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Drones: Panopticism intensified

Panopticism has just been ramped up a few notches. Panopticism is a Foucaultian concept (employed in Discipline and Punish) that encapsulates the paradigmatic condition of our society, namely that there is a pervasive tendency to subject all social life to modes of surveillance and judgement for purposes of disciplining the populace and ensure its economic productivity. When Michel Foucault wrote the book — a genealogy of punitive practices, contrasting those characteristic of pre-modernity with the more subtle, but also more effective, modern practices, of which the prison is the exemplar — I doubt he thought panopticism could become much more pervasive than it already was. He was wrong.

In TIME of February 11, 2013, the cover article by Lev Grossman (which I briefly alluded to in my previous post) is on the “Rise of the Drones”, and is a chilling reminder of the extent to which our civic freedoms can be, or perhaps more accurately, are being eroded even further than it already has through the employment of advanced robotics technology.

And I don’t mean only the “freedom” to be economically productive and make obscene amounts of money, which some readers seem to think is the epitome of freedom. (A friend of mine has drawn my attention to an article that demonstrates the exact opposite to be the case, namely, that so-called economic freedom has led to gross exploitative practices in that paradise of capitalism, the US. It is available here.)

By civic freedoms I mean freedoms such as the freedom to live where you choose and to marry or co-habit with whom you choose, to express your views rationally on matters of public importance when and where you see fit, freedom of artists to practise their art (painting, sculpture, literature, cinema, etc) without fear of censorship (except where it can reasonably be construed as expressions of “hate speech” or defamation of character) freedom of, or right to privacy when one so chooses, and freedom to engage in non-offensive and non-prejudicial cultural practices (cannibalism being an obvious example of a prohibited cultural practice that infringes on the freedoms of others).

With “the rise of the drones” at least one of these freedoms is in grave danger of being erased, namely the freedom of, and right to privacy, and once this has been destroyed, others may follow, such as freedom of expression — if surveillance by advanced technology in the shape of drones uncovers supposedly “suspicious” activity in the privacy of your home. And who decides what is to count as “suspicious” activity, and on what grounds, is a moot point.

Not too long ago my partner heard her dogs barking hysterically outside our home. Upon investigation it turned out that they were barking at an unfamiliar object hovering above the back lawn at a height of about five metres. It was more or less spherical, and my first thought was that it was a radio-controlled toy resembling a so-called flying saucer. Further investigation revealed that our neighbours were “having fun” with their newly acquired “flying camera-pod”, which really amounts to a “drone” — a remotely controlled flying (aeronautical) machine capable of carrying out surveillance or reconnaissance for a variety of purposes. Whether they were photographing us, or “spying” on us, or just “having voyeuristic fun” in the hope of catching us unawares, we never found out. But whether or not this was just innocuous fun, the point is that they have the technological means to peep into our private lives.

In countries where the US claims “operatives” belonging to organisations such as Al-Qaeda reside, its military has been deploying drones for some time, and has used these machines to assassinate individuals (some of whom were American citizens on foreign soil) claimed to be members of this, or allied “terrorist” organisations. In the process hundreds of civilians have also died — people regarded euphemistically as “collateral damage”. The US claims the right to send heavily armed drones into Pakistan (despite not being at war with it) from bases in Afghanistan in terms of an American “authorisation” justifying such action as counter-terrorism activities post-911. As far as one can make out from Grossman’s TIME article, there is no internationally accepted law to this effect. The article concerned raises the spectre of the state using drones for “spying” (or worse) on civilians possibly being the next step in the US.

The development of drones is intimately tied up with the link between constant technological innovation and capitalism. Whether drones are sold to the military, to civilian businesses or to private individuals (like our neighbours), their sales entail huge profits. Among the customers buying drones from manufacturers, Grossman lists real estate agents (who use them for a camera or video-survey of listed properties), photographers, fire and police departments, and farmers who use them to track unwanted animals on their farms. Drones have been used for entertainment purposes too — from comprising a “boy band” to a troupe of drones performing a dance at the Cannes film festival. In Japan drones are used to track tuna — a disturbing bit of information for people concerned about fish on the endangered species list.

But the needs of the military (and other state agencies who may use them for law enforcement and “state security” purposes) at present far outweigh those of ordinary civilians as driver of technological sophistication for profit. Among the drone models featured in the article — which range from the lethal “Predator” to the even more powerful “Reaper”, and a soon-to-be-launched jet-propelled model, the “Avenger” — there is even a “Nano-model ” that resembles a hummingbird, and can hover near the object of surveillance taking video footage with a miniature camera.

Grossman summarises the future possible deployment of drones as follows (TIME, p25): “This technology will inevitably flow from the military sphere into the civilian, and it’s very hard to say what the consequences will be, except that they’ll be unexpected. Drones will carry pizzas across towns and drugs across borders. They’ll spot criminals on the run and naked celebrities in their homes. They’ll get cheaper to buy and easier to use. What will the country look like when everyone with $50 and an iPhone can run a surveillance drone?”

He concludes the article with a sobering observation: “Drones don’t just give us power, they tempt us to use it.” Is this the future of our world under the latest products of robotics research — a world with no privacy, with nowhere to hide? At present, when you are tired of city crowds, one can still — and we often do — escape into the mountains, but when drones have become more ubiquitous someone sitting in a room a hundred kilometres away may observe (and film) your activities through a drone-installed video camera, whether you like it or not.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Lennon Lennon 22 February 2013

    The US Government is looking to have approximately 30 000 drones in operation as soon as possible for the purpose of surveilance – something that the FAA isn’t really keen on since they have enough work managing other government, military, public and private flights as it is.

    I’ve heard of at least one city which has proposed legislation which bans drones from entering the city limits for a period of two years. Whether the bill will pass is another matter as the Federal Government will no doubt attempt to lean on the city council.

    What’s also frightening is that drones are not the only thing being used to spy on US citizens. There are cameras in several cities which tie into vast “fusion” centers which, apart from capturing information intercepted from e-mail, IM, social networks and telephone conversations, analyse the recorded data and (in the case of these cameras) use both facial recognition software and highly complex algorythms to predict possible criminal behaviour.

    Add to this, the sudden rise in domestic military operations like the national guard being deployed (and kitted out for war) to football matches and it really begins to look like an Orwellian dystopia, from the FBI’s snitch programs (you should really watch the videos) right down to the move to disarm the populace.

  2. george orwell george orwell 23 February 2013

    Great, thought-provoking article. Thanks.

    What does all-seeing drone surveillance mean for opposition politics and dissidents? How would the Jewish, Roma and gay people have fared if the Nazis had had drone technology in 1939? Would the Nazi machine not have been ever more efficient, rapid and effective?

    How would anti-apartheid activists have fared in the 60s, 70s and 80s if the SA apartheid regime had had drone surveillance technology at hand?

    How will present-day anti-war / peace activists fare if the large military-industrial industry – a corporate behemoth driven by bottom-line profit – uses high:tech all-seeing surveillance to cramp their style?

    Imagine a President Julius Malema gets elected in SA, and has access to military surveillance drones streaming real-time surveillance of his ‘enemies’….

    Apart from anything else, a chilling effect takes hold. Like East Germans watching what they say, while the Stasi eavesdrop through walls…

    Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberty Union warns of the potential for a tsunami of drones, cluttering a kind of digital wild West where the law is outpaced by technology.

    Referring specifically to the US, he says: “There is some case law about aerial surveillance, but it’s not necessarily encouraging when it comes to protecting privacy. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that the police can look into your backyard even if you have a high fence, with no warrant. You have no 4th amendment protection…

  3. Simon Howell Simon Howell 23 February 2013

    Drones are the least of our worries, especially from a the perspective of Foucault. Indeed most contemporary analyses concern the manner in which surveillance has moved from the indiscreet to the discreet. Drones, with their noise and implicit sovereignty hardly qualify as a ‘enunciative modality’ by which the logic of governmentality works in its most subtle of forms. Writing for the M&G online does ironically. Biopolitically, however, SA has never escaped its concern with the ‘fundamental characteristics’ which are still transformed in to ontological concerns. The possibility of escaping THAT type of logic is, for me, the question that needs to be asked in our society, right now.

  4. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 23 February 2013

    The imaginary link between big government and capitalism is just getting tired now. This unhistorical view is more important to protect certain discourses than others, but some readers also drew your attention to other freedoms which would not allow the situation where big governments commission drones to spy on citizens remotely.

    The cute cherry picking anecdotes are also a poor substitute for coming up with the goods. Really, prof. No wonder humanities are laughed at and degraded by the ‘hard science’ people.

  5. george orwell george orwell 23 February 2013

    Imaginary link between government and capitalism?

    Socialism for the rich (bank bail-outs, etc) and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the rest?

    Read this: “Bush was a disaster… Obama is worse”

    Crony capitalism has got worse under Mr Neo-Liberal Capitalism, Barak Obama, who has green-lighted Drone Wars and instituted an assassination policy and detention without trial, so frowned on in apartheid South Africa anc called out by horrified liberal Americans at the time.

    The Yankee frogs do not feel the boiling water rise about them.

    Corporate media uncritically accepts this state of affairs.

    A new study shows that the richest Americans captured more than 100% of all recent income gains. As Huffington Post notes:

    the top 1 percent of households by income captured 121 percent of all income gains between 2009 and 2011, during the first two years of the economic recovery – ON OBAMA’S WATCH – according to new research by Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

    How was the top 1 percent able to capture more than all of the recovery’s income gains? They became 11.2 percent richer while the bottom 99 percent got 0.4 percent poorer, when accounting for inflation, according to Saez.

    Read the article to see how big government Obama facilitated this capitalist miracle ..

  6. george orwell george orwell 23 February 2013

    Bed-time reading list …

    “Drones: From Military Use to Civilian Use”

    Towards the Remote UAV Policing of Civil Society:


    “Perpetual Surveillance and The Menace of Drone Warfare”

    : By Prof Richard Falk, Princeton University.

    A further concern is the almost certain access to drone technology by private sectors actors. These musings are not science fiction, but well financed undertakings at or beyond the development stage.

    It is in these settings especially, where the analogy to nuclear weapons seems most pertinent, and discouraging. Given the amount invested and the anticipated profitability and utility of drones, it may already be too late to interrupt their development, deployment, and expanding sphere of use. Unlike nuclear weaponry, already some 50 countries reportedly possess drones, mainly adapted to surveillance. .

  7. george orwell george orwell 24 February 2013

    Drone Me Down On The Killing Floor

    See “Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050” by Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse, author of the seminal “The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.”

    Obama is the certified Droner-in-Chief; the final judge, jury and digital Grand Inquisitor on which suspicious Muslim (for the moment, at least, they are all Muslims) get targeted for drone-borne assassination.

    Obama has a newspeak-drenched “kill list”. He decides on a “personality strike” (a single suspect) or a “signature strike” (a group).

    The logic is straight from Kafka; anyone lurking around an alleged “terrorist” is a terrorist. The only way to know for sure is after he’s dead.

    The Orwellian – and Philip Dick – overtones are inescapable; this is all about 24/7 drone surveillance of large swathes of the US population via radar, infrared cameras, thermal imaging, wireless “sniffers” and, crucially, crowd-control weapons. You better monitor the skies very closely before you even start thinking about protesting. And wait for the imminent arrival of nuclear-powered drones, which can go on non-stop for months, and not only days.

    Drones have expanded and entrenched on the liberal darling Obama’s watch, even as he ominously ushers in ‘detention without trial” under the NDA Act of 2013 – remember how the US decried that heinous, anti-democratic, anti human…

  8. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 24 February 2013

    Wouldn’t it be quite a good thing if drones helped catch rapists on the run? Or if some new fad of technology could pick out suicide bombers before they strike? Is there no bye-law to stop your neighbour invading your privacy with his gadget? (presuming he does it so often it goes beyond a joke). What society needs is the best achievable framework of law and individuals free enough to keep it that way.

    As for each of us, long before Foucault, the poet Wordsworth lamented ‘the shades of the prison-house of this world’, which gather round us as we leave the innocence of childhood behind. Each individual needs to be aware of the danger of that too – to make the best of himself within the law.

    Easy to say, difficult to achieve. But some societies and some individuals get nearer to it than others. But ‘technology’ is not an agent. We’re the agents. Though we need to watch out, as Bert says.

  9. Maria Maria 24 February 2013

    @ Simon: The deployment of drones is certainly not an instance of the logic of governmentality, which works in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but it equally certainly falls squarely in the domain of panopticism. It is probably one of its most banal, potentially ubiquitous, and therefore worrisome embodiments. In fact, it is on a par with Bentham’s “Panopticon” prison in this respect. Together the subtle and banal incarnations of panopticism weave an ever-more constricting web, ranging from drone-deployment to subtle discursive, panoptical invasions of subjectivities. The wave of measures, in and outside governmental spheres (in the private sector, i.e.) to enforce “compliance” at multiple levels, represents the more subtle expansion of panopticism. But drones are undeniably part of it.
    @ Garg: If even mainstream magazines like TIME openly publish information on the cosy links between government and corporations – here the military-industrial complex, which make exorbitant profits from the US (and other) government – do you expect anyone to believe your attempts to pull the wool over people’s eyes? Stop defending the indefensible. Have you read the article that Bert has linked here, about private hospitals’ driving people to bankruptcy with their exorbitant fees? And the same is true of private capitalist hospitals in your country.

  10. Maria Maria 24 February 2013

    @ Simon: What I meant to say is: The deployment of drones is certainly not a SUBTLE instance of the logic of governmentality, which works in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but it equally certainly falls squarely in the domain of panopticism.

  11. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 25 February 2013

    Capitalism is not a requirement for a cosy link between big capital and government. You’ve heard of feudalism? This link is still maintained in China, where Bert is quick to point out there is economic freedom but not civil or other freedoms, and was the basis for the most un-capitalist regimes imaginable.

    I’m not trying to pull wool over anybody’s eyes, it would be futile to attempt this on those who use terms like ‘military-industrial complex’. There’s a sheep there already.

    Have you tried to answer the question: Why do hospitals have exorbitant fees? The health industry in particular is not as capitalist (privately owned) as you’d like to believe. If we can’t let those capitalists roam free, why act surprised when there’s a cosy link between big capital pressure groups and government?

    The point that you keep missing is that I’m not trying to defend anything, I’m merely suggesting that discourses on Panopticons and imagined historical narratives on punishment are tall on style and short on substance. It’s akin to a pre-modern, mythical set of beliefs that rarely touches on the topic at hand. An in-depth understanding of Foucault will not remedy ignorance of economics.

    It’s the proverbial doctor in the house who can’t stabilise anyone’s condition but can explain hermeneutics to the injured while they die. Big on doxa, short on techne.

  12. The Creator The Creator 25 February 2013

    Drones are a perfect example of capitalist technology. Wealth applied to spy on people who lack wealth, and then kill them, without any interference from the public.

  13. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 25 February 2013

    @The Creator:
    Who owns the drones? Are they privately owned, or are they perhaps owned by governments? Who develops the drones? Are these private institutes or are they perhaps government-owned militias? Again, nothing new and this arrangement pre-dates capitalism quite a bit. Warfare is generally not good for trade.

  14. Chris Lombard Chris Lombard 25 February 2013

    Economic activity (work, trade, innovate) comprises more than 80% of most peoples lives. You cannot be an advocate for freedom if you glibly ignore this, and it follows that your view is the narrow one.

    I do not see your motto reflected much in your writings. If anything you should start an Amish community in South Africa, as your writings reflect an almost religious rejection of technology.

  15. HD HD 25 February 2013

    *My initial comment seems to have never made it – lost in cyberspace?*

    Any way, I tend to agree with the thread posed by drones. The drone program under Obama has expanded at a rapid rate and together with executive kill lists (including 3 US citizens), increased collateral damage from drone strikes, legality of executive arrest warrants and the broadening of the scope of surveillance rights for security agencies – civil liberties have taken a real knock under Obama.

    The anti-war left have been particularly disappointing in this regard – but I guess if your man is in the office, you play by a different set of standards. (Imagine if this was George W or Romney)

    That all said, to blame this on capitalism is a real stretch! Instead more worrying is how civil liberties are being eroded under the guise of national security and counter-terrorism. It is unlikely that these powers will be limited or reversed at some later stage because there will always been some “security” threat.

    I think there is something to be said for drones and capitalism within the wider debate about technology and privacy – but that is in a different context, instead this comes across as an ideological rant.

    After all it is the combination of technology and capitalism that gave us the Internet – perhaps the last sphere still relatively free from government interference and state coercion (although you have to wonder for how long).

  16. Concerned Concerned 25 February 2013

    There is a simple philosophy in life: “Do unto others as you would have done to yourself” which the government of the USA is too arrogant to accept. Imagine the outrage should (for example) Cuba send armed drones (or even just spy drones) into the USA…

    The USA’s arrogance and one-sidedness is overwhelming, and its readiness to accuse others of what it perpetrates without qualm. Another example is their extremely one-sided nuclear non-proliferation thrust – that the USA is somehow entitled to hold more nuclear arms than the rest of all nations and yet prevent other countries from arming themselves…

    A final one is that the USA sees it as acceptable to have a military budget greater than that of the next ten nations together, and to fund bases, arms including nuclear and military presence in untold countries and to wage undeclared war and attack, kill and extradite without recourse to law from them…

  17. Maria Maria 25 February 2013

    @Chris: I suspect you are the narrow one. Obviously you haven’t read very much of what Bert has written on technology. You may also be interested to hear that he teaches courses in the philosophy of technology, from Heidegger and Baudrillard to Virilio and Turkle. Try this for size:

  18. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 25 February 2013

    I think it a necessary human condition that our creativity outstrips our community, it is better to constrain our use of technology, than to ban technological advance. Drones could be used to track and incapacitate rhino poachers, to track and target illegal fishing operations, to track “perlies”, to track hi-jackers, to warn off the dolphins of Taji. They could be put to good use. I would hold that technology is amoral, it has no value on it’s own, it’s value is derived from the hands that control it. GPS was derived from military use, the Internet was originally a collaboration between Universities if I recall, Google Earth with it’s roaming camera’s is most certainly a private enterprise. Does it really matter who created the technology and what it’s original purpose was? Is our challenge not the unveiling of the hidden interests, but rather how to control the controllers once these technologies surface? So is this a discourse about drones, or about technological advances?

  19. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 25 February 2013

    @ Garg ask Coca-Cola and Marlboro about how they became global, what did World War II do for the recession in the USA, what did war do for Haliburton, for Western Oil interests? I’d have to disagree with you on the view that war is not generally good for trade, the way I see it, war is very good for the trade interests of the winning side!

  20. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 25 February 2013

    @ Bert I am not as scared by the use of drones, as by the unfailing belief we have that it is better to force compliance, to coerce, than it is to stimulate responsible citizenship!

  21. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 26 February 2013

    Some links you may find useful:

    ” The struggle of endurance involved in a strike is, really, what it has often been compared to — a war; and, like all war, it lessens wealth. And the organization for it must, like the organization for war, be tyrannical. As even the man who would fight for freedom, must, when he enters an army, give up his personal freedom and become a mere part in a great machine, so must it be with workmen who organize for a strike. These combinations are, therefore, necessarily destructive of the very things which workmen seek to gain through them — wealth and freedom” ~ Henry George

  22. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 26 February 2013

    A weak state is as much a threat to liberty as a authoritarian one, possibly more of a threat. It is how the state’s power is checked and balanced that counts. There is no general answer and the struggle to get it right in each case is permanent.

  23. Bert Bert 26 February 2013

    Gary – Certainly, I agree about technology not being ‘bad in itself’, although there is something to (if I recall correctly) Adorno’s remark, that the very fact that you can get into a motor car makes you want to ‘aim it’. I would use Plato’s (and Derrida’s) word, ‘pharmakon’, to describe technology – the ancient Greek word means ‘poison AND cure’ at the same time. And who was it who said that ‘every great invention casts a shadow’? Technology is no exception. But one should heed the implicit warning in the Terminator movies, that humans should not relinquish their decision-making capacity to technology. When that happens, humanity will no longer be able to ‘control’ technology, but it could become the other way around.

  24. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 27 February 2013

    @ Bert technology is certainly deliberately tailored to make us want to use it, so it is not an “innocent” object, but ultimately we choose to use it, no matter how brief or unconscious the moment, there is a point at which we succumb to the “package” it offers, it is this moment that we need to make an informed and conscious one. In the case of drones, we have succumbed to the temptation of improved security at reduced danger to the soldier without making this an informed, conscious choice of the general populace. I understand Obama’s dilemma, how to improve security/ deal with “terrorists” without losing American soldiers’ lives, drones solve that nicely, but at the cost of sovereignty of another nation, at the cost of privacy of the individual, at the cost of innocent lives and at the cost of adopting a methodology which goes against the right to a fair trial.

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