The Good Drone

Returning to Vancouver and my stuffed mailbox after several weeks away, I found a copy of The Good Drone edited by Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (thank you both!).  I’ve known Kristin for several years now, and always learned much from her insightful and imaginative work, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to find a book that has so many new things to say about drones:

While the military use of drones has been the subject of much scrutiny, the use of drones for humanitarian purposes has so far received little attention. As the starting point for this study, it is argued that the prospect of using drones for humanitarian and other life-saving activities has produced an alternative discourse on drones, dedicated to developing and publicizing the endless possibilities that drones have for “doing good”. Furthermore, it is suggested that the Good Drone narrative has been appropriated back into the drone warfare discourse, as a strategy to make war “more human”.

This book explores the role of the Good Drone as an organizing narrative for political projects, technology development and humanitarian action. Its contribution to the debate is to take stock of the multiple logics and rationales according to which drones are “good”, with a primary objective to initiate a critical conversation about the political currency of “good”. This study recognizes the many possibilities for the use of drones and takes these possibilities seriously by critically examining the difference the drones’ functionalities can make, but also what difference the presence of drones themselves – as unmanned and flying objects – make. Discussed and analysed are the implications for the drone industry, user communities, and the areas of crisis where drones are deployed.

Here are the substantive chapters (following a sparkling introduction by the editors):

1: Susanne Krasmann – Targeted ‘Killer Drones’ and the Humanitarian Discourse: On a Liaison

2: John Karlsrud and Frederik Rosén – Lifting the Fog of War? Opportunities and Challenges of Drones in UN Peace Operations

3: Kristoffer Lidén and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik – Poison Pill or Cure-All: Drones and the Protection of Civilians

4: Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert – Creating the EU Drone: Control, Sorting, and Search and Rescue at Sea

5: Kristin Bergtora Sandvik – The Public Order Drone: Proliferation and Disorder in Civil Airspace

6: Brad Bolman– A Revolution in Agricultural Affairs: Dronoculture, Precision, Capital

7: Serge Wich, Lorna Scott, and Lian Pin Koh – Wings for Wildlife: the use of Conservation Drones, challenges and opportunities

8: Mareile Kaufmann – Drone/Body: the Drone’s Power to Sense and Construct Emergencies

It’s available as an e-book, which brings the otherwise usurious price within reach, but if you want a preview of Kristin’s work I recommend her essay (with Kjersti Lohne) on ‘The rise of the humanitarian drone’ in Millennium 43 (1) (2014) 145-164.


HumanityStarting this month, I’ve joined the Editorial Board of the journal Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development.  It includes a host of people whose work I admire, including Costas Douzinas, Samera Esmeir, Didier Fassin, James Ferguson, Barbara Harlow, Paul Kahn, Thomas Keenan, Martti Koskenniemi, Andrew Lakoff, Liisa Malkki and Mariella Pandolfi, so I’m really excited about all this.

Here’s the Mission Statement (the journal started in October 2010):

In recent decades, the traditional politics of ideological contest has been displaced by a politics of humanity. In many realms, left and right have given way to life and death. In both domestic and international contexts, the languages of human rights and humanitarianism are often spectacularly marshaled as moral claims to bolster multifarious policies and practices. And development—a central Cold War discourse—has evolved beyond strictly economic or institutional concerns to encompass matters once targeted in human rights activism and has expanded to address the acute humanitarian crises once treated as more episodic and temporary conditions.

The distinctions among human rights, humanitarianism, and development—which were once largely discrete categories—have blurred under the pressures of contemporary international politics, resource wars, and global policy. The integration of human rights, humanitarianism, and development under the rubric of “humanity” has meant, for better and worse, the erosion of the traditional meanings and applications of each. This convergence of the three concepts within a larger politics of humanity is arguably one of the signature phenomena of our time.

The global politics of humanity legitimates itself not on the old foundation of international humanitarian law or the more recent elaboration of international human rights; rather, it derives its legitimacy from its promise to generate new legal and political orders, to shape new social realities and relations, to establish new economic imperatives and interests, and to forge new cultural connections and values. And while the global politics of humanity is emphatically a politics of redemption, at least in its urge to mend, ameliorate, or even transform circumstances of disorder and atrocity, the very aspirational quality of the politics of humanity that lends it appeal often immunizes it from critical inquiry. The humanity to which activists and governments appeal—or hope to bring about—is never the same in each context, or even for all actors in the same project. These unacknowledged tensions, indeed, help define this novel form of global politics.

The goal of Humanity is to provide a single forum for the dispassionate, analytically focused examination of these trends and the political transformations that have reshaped the terms of liberation and idealism as well as the practices of domination and control.

For a number of years now, scholars working in their respective fields, publishing mostly in disciplinary journals, have been analyzing this convergence—its formative history and future implications. Many powerful insights about these ongoing transformations have emerged from diverse fields such as anthropology, history, law, literature, philosophy, and sociology. Too often, however, this work has remained cloistered from scholars in other fields and the world of practice, even though much of it shares a common intellectual genealogy; and the centripetal force of the disciplines has tended to perpetuate these divisions, even though all of them have a common stake in the world. By encouraging novel approaches to the problems of “humanity” and inviting our readers and contributors to venture beyond their usual disciplines, we hope to clear some of the obstacles to conversation among scholars in various disciplines and between academics and practitioners. Humanity will provide an interdisciplinary forum to facilitate inquiry into the movement of human rights, humanitarianism, and development towards a politics of humanity—because “humanity” itself is a multidisciplinary question.

Most treatments of human rights, humanitarianism, and development—popular, scholarly, and activist—tend to remain tightly tethered to the agendas of the causes that gave them their original purpose and continuing energy. Our belief, as the editors of Humanity, is that the purposes of reflective activity and critique are not necessarily to refine and reform policies and to discover best practices. Advocacy and reform have their place, of course; but so too should analysis and critique, not just of methods, metrics, and goals but also of ideals and ideologies.

The mission of Humanity is to explore, from as many perspectives as possible, the multiple ways that invocations of “humanity” never tell the whole truth about the practices and people they defend or advance. For Humanity, “humanity” will always be a problem.

You can find out much more from Humanity Online here, which includes a preview of the latest issue on Visual Citizenship, featuring a downloadable introduction by  Jennifer Telesca, and a lively blog: