Dead streaming

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,

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.

The military and the mob

Double Tap streamMichael Kelley notes that Josh Begley‘s tweeted enumeration of US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia at Dronestream confirms the vile ‘double-tap‘ strategy in which a first strike is rapidly followed by a second targeting rescuers.  As Kelley notes, ‘A 2007 report by the Homeland Security Institute called double taps a “favorite tactic of Hamas” and the FBI considers it a tactic employed by terrorists.’

The militarised practice has been widely reported – not least in Staford/NYU’s Living under Drones – but Begley’s cascade of tweets provides a powerful statement of its relentless rhythm.  In September Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of the attacks, told Britain’s Independent newspaper:

“These strikes are becoming much more common…  In the past it used to be a one-off, every now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”

Far from any justification, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings argues that such attacks constitute war crimes.  In fact, as Gwynne Dyer points out,

“DOUBLE TAP” IS what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.

Street gangs of Baghdad.001

It’s not so long ago that the Pentagon was alarmed at the presence of members of US street gangs among its soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad (see Frank Main, ‘Gangs claim their turf in Iraq’, Chicago Sun-Times 1 May 2006).  It’s high time the US took a look at mobsters patrolling the skies too.

Thanks to my good friend Oliver Belcher for the original link.

The twitter of drones

BAFANA Tweet Drone strike in YemenBack in May the Bureau of Investigative Journalism described how local activists were using Twitter and other social media platforms to spread the news of US drone strikes in Yemen.  Haykal Bafana, a lawyer living in San’a, the capital of Yemen, kept up a barrage of tweets recording the ‘covert’ strikes in near real-time, which were then amplified through Facebook and micro-news platforms in the region. You can follow him here.

Haykal Bafana

This is all of a piece with the incorporation of social media into the conduct of late modern war that was evident during Israel’s recent attack on Gaza and, as Noel Sharkey told the Bureau,

‘It is incredible how the same type of technology used by the CIA to kill people with drones in the Yemen, is empowering the Yemenis to tweet the attacks as they are happening. They can send us all pictures and bring us closer to the horror they are experiencing. Technology in the small may eventually bring down the over-use of military technology in the large.’

Josh BegleyDrone strikes are certainly now being made visible across a range of social media platforms, and now comes news – from the wonderful Jorge Amigo – that Josh Begley (whose Drones+ app was serially rejected by Apple) has started tweeting what Jake Heller calls ‘the entire history of US drone strikes’ in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as part of a graduate class at NYU, Narrative Lab, which focuses on ‘the impact of interactivity and technology on traditional narrative structure’.  Begley told Heller that, for him, ‘it’s about the way stories are told on new social-media platforms.’


How complete the data series can be is an open question – and the rhetorical impact would be even more devastating if Afghanistan were included – but as you can see from my screen grab above Begley, who started at noon on Tuesday 11 December, tweeted that after twelve hours ‘we’re only at March 2010’…  Follow him at Dronestream here.  And, as Connor Simpson at the Atlantic Wire commented, ‘if this project doesn’t merit an A, we would love to see one that does.’