Game of Drones


Joe Pugliese has sent me a copy of his absorbing new essay, ‘Drone casino mimesis: telewarfare and civil militarization‘, which appears in Australia’s Journal of sociology (2016) (online early).  Here’s the abstract:

This article stages an examination of the complex imbrication of contemporary civil society with war and militarized violence. I ground my investigation in the context of the increasing cooption of civil sites, practices and technologies by the United States military in order to facilitate their conduct of war and the manner in which drone warfare has now been seamlessly accommodated within major metropolitan cities such as Las Vegas, Nevada. In the context of the article, I coin and deploy the term civil militarization. Civil militarization articulates the colonizing of civilian sites, practices and technologies by the military; it names the conversion of such civilian technologies as video games and mobile phones into technologies of war; and it addresses the now quasi-seamless flow that telewarfare enables between military sites and the larger suburban grid and practices of everyday life. In examining drone kills in the context of Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, I bring into focus a new military configuration that I term ‘drone casino mimesis’.

I’m particularly interested in what Joe has to say about what he calls the ‘casino logic and faming mimesis’ of ‘the drone habitus’.  Most readers will know that ‘Nellis’ (more specifically, Creech Air Force Base, formerly Indian Springs), for long the epicentre of the US Air Force’s remote operations, is a short drive from Las Vegas – and those who have seen Omar Fast‘s 5,000 Feet is Best will remember the artful way in which it loops between the two.


Two passages from Joe’s essay have set me thinking.  First Joe moves far beyond the usual (often facile) comparison between the video displays in the Ground Control Station and video games to get at the algorithms and probabilities that animate them:

‘…there are mimetic relations of exchange between Las Vegas’s and Nellis’s gaming consoles, screens and cubicles.


‘Iconographically and infrastructurally, casino gaming and drone technologies stand as mirror images of each other. My argument, however, is not that both these practices and technologies merely ‘reflect’ each other; rather, I argue that gaming practices and technologies effectively work to constitute and inflect drone practices and technologies on a number of levels. Casino drone mimesis identifies, in new materialist terms, the agentic role of casino and gaming technologies precisely as ‘actors’ (Latour, 2004: 226) in the shaping and mutating of both the technologies and conduct of war. Situated within a new materialist schema, I contend that the mounting toll of civilian deaths due to drone strikes is not only a result of human failure or error – for example, the misreading of drone video feed, the miscalculation of targets and so on. Rather, civilian drone kills must be seen as an in-built effect of military technologies that are underpinned by both the morphology (gaming consoles, video screens and joysticks) and the algorithmic infrastructure of gaming – with its foundational dependence on ‘good approximation’ ratios and probability computation.’

And then this second passage where Joe develops what he calls ‘the “bets” and “gambles” on civilian life’:

‘[Bugsplat’ constitutes a] militarized colour-coding system that critically determines the kill value of the target. In the words of one former US intelligence official:

You say something like ‘Show me the Bugsplat.’ That’s what we call the probability of a kill estimate when we are doing this final math before the ‘Go go go’ decision. You would actually get a picture of a compound, and there will be something on it that looks like a bugsplat actually with red, yellow, and green: with red being anybody in that spot is dead, yellow stands a chance of being wounded; green we expect no harm to come to individuals where there is green. (Quoted in Woods, 2015: 150)

Described here is a mélange of paintball and video gaming techniques that is underpinned, in turn, by the probability stakes of casino gaming: as the same drone official concludes, ‘when all those conditions have been met, you may give the order to go ahead and spend the money’ (quoted in Woods, 2015: 150). In the world of drone casino mimesis, when all those gaming conditions have been met, you spend the money, fire your missiles and hope to make a killing. In the parlance of drone operators, if you hit and kill the person you intended to kill ‘that person is called a “jackpot”’ (Begley, 2015: 7). Evidenced here is the manner in which the lexicon of casino gaming is now clearly constitutive of the practices of drone kills. In the world of drone casino mimesis, the gambling stakes are high. ‘The position I took,’ says a drone screener, ‘is that every call I make is a gamble, and I’m betting on their life’ (quoted in Fielding-Smith and Black, 2015).

There is much more to Joe’s essay than this, but these passages add considerably to my own discussion of the US targeted killing program in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan in ‘Dirty dancing’.  You can find the whole essay under the DOWNLOADS tab, but this is the paragraph I have in mind (part of an extended discussion of the ‘technicity’ of the US targeted killing program and its reliance on kill lists, signals intercepts and visual feeds):

The kill list embedded in the [disposition] matrix has turned out to be infinitely extendable, more like a revolving door than a rolodex, so much so that at one point an exasperated General Kayani demanded that Admiral Mullen explain how, after hundreds of drone strikes, ‘the United States [could] possibly still be working its way through a “top 20” list?’  The answer lies not only in the remarkable capacity of al Qaeda and the Taliban to regenerate: the endless expansion of the list is written into the constitution of the database and the algorithms from which it emerges. The database accumulates information from multiple agencies, but for targets in the FATA the primary sources are ground intelligence from agents and informants, signals intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA), and surveillance imagery from the US Air Force. Algorithms are then used to search the database to produce correlations, coincidences and connections that serve to identify suspects, confirm their guilt and anticipate their future actions. Jutta Weber explains that the process follows ‘a logic of eliminating every possible danger’:

‘[T]he database is the perfect tool for pre-emptive security measures because it has no need of the logic of cause and effect. It widens the search space and provides endless patterns of possibilistic networks.’

Although she suggests that the growth of ‘big data’ and the transition from hierarchical to relational and now post-relational databases has marginalised earlier narrative forms, these reappear as soon as suspects have been conjured from the database. The case for including – killing – each individual on the list is exported from its digital target folder to a summary Powerpoint slide called a ‘baseball card’ that converts into a ‘storyboard’ after each mission. Every file is vetted by the CIA’s lawyers and General Counsel, and by deputies at the National Security Council, and all ‘complex cases’ have to be approved by the President. Herein lies the real magic of the system. ‘To make the increasingly powerful non-human agency of algorithms and database systems invisible,’ Weber writes, ‘the symbolic power of the sovereign is emphasised: on “Terror Tuesdays” it (appears that it) is only the sovereign who decides about life and death.’ But this is an optical illusion. As Louise Amoore argues more generally, ‘the sovereign strike is always something more, something in excess of a single flash of decision’ and emerges instead from a constellation of prior practices and projected calculations.

2 thoughts on “Game of Drones

  1. Pingback: Eye and the Sky and Ethical Revisionism – Politics, Distilled

  2. Pingback: Eye in the Sky and Ethical Revisionism – Politics, Distilled

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s