The machines seem to be taking over. And I’m worried because if that’s true, then they are going to take over the world of journalism before they take over the rest of the world.
The immediate provocation for what you may consider (mistakenly) as a bout of paranoia on my part is a report released last month by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, titled Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems and Journalism: Opportunities and Challenges of Drones in News Gathering. Depending on whether you’re a techno-evangelist or a techno-conservative—you know by now which camp I belong to—it would make for exciting or disturbing reading.
The authors of the report, the academic-journalist combo of David Goldberg, Mark Corcoran and Robert G. Picard, advocate a cautious but pragmatic adoption of drone technology in journalism. They assume—not without reason—that it is only a matter of time before drones become as much a part of our cityscapes as an ambulance or a police van. And they conclude that adequate legal oversight, state regulation, and aviation training for journalists (presumably, so they can manoeuvre drones from the news room, or from their homes, if they are telecommuting) will enable media houses to invest in drones for better news coverage.
Drones, apparently, will add value to news operations in three ways.
First, they will provide a more cost-effective option for aerial photography and video recording (way cheaper than having to hire a helicopter and pilot). Secondly, they can help in news-gathering on the ground where it might be dangerous or difficult for a journalist to operate—such as in war zones, in coverage of civil unrest, earth quakes, floods, or other natural/man-made disasters.
Thirdly, drones—fitted with sensors and cameras—will help in investigative journalism, especially where it is not possible for human reporters to gain access, for security or other reasons. In 2011, for example, Australian broadcaster Channel Nine’s Sixty Minutes team was denied entry into the Christmas Island immigration detention centre. The channel then defied the authorities by flying a drone over the detention centre and capturing footage of the hundreds of asylum seekers being held there. Then there is also the possibility of a drone photographing secret official documents from a distance—perhaps through a window—which can be downloaded by a reporter sitting a couple of kilometres away.
The flipside of this, of course, is an “airborne paparazzi”. Corcoran paints an interesting scenario in a piece titled ‘Drone journalism takes off’: “Imagine a camera drone slowly climbing to a 30th floor hotel window. Now visualize the face of the targeted celebrity, caught in an indiscreet moment: the million-dollar money-shot.” In fact, Paris Hilton and other celebrities have already faced the brunt of air-borne paparazzi in the French Riviera during the Cannes Film Festival.
These are just a few broad areas where drones might come to play a role, and the authors of the Reuters report take pains to emphasise that drones can only supplement, never replace, the human reporter. But strangely enough, while engaging with all the pros and cons of drone journalism—especially the legal dimensions in the context of the privacy/surveillance debate—they bypass the larger ethical and human implications of welcoming drones into our living spaces.
All said and done, drones are a military technology deployed initially for surveillance, and subsequently, for targeted killing. In 2011 alone, the US, the world’s biggest user of drones, carried out drone strikes in six different countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. But with the US under pressure to scale down operations in Afghanistan, and the public appetite for war being limited, military deployment alone was never going to be a sustainable business model for drone manufacturers. Hence it was imperative to find civilian uses for drone technology, and journalism is just one of a multitude of civilian applications.
It can be argued that a lot of existing civilian technology—nuclear power and the Internet, to name two—were originally developed for military purposes, so what’s different about drones? The difference is that, unlike the Internet and nuclear power — drones act as substitute human beings, performing tasks hitherto performed by human beings, and more and more, without the need for human oversight.
According to a March 2013 estimate of the drone industry lobbying group, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the global market for civilian drones is around $140 billion. And drone contractors such as Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics—all listed as members of the AUVSI in 2012—have reportedly lobbied hard, and successfully, with the US Congress for scrapping the ban on civil and commercial drones.
Drones are already being used in different parts of the world for law enforcement, traffic reports, environmental and wildlife observation, land surveying and mapping, tracking flocks of livestock, border surveillance, and damage assessment after natural disasters, among other uses. Over 40 American universities are getting special funding for drone research, and many are already offering undergraduate degree courses in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Operations.
But the biggest boost to the civilian adoption of drones is likely to come from what the Reuters report refers to as the ‘personal drone’ movement. The physicist-turned-journalist-turned-drone manufacturer and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine Chris Anderson believes that advances in smartphone technology, especially the advent of high-quality sensors, cameras and GPS, into the consumer segment have made it possible for anyone to fashion their own personal drone. Though why anyone would want to is a difficult question to answer.
Indeed, there are already micro-drones and ‘nano-bots’ that use ‘flap-wing technology’ to replicate the flight patterns of moths and birds, and possess considerable surveillance (and hence news-gathering) capabilities. They can hover, alight on a window sill, and look a lot like the insect-drones of the fantasy film, Golden Compass.
One aspect of drone usage—particularly its deployment by news media – that hasn’t been discussed much is how this technology is once again seeking to withdraw human beings from their environment. A large number of humans already spend much of their lifetimes interacting with—and via—screens. A journalist gathering information via his personal drone (there are drones that can be used by a single journalist) cannot claim to “have been there”—a fundamental claim of authenticity of any reportage.
Apparently, the US government officials and the private contractors looking to hire and train drone operators prefer those who have grown up playing computer games. So, computer games journalism—where a bunch of joy-stick-wielding, Playstation-weaned interns control camera- and microphone-mounted ‘drone reporters’ jostling for the best footage, most candid paparazzi shots, and breaking news exclusives—isn’t so much an idle science fiction fantasy as a probable reality that’s round the corner.
An interesting question worth pondering is: Will such drone-generated news come to be consumed by personal drones, which will then process it, as per pre-programmed parameters, retaining only the news that’s most relevant for its human owner? Are we then looking at a scenario where drone correspondents will be generating news for drone consumers, who—it goes without saying—will be under drone surveillance 24 by 7, with their news consumption patterns tracked and filed away for processing by drone market analysts?
If in the light of all this, if a person were to start thinking that the machines are taking over, would he be crazy?