of self-sustaining ecosystems. These included rainforest, savannah, and even ocean biomes. The team of biospherians managed to survive in the dome for two years, despite fluctuations in oxygen levels, endemic hunger, social conflict (the group split into two factions), and an explosion in the ant and cockroach population.
The enthusiasm, fear, and curiosity for life inside these giant terrariums exemplifies a more basic architectural truth about humanity: we are builders of worlds. Our anthropology, our very human existence, is shaped by the artificial environments, big and small, we carve out from the planet. Hannah Arendt wrote, “Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence.” Her point is as simple as it is radical: the human is constituted by the nonhuman.
Whether we build gigantic domes or robotic drones, artificial fabrications condition the spaces of human coexistence. Peter Sloterdijk defines these spaces of shared dwelling as “spheres.” These spheres can be thought of as the biological, cultural, and technological enclosures that surround human beings. As he defines them, “The sphere is the interior, disclosed, shared realm inhabited by humans.” From the very first biological sphere, the mother’s womb, to the artificial spheres of a mechanized civilization, we never stop passing through spaces that contain us, shape us, and transform who we are.
Spheres, in short, enclose human beings inside unique existential shells, constituting the rich kaleidoscope of our being. We are always “with” someone or something, and in this sense we always exist “outside” ourselves. As Judith Butler writes, “We are, as it were, social beings from the start, dependent on what is outside ourselves, on others, on institutions, and on sustained and sustainable environments, and so are, in this sense, precarious.”
In the modern age human coexistence has been subjected to increasingly technical forms of control. Modern living has provided both the conditions and the pathologies for the mass enclosure of life. From maximum-security prisons to CCTV on the streets to drones in the sky, we are constantly watched and surveilled, regardless of guilt or innocence. Millions of us have been herded into the great civilizatoryinside. Life on planet earth is now time spent passing through enclosures of different sophistication and density. This is our dome-estic life. In 1981 the mayor of Winooski remarked, “I’m not a sociologist. But the idea of people living together in a controlled environment is a much more complex question than any of the technical concerns.” This complex question remains key: what does it mean to live on a planet that is enclosing its populations inside controlled, artificial, and dronified environments?
Beyond the Winooski dome, popular culture is full of domes: artificial skins grafted over human populations to form carceral shells. In The Truman Show, for example, the protagonist plays out his entire life inside a vast reality television show, with cameras hidden inside the carefully constructed set. Truman is locked in a daily routine he doesn’t question until the artificial sphere that surrounds him begins to rupture. The film ends as Truman escapes his perfect home on a boat. Setting sail on what appears as a vast ocean, his vessel soon bumps into the edge of the dome, piercing its painted blue sky. Stephen King’s Under the Dome depicts the slow descent into madness and civil war for one fictional Maine town after a dome seals the hapless residents inside. These fictional domes crystallize our anxiety, even curiosity, about life inside what are essentially prisons. The dome is, then, an architectural paradigm for the more general atmospheric enclosure of humanity.
The dome is also important for conceptualizing contemporary security. Not only does it embody a totalizing form of surveillance, but it also symbolizes the aerial dimension of state power. Today, the lower and upper atmospheres of the earth are swimming with satellites, airplanes, and drones. These machines transmit—across their antennas—telephone conversations between friends, soccer games between nations, directions to lost taxi drivers, and instructions for military assassinations in Yemen. State power in the twenty-first century is incredibly atmospheric.
The U.S. military defines full spectrum dominance as the control of all the physical domains of the earth—from the seas to the skies. Although the term is a well-known piece of jargon, it expresses the spheric dimension of human security more generally. To be safe and secure is to be housed within an enclosure, some kind of dome that protects its inhabitants from the outside. On the smallest of scales, this manifests itself in the alarmed suburban house or the gated community that keeps inhabitants protected from the “outside.” On a bigger scale, the Reagan-era global missile shield, the so-called Star Wars system, was meant to protect the U.S. continent from Soviet missiles during the Cold War. Relatedly, consider Israel’s more recent Iron Dome antirocket system. The dome is thus a cartographic design for an atmospheric form of security, an enclosure that protects against horizontal and vertical intrusions, putting a roof—electromagnetic or otherwise—above our heads.
And here lies the essential, provocative image: in the gap between humanity and the cosmos, a synthetic membrane is stretched across the planet—an artificial civilizatory world mediates and contains human existence. Artificial or nonhuman sources of power are extremely important in the contemporary landscape of international relations. To an ever-greater extent, machines perform the atmospheric enclosure of the earth, manufacturing and policing spheres for us to live and die within, regulating the geopolitical climate of our everyday existence. To be human now means to-be-with-machines. As Arendt writes, “If the human condition consists in man’s being a conditioned being for whom everything, given or man-made, immediately becomes a condition of his further existence, then man ‘adjusted’ himself to an environment of machines the moment he designed them. They certainly have become as inalienable a condition of our existence as tools and implements were in all previous ages.”
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are remotely piloted aircraft of various sizes and levels of sophistication, and they are transforming the geographies and infrastructures of state violence. If all objects mediate the human condition in some small way, then this raises bigger questions about how drones are changing the future of war, security, and freedom. These eyes in the sky are rewiring the international system, challenging the meaning of sovereignty, territory, and even domestic law enforcement. Accordingly, what does it mean for humans to exist in an era of dronified state violence? To answer such a question, my book focuses on the case of U.S. drone warfare and argues we are witnessing a transition from a labor-intensive American empire to what is called a machine- or capital-intensive Predator Empire.
I argue the nonhuman landscape—populated by objects, things, tools, and technology—directly influences the human condition. Or put another way, the infrastructures we build here on earth directly condition the spaces of everyday life, from the conduct of state violence down to our psychological dispositions. In this sense, drones are not simply bound to international relations or geopolitics but part of something much bigger.
Drones emerge not from a vacuum but from a history of human surveillance and warfare. So while drones are creating unprecedented forms of state violence and producing new geopolitical spaces, they nonetheless arise from preexisting conditions. It is therefore important to understand the drone as both a cause of geopolitical change and an effect of wider circuits of power and violence. For this reason U.S. drone warfare needs to be understood in terms of the growth of the U.S. national security state: the conglomeration of military institutions, intelligence agencies, and police organizations designed to protect the U.S. homeland.
The national security state can be traced back to the signing of the 947 National Security Act by President Truman. This act created the CIA, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Military Establishment (renamed the Department of Defense in 1949) and formalized Cold War strategy. Moreover, the act began the long process of converting the social welfare state, nurtured under the New Deal, into a national security state, or what Tom Engelhardt calls the Fourth Branch of government. Furthermore, the national security state is inseparable from a gigantic military–industrial complex and a national security economy. This has driven a militaristic foreign policy and a pervasive militaristic culture.
While enclosure has a very precise dictionary meaning—as a space that is bounded or fenced—it also expresses a much broader set of themes about historical acts of appropriation, confinement, and segregation. The enclosure of the commons, for example, was a period in English history, roughly between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, when common lands were privatized—or simply stolen—by a landowning class. In turn, agricultural communities were remade as strangers in an altogether strange environment. Enclosure was a kind of social war, and its victory depended on partitioning the once open field system with hedges and fences, creating segregated territories, or enclosures. In addition, the English government began creating disciplinary enclosures such as prisons, asylums, and poor houses to secure a growing mass of unemployed and alienated individuals. As Peter Linebaugh argues, “The incessant accumulation of ‘industrial’ subjects required their enclosure from the cradle to grave. To be ruled the population of civil society had to be confined and to be confined it had to be brought under complete surveillance.” Paradoxically, state enclosures were built to mitigate the effect of state enclosure.
This historical act of enclosure, a vital precursor to the Industrial Revolution, always had an important existential dimension. The privatization, division, and policing of the countryside wreaked havoc upon countless communities and birthed into the world an extremely atomized, securitized, and surveilled society. Since the dawn of the modern age, then, enclosure has been a project to bring the planet’s inhabitants to the great inside of technological civilization: on the inside of its legal regime, on the inside of its economic system, on the inside of its architectural spheres, and on the inside of its surveillance apparatuses. With the passage of time, the apparatuses for enclosing the species have become only more atmospheric, more machinic, more militarized. Never before in human history has our globe been ensnared by so many surveillance apparatuses. Yet instead of simply enclosing people within physical architectures, the Predator Empire uses satellites, drones, and software algorithms to secure the spheres in which individuals are born, become, and die. We are not simply housed beneath the dome, then, but housed beneath the drone.