A Spencer Ackerman post about a particularly sinister-sounding piece of military technology reminded me that I wanted to write something about Gerald Raunig’s book/essay A Thousand Machines. Here’s how Sharon Weinberger describes this step into cyberpunk dystopia, “Some unmanned aircraft are more futuristic, including a drone created by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is shaped and painted to resemble a real bird. Though not ready for deployment, the bird drone, which may someday recharge itself by perching on utility lines like a real bird, has flown for 30 minutes.” Robot bomber birds that recharge themselves and look ominous at the same time. Technology like this is a product of the fantasy of a soldier-less army. Who needs an air force when you have your own imperialist Hitchcockian squads? Besides striking fear into the hearts of enemies (and small land mammals), drones are supposed to prevent the messy parts of combat. The bombs are smart and the soldiers who steer them go home to their kids at night.
I think it’s helpful here to look at the distinction between tools and machines. Raunig follows in the tradition of Marx when he writes, “[T]he machine, unlike the tool, is not at all to be understood as a means of labor for the individual worker: instead it encloses the knowledge and skill of workers and scholars as objectified knowledge and skill, opposing the workers scattered in its plane of immanence as a dominant and central power.” So a hammer, which is essentially a rock attached to a stick, is a tool. It improves the efficiency of an individual laborer. A fighter jet, on the other hand, does not improve the efficiency of an individual soldier, instead it requires a flight crew, a maintenance crew, as well as the flight academies. A machine organizes its parts, which includes its human elements. The jet reproduces the top-gun pilots as such. Drones are not tools; like jets, they’re machines. This isn’t to say the two categories never overlap. If we take the population up one level of abstraction, jets are still tools of State power. But the keys is that machines organize relations between producers and their fixed and variable capital.
The hope drones embody is that we can have the death machine without the subjects and relations they require, without creating killers. Unfortunately, that’s not how machines work. Raunig writes,
“[T]he machine not only forms its subjects, it structuralizes and striates not only the workers as an automaton, as an apparatus, as a structure, as a purely technical machine in the final stage of the development of the means of labor; it is also permeated by mechanical, intellectual and social ‘organs’ which not only drive and operate it, but also successively renew and even invent it.”
The drone machine is made of more than metal. As a number of reports reveal, the drone does not remove people from the equation. In the 2008 Year in Ideas issue of the NY Times Magazine, Aaron Retica wrote about battlefield fatigue among drone pilots, who seem to experience many of the same psychological consequences – including post-traumatic stress – as the soldiers who hold their own guns. The 163rd Reconnaissance Wing out of California which pilots by an interface often compared to a video game relies on the services of a full-time chaplain and an army psychologist. What Raunig offers is an analysis of machines that isn’t distracted by shiny steel parts. The soldier who pilots the drone is no less necessary than the planes. (Do you imagine their eyes will glow? I imagine their eyes will glow.) The real lesson is that we can wipe our hands on metal birds until they look like they went to BP beach for spring break, the blood still doesn’t come off.