Do Drones Dream of Electric Sheep?

Drones have captured the public imagination. Anti-war activists single them out for protest; Pakistani singers use them as metaphors in pop songs; hobbyists share information about building their own. But how much resemblance does the drone of our fascination bear to the UAVs actually flying over Pakistan, the United States’ commercial airspace, and other countries around the world?

This panel will look at the relationship between drone as social characterization and drone technology itself. There is the composite, social object of how we think about drones: how they might be “remote”, “unmanned”, “autonomous”, “robotic”, “innovative”, “cool”, “creepy”, or “toys”. And then there is the technological reality: batteries, circuit boards, accelerometers, and radios. We will look at the ramifications of this image/reality split, especially how our impulse to label drones as a category distracts from the divergent realities of who is controlling the drones, of how and of what they are made, and of who falls under the drones’ cameras and payloads. Drones are all about the relationship between people and machines, and what is true and false about drones reflects upon how we think about technology in general.

But the panel will also compare the social objects of the drone with those of other technologies. Drones are technology, just like apps, smart phones, cars, or email. There’s the perception, the reality, and the complicated relationship between the two. Are drones unique in being a more complex socially-recognized technology? Are they subject to their characterizations more or less than other tech objects? Are the characterizations of drones more or less important to engage with than other technologies?