Readers who have followed Josh Begley‘s Dronestream project – which I commented on here – will be interested in this video of his graduate thesis presentation at NYU:
It’s a tour de force in under 15 minutes. Josh begins with a rapid-fire overview of over 480 more or less covert US drone strikes in 10 years killing more than 4,700 people. ’What can our relationship be with this story?’ he asks.
His first attempt at finding an answer was the Drones+ app that was intended to send a notification to your iPhone every time news broke of a drone strike in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. Like James Bridle‘s Dronestagram (which enabled satellite images of the sites of remote strikes to be viewed on an iPhone), it was a way of projecting the remoteness of the strikes into the intimacy of our own life-worlds. But Drones+ was more demanding precisely because its episodic notifications made those strikes more insistent, more interruptive. Hence Josh’s key question:
‘Do we really want to be as connected to our foreign policy as we are to our smart phones? … which are these increasingly intimate devices, the places where we share pictures of or loved ones and communicate with our friends, the things that we pull out of our pockets when we’re lost and which auto-magically put us at the center of the map…… Do we really want these things to be the site of how we experience remote war?’
Apple’s answer was no, as he ruefully acknowledges, though I suspect that would also be the answer of many others too: that, after all, is the appeal of remote wars to those who orchestrate them. Out of sight, out of mind: which is precisely why there is also something ‘auto-magical’ about Josh’s determination to ‘détourne‘ these remote technologies like this.
Josh’s next step was to use a Twitter account to start to tweet every recorded drone strike, which eventually morphed (via the aggregations of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) into Dronestream: or, more accurately, Dronestre.am.
This is a publicly accessible API (Application Programming Interface) that enables the data set to be interrogated and visualized in multiple ways (and if you want a simple account of working with the API, check out Felix Haas here):
Josh credits Trevor Paglen‘s ‘spatial analysis’ and his ongoing attempts to outline the Blank Spots on the Map as a particular inspiration for his work. What he has sought to do, by extension, is to map ‘the blank spots in the data’: to recover what he calls ‘the negative space that these drone strikes take up’, and so enable complex stories and ordinary voices to emerge out of the swirl of Big Data. In doing so, he argues that it becomes possible to ‘speak back’ to the drones and to the masters of dirty wars that control them, in effect artfully turning this latest version of techno-war against itself.
The trick now is to fill out these ‘blank spots on the map’, to recover the insistently human geographies that are devastated by these air strikes and the threat of more to come, so that we can overturn both the ‘face-less’ and the ‘place-less’ narrative of the covert war machine. It thrives on being both out of sight and out of site, and Josh’s research is invaluable in reminding us that the virtual technologies that make its depredations possible are also acutely material in their form and in their effects.