Nuanced and terrifying at the same time

Reading The Drone Age by Michael J. Boyle for New Sceintist, 30 September 2020

Machines are only as good as the people who use them. Machines are neutral — just a faster, more efficient way of doing something that we always intended to do. That, anyway, is the argument wielded often by defenders of technology.

Michael Boyle, a professor of political science at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, isn’t buying: “the technology itself structures choices and induces changes in decision-making over time,” he explains, as he concludes his concise, comprehensive overview of the world the drone made. In everything from commerce to warfare, spycraft to disaster relief, our menu of choices “has been altered or constrained by drone technology itself”.

Boyle manages to be nuanced and terrifying at the same time. At one moment he’s pointing out the formidable practical obstacles in the way of anyone launching a major terrorist drone attack. In the next, he’s explaining why political assassinations by drone are just around the corner, Turn a page setting out the moral, operational and legal constraints keenly felt by upstanding US military drone pilots, and you’re confronted by their shadowy handlers in government, who operate with virtually no oversight.

Though grounded in just the right level of technical detail, The Drone Age describes, not so much the machines themselves, but the kind of thinking they’ve ushered in: an approach to problems that no longer distinguishes between peace and war.

In some ways this is a good thing. Assuming that war is inevitable, what’s not to welcome about a style of warfare that involves working through a kill list, rather than exterminating a significant proportion of the enemy’s population?
Well, two things. For US readers, there’s the way a few careful drone strikes proliferated under Obama and especially under Trump into a global counter-insurgency air platform. While for all of us, there’s the peacetime living is affected, too. “It is hard to feel like a human… when reduced to a pixelated dot under the gaze of a drone,” Boyle writes. If the pool of information gathered about us expands, but not the level of understanding or sympathy for us, where then i’s the positive for human society?

Boyle brings proper philosophical thinking to our relationship with technology. He’s particularly indebted to the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, whose The Technological Society (1964) transformed the way we think about machines. Ellul argued that when we apply technology to a problem, we adopt a mode of thinking that emphasizes efficiency and instrumental rationality, but also dehumanizes the problem.
Applying this lesson to drone technology, Boyle writes: “Instead of asking why we are using aircraft for a task in the first place, we tend to debate instead whether the drone is better than the manned alternative.”

This blinkered thinking, on the part of their operators, explains why drone activities almost invariably alienate the very people they are meant to benefit: non-combatants, people caught up in natural disasters, the relatively affluent denizens of major cities. Indeed, the drone’s ability to intimidate seems on balance to outweigh every other capability.

The UN has been known to fly unarmed Falco surveillance drones low to the ground to deter rebel groups from gathering. If you adopt the kind of thinking Ellul described, then this must be a good thing — a means of scattering hostels, achieved efficiently and safely. In reality, there’s no earthly reason to suppose violence has been avoided: only redistributed (and let’s not forget how Al Quaeda, decimated by constant drone strikes, has reinvented itself as a global internet brand).

Boyle warns us at the start that different models of drone vary so substantially “that they hardly look like the same technology”. And yet The Drone Age keeps this heterogenous flock of disruptive technologies together long enough to give it real historical and intellectual coherence. If you read one book about drones, this is the one. But it is just as valuable about surveillance, or the rise of information warfare, or the way the best intentions can turn the world we knew on its head.

Tomás Saraceno: Beneath an ocean of air

Visiting Tomás Saraceno’s Berlin studio for New Scientist, 13 October 2018

THE Argentine-born artist Tomás Saraceno maintains a studio in Berlin – if you can call a disused chemicals factory a studio. There is nothing small about this operation. Saraceno, who trained as an architect in Buenos Aires, now employs hundreds of people, with specialisms ranging from art history and architecture to biology and anthropology. If you’re serious about saving the world, you need this kind of cross-disciplinary team, I suppose.

Though Saraceno hasn’t exactly promised to save the world, he has been dropping some big hints. His utopian installations include Cloud Cities at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, in 2011 – a collection of geometric, inflated shapes. Even by the time of his Observatory/Air-Port-City show at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2008, these shapes contained autonomous residential units. A network of habitable cells floated in the air, combining and recombining like clouds.

A year later at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, gallery-goers got to explore these spaces via 16 interconnected modules made up of glass segments held in place by steel cables. And in June 2013, the K21 gallery in Düsseldorf invited visitors to wander more than 25 metres above the gallery’s piazza across a web dotted with inflated PVC spheres.

This is Saraceno’s answer to our global problems: he wants us to take to the air. That’s why he coined the term “Aerocene” for one of his projects. He wants people to think of climate change in terms of possibility, playfulness and, yes, escape. “We live beneath an ocean of air,” he once wrote, as he sketched his utopian vision of a city in the clouds. “But we’ve yet to find a way to inhabit it.”

Near his Berlin studio is a scruffy public park. Part of it is marked out for football. Behind one goal stands a graffitied stretch of the Berlin Wall. Today there’s another attraction: two men are running back and forth, trying to fill a black bag as big as a minivan with air. It is a fine, windless day; the air in the bag heats up quickly, and once it is sealed, the container rises into the sky. A bag no longer, it is clearly recognisable as one of Saraceno’s signature tetrahedral solar balloons.

These black balloons have been plying the skies since 2007. They are mascots of the artist’s multi-stranded effort to combine engineering, architecture and the natural sciences to create a new, democratic kind of environmental art, made of bubbles and aerial platforms and webs. An art that mitigates climate change, he says, and makes the sky habitable, by establishing a modular, transnational settlement in the skies through solar balloons that require no fuel at all. An art that ushers in utopia.

Could it be that this chap is just playing about with balloons? Trying to calculate Saraceno’s level of seriousness is half the fun. Over lunch, for instance, he tells me that he wants to return us “to a sort of Mayan sensitivity towards celestial mechanics”.

But some of his efforts are admirably practical. The balloon I’d just seen being demonstrated was an Aerocene Explorer: it comes in a backpack complete with instructions on how to create and fly lightweight sensors. Any data collected can be uploaded and shared with Aerocene’s online community, via a website where participants from all over the world are sharing their experiments and innovations.

Practicalities aside, much of Saraceno’s work is simply beautiful. For a show opening at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on 17 October, the team is busy building playful orreries, mechanical models of the solar system that combine planetary orbits with the physics of soap bubbles and webs spun by his pet Cyrtophora citricola spiders.

These unbelievably delicate confections will be on show with some mirrored umbrellas that also double as solar cookers. When arranged in concentric circles, Saraceno imagines that in the manner of a solar thermal power plant, the umbrellas might even concentrate enough heat to inflate a large balloon. He hopes to try out the idea when Audemars Piguet – a Swiss watch manufacturer that has recent form in backing innovative science-inflected art – takes parts of his sprawling Aerocene endeavour to Miami this December for the Art Basel fair.

Meanwhile, there are myriad things to organise for Paris: workshops, concerts, public symposiums uniting scientific institutions, researchers, activists, local communities, musicians and philosophers. As he says: “People aren’t very interested in simple ideas. You have to give things a little bit of complication to get the audience to engage.”


He found this out the moment he started using solar balloons. The balloons, which work by simply zipping up some air in a heat-absorbing bag, have been around since the 1970s. His own projects have demonstrated their usefulness in meteorology, pollution monitoring, even passenger transport. In 2015, he flew in a tethered solar balloon over the dunes of White Sands in New Mexico, where the US launched its first rockets and where the world’s first tourist spaceport is located. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology got in on the act, and created technology so that you can use the website to plan a meteorologically feasible journey, by balloon, from Point A to Point B, anywhere on Earth.

“Rats saved at the point of giving up fought for life 240 times longer when returned to danger”

Here’s the paradox. Saraceno’s work has always been playful, and part of the game, he explains, has been “trying to sell this work as some sort of global solution to something”. But while his visions of an airborne utopia remain as remote as ever, his Aerocene project has spawned a foundation that uses lightweight balloons for climate activism and pollution monitoring. And even the absurd spectacle of someone jetting from country to country to fly fuel-less balloons has become part of the art, as Saraceno’s studio begins to record his own carbon footprint.

Saraceno makes an important point about how we address climate change in our lives. The trick, he says, is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Escapism is fine. He has no time for the way so many artists and pundits are ringing humanity’s death knell. He has a special contempt for the lazy way the word Anthropocene crops up now in every climate conversation, as if, with the advent of this putative new era, our doom was sealed. “What a great way for a small number of people to disempower and demotivate us,” he says.

Given the seriousness of our environmental bind, isn’t escapism a bit irresponsible? Saraceno points me to a 1957 paper by psychobiologist Curt Richter. His gruesome experiments left rats to drown in water-filled containers from which they could not escape. But if he briefly rescued rats at the point they gave up swimming, and then returned them to the water, those rats continued to fight for life 240 times longer. Richter concluded that they had learned that there was hope. Faced with challenges on a planetary scale, we are scrambling for our lives, and can see no way out. “We need the energy those rats got when they saw some small hope,” says Saraceno.

I hadn’t expected our conversation to take this dark turn, but creating such small glimmers of hope is his business. If he is a joker, then he is one in the best sense of the word.

Should we take Saraceno’s work seriously? I was doubtful, but now I think, why look a gift horse in the mouth? He enthuses people. He gets us thinking. And he is right: a little hope goes a long way.