Drones and Witnessing the Anthropocene

Drones and Witnessing the Anthropocene

Drones sense from afar and see from a distance. They go where people can go but won’t because of cost to life or capital. Piloting precariously above coral reefs, palm oil plantations, and primary forests is not safe with a helicopter nor cost-effective. So we use drones; risk is transferred from human bodies to technology and capital costs. In these efforts, we are able to witness-from afar, with capital but little bodily risk—earth and human entanglements. In many instances this witnessing is of death, harm, and destruction of ecologies, species, human communities, and biomes. The notion of witnessing bears a significant resonance in the mediation of death, dying, and danger. Media scholar Leshu Torchu mobilizes “witnessing” to describe the atrocious work of genocide documentary. For media scholar Emily West, witnessing frames the relationship between audiences and those willfully dying on television. Journalism scholar Brian Creech (2017) critiques the labor of war reporters whose mortality is at risk in exchange for the audience affective of bearing witness to the gruesome details of war-making. In each of these cases, witnessing an end of life is a beginning of a dialogue about a future. These scholars are sceptical of the mobilisation of witnessing for pity. They emphasize how witnessing generates an affect of activism for the building of a systemic future. It is less about mourning the dead or saving the dying than providing for the yet-to-live, the future generations self-awareness of multi-cultural and multi-species entanglements.

Justice drones bear witness in this manner, not only to earthly destruction and inequities, but through their practice to the future of resistance. This is drone disruptive justice, an action which rejects oppression while bearing witness to the rich complex forces of oppression. From above, drones put destruction into perspective, inclusive of oppositional humans, extractive as well as liberatory technologies, and monocultures as well as species within biodiversity. Drones for justice bear witness to the sociotechnical life and multispecies dead, dying, living, and being born in the Anthropocene.

According to Stengers, the Anthropocene is an era of ‘multiple entanglements’, between natural or ‘non-human’ forces and human (in)action, or, as Connolly describes this, of ‘entangled humanism’. I prefer a counter or anti-humanism, the non-human witnessing of death, destruction, and crisis of entangled people, networked systems, and non-human species. What does entangled anti-humanistic, biological witnessing mean in the anthropocene? Withering coral, farmed palms, biologists, activists, carbon dioxide belching volcanoes, and trash eating elephants as seen through automated and roaming drones—and carbonised air, hot and acidified oceans, and poor humans seeking environmental justice with drones—this is the multi-species entanglement of post-human drone justice and its becoming. Here a drone is both an agent within this compromised atmosphere, an optic on to terrestrial colonisation and oceanic biodiversity deletion— as well as a tool for witnessing, mapping, sensing, and hacking Anthropocentric transformations of the global biome. 

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia.

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