Month: May 2013

Of drones, and other Impartial Spectators

This is my drone.  I’ve taken a picture of it here at rest, without its battery (see the black and red wire dangling beneath), on a dwarf cherry tree in bloom. I think it looks rather fetching as well as faintly menacing.

Some months ago I conceived the idea of invading my own privacy using a mini toy spy drone. Though capable (the manufacturer claims) of moving within a 120 meter range and of flying in an impressive “Stunt Mode,” the Micro Drone is not capable of carrying a payload, and so wanting a wireless micro camera to affix to it, the invasion of my own privacy is only a thought experiment.

I named my drone the Impartial Spectator, after the phrase that Adam Smith, founder of modern political economy, uses to describe the conscience in his 1759 book of moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Impartial Spectator is in Smith’s book the internalized point of view of civil society.  Operating in Smith’s text as a figure for the situational awareness of the reasonable individual, it names the imagined response of a rational public to any imaginable scenario or case of feeling.  Smith’s moral philosophy is famously grounded in sympathy, the communication of fellow feeling between members of the human species.  By comparing one’s most powerful, potentially a- or anti-social feelings to those of the Impartial Spectator whom we imagine to be observing us, Smith argues, the individual regulates the excesses of passion, and so brings his or her strong feelings into accord with those shared by the rest of society.  As the imagined, admonitory eye of a watchful public, the Impartial Spectator names a relationship between individuals and others, and (more importantly) between individuals and themselves, that makes possible the smooth commerce of sympathy.

Smith’s book is useful in reminding us that the functions of introspection, never truly private in the first place, have long been (so to speak) outsourced in modern capitalist society.  To look into oneself is to consult a tribunal of imagined others.  Authors have for centuries imagined an externalized agency or presumptively representative rationality of some kind — an Impartial Spectator, imagined community, panopticon, or “common sense” — charged with the role of overseeing an individual’s conduct, thoughts and/or feelings, and prompting us to regulate these.  In this sense at least, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones used for surveillance today represent the technological implementation of an idea that has been in place for as long as modernity itself.  Intellectual and cultural historians frequently observe that Smith’s book of moral philosophy, published almost a generation before The Wealth of Nations (1776), presents an ethics for a modern commercial society.  (Great Britain had at this time only recently established a system of national debt and begun circulating paper currency in place of coin.)  As “the looking-glass by which we can…scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct” (112), the Impartial Spectator facilitates the kind of regular and predictable social relations on which a society of debt depends, if it is to avoid financial catastrophe.  The Impartial Spectator in other words performs the regulative work in Smith’s moral philosophy (of maintaining and preserving an existing social order) that surveillance drones are imagined to perform in our own world.

As it happens, several hobbyist academics like myself have been led to build and operate drones.  (The link between academia and drone use is in one sense well established: along with police and security agencies, research universities are among the groups most frequently licensed for drone operation by the FAA.)  In an engaging essay “A Drone of One’s Own”, the journalist, law professor, and private drone enthusiast Rosa Brooks rightly observes that no laws currently prevent individuals from buying a drone in order to spy on neighbors (or worse).  Privately owned drones (including drones owned and operated by private companies) have so far flown under the protection of now antique regulations from 1981, which currently permit hobbyists to fly their UAVs to a maximum height of 400 feet in virtually any airspace.  Francis Fukuyama, the academic with the highest profile among academic drone operators and hobbyists, notes in a piece for the Financial Times that these laws are likely to change soon.  The FAA has been charged to come up with new rules to regulate private drones in public airspace by 2015.  In the meantime, private corporations as well as individuals have been eyeing drones for commercial use: Hollywood has asked the FAA for permission to use drones, and other industries (farming, e.g.) will not be far behind.  And a lot of drone use by private interests is already being carried out in the open, with dubious legality.  For a few thousand dollars you can buy drones that are optimized for cinematic use.  In my home state of Massachusetts alone, one such drone was recently spotted capturing aerial footage for reality TV.  And in a local Boston suburb, residents of Quincy have recently expressed consternation about a drone-like object that has reportedly circled the city making a “low-pitched humming sound” over several successive nights.

Drones have unsurprisingly triggered a number of privacy concerns and questions about the wisdom of living in a society of ubiquitous surveillance.  Given the astounding technological resources possessed already by government and other security agencies — resources easily and as yet legally accessible to private corporations and others — what new levels of surveillance will the public be exposed to in the future?  Hobbyist drone operators like Fukuyama and Brooks remind us that we have the means, technical if not quite legal, to spy on our neighbors (if not also on ourselves).  From the perspective of sheer technical capability, little prevents the proliferation of domestic surveillance programs but the willingness of drone users to refrain from such activities.  For Smith, in fact, this impulse to peer too closely into the lives of others is among the excesses against which the Impartial Spectator protects:

This passion to discover the real sentiments of others is naturally so strong, that it often degenerates into a troublesome and impertinent curiosity to pry into those secrets of our neighbours which they have very justifiable reasons for concealing; and, upon many occasions, it requires prudence and a strong sense of propriety to govern this, as well as all the other passions of human nature, and to reduce it to that pitch which any impartial spectator can approve of.  (337-8)

In observing how the natural human emotion of curiosity turns the subjects of surveillance into its agents, Smith remarks (with no apparent irony) that the self-surveilling agency of the Impartial Spectator might ultimately be responsible for preventing individuals from prying unduly into the lives of others.  What stops me from spying on my neighbor may be little more than the near certainty that at any given moment I am myself being surveilled.

My interest in surveillance drones extends to the broadly aesthetic questions that their use (both at home and abroad) confronts us with today.  How does the world appear from the estranging drone’s-eye point of view?  What does being looked in on, or of looking in on oneself from above, look like? What kinds of attachments do we (or will we) form to the UAVs, GPS devices, satellites, and other pieces of sophisticated technical equipment that silently watch over our movements?  Will we someday feel a kind of fondness and habitual affection for these instruments as we already (some of us, anyway) feel for our phones, tablets, laptops, etc.?  And if one can as it were divide oneself in two (this conceptual self-division being essential to how the Impartial Spectator assists in regulating an individual’s behavior), can we imagine entrusting matters of conscience, behavior or even thought, to drones of our own?

My spy drone experiment has been accused of being a solipsistic project.  I accept the characterization, and described the project half in jest as carried out with an aim to execute the most solipsistic drone campaign ever.  (I would also ask: is there another person whose privacy I should violate?)  I don’t have the kind of disposable income that would allow me to pursue a domestic drone program matching Fukuyama’s in technical capability; but I don’t wish to scale up the experiment either.  Without the funds or zeal to pursue a home drone campaign of any sophistication, I am content for my experiments with the Impartial Spectator to represent a miniaturized version and parody of the academic drone hobbyist at the so-called end of history.  Should my personal drone campaign only prove to be a way of accommodating myself to the fact of near-constant surveillance in late modernity, my time spent with the Micro Drone will have served the civilizing, regulative ends for which the notion of an Impartial Spectator was intended.

Happy surveilling!

Most of the links in the post above came to me courtesy of Twitter, both in conversation and from users such as @drones, @dronestream, @eff, @cesgnal, @dgolumbia, and many others.


Notes on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

Notes on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”



    Thoreau’s extraordinary essay “Civil Disobedience” was first published in Boston in 1849, in a collection edited by Elizabeth P. Peabody called Aesthetic Papers.  The text is not narrowly but broadly “aesthetic” in the sense of involving the perceptive as well as rational powers of human beings.  As in many aesthetic treatises of the long nineteenth century, from Schiller’s Aesthetic Letters to Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Thoreau’s essay raises questions of whether and how far the free play of these faculties can be accommodated to the larger mechanisms of State or society, or else furnish a model for new socio-political arrangements altogether.  The ideal government — the government which at the beginning and end of the essay Thoreau declares his willingness (even eagerness) to swear loyalty to (e.g. 240) — is, for Thoreau, one that recognizes the individual as its foundation and necessary condition.  The aesthetic state that Thoreau describes in the soaring final paragraph is thus one that does not merely accommodate and assimilate individuals, but which provides conditions for their flourishing.  

    But as in many or most aesthetic theories of the long nineteenth century, Thoreau’s ideal State is part of a society to come, for which intermittent portents only are visible in the present.  Civil disobedience is the name that Thoreau gives to the assertion of individuality in word or deed, whenever this comes into conflict with the State.  It names a practice (voluntary or involuntary; internal or external) of standing apart from the State.  This practice can be either an action (of refusing to pay city tax, e.g.) or a habit of mind, a perspective that one brings to everyday situations where social and political consensus is not sought and appealed for, but merely and tacitly presumed.

    From the beginning of the essay Thoreau offers plenty of reasons why one would veryrationally be led to call the legitimacy of government into question or reject governments altogether as presenting impediments to the rights of individuals.  The same objections that popularly stand against standing armies count equally, as Thoreau notes, against the notion of “a standing government” (224). The latter has no more legitimacy than the former; its legitimacy has just never yet been put in question.  Government is best, Thoreau observes (and he holds this to be an opinion with near universal assent) when it operates imperceptibly; we hold it to be an anomaly and a glitch in the system when government intrudes on our notice.  Thus we should think of government as no more than a negative presence in our lives, which a properly self-regulating civil society could well do without.  The U.S. government is a notional entity that survives only to the degree that citizens respect (or don’t bother to inquire into) its Trojan horse-like appearance.  “[A] sort of wooden gun to the people themselves,” it is not built strong enough to withstand opposition, or even concerted scrutiny: “if ever they should use it…against each other, it will surely split” (224).

    A text about civil disobedience, Thoreau’s essay is also a masterful performance of it. At the same time, he pointedly differentiates the act of civil disobedience from a more incendiary and markedly less civil series of actions that may arise from contemplation of the more serious limitations of government.  With many good reasons to declare ourselves “no-government men” and work to abolish the State (225), to commit an act of civil disobedience seems rather like an act of great prudence.  Thoreau establishes the normality, necessity and obviousness of civil disobedience in thought or word or deed.  It is entirely acceptable for free-thinking individuals to hold and express treasonous thoughts as they are prompted by conscience.  It is the right — and in certain cases may be the responsibility — of the free-thinking individual to entertain such dangerous thoughts as they arise in the natural course of things.  The individual must permit these thoughts rather than seeking to stifle them; any possible curb on this capacity represents an unacceptable limitation on freedom of thought and expression.   Keats writes in a letter that one should “let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party.” (LJK, 2.213)  The political consequences for the individual of such cast of mind are worked out in Thoreau’s essay.  


    The author of Walden is “not the ‘go a-head’ species, but its opposite pole,” wrote George Eliot in an anonymous review of 1856 (265).  Thoreau describes this same mode of life in “Civil Disobedience” as like that of being “a counter friction to stop the machine” (231).  Its principle of action is troublesome, an obstruction to the illusion of the smooth functioning of social consensus.  “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually” (239).  The elementary act of civil disobedience act consists of the mere refusal to be absorbed entirely in the State.  Since too thorough an absorption into a government stands as a threat to individuality, one can be too close to the State to see it plain:  “Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it” (241).  Thoreau notes that he spent only a single night in jail for refusal to pay tax. This fact, like that of Thoreau’s continued proximity to his mother during his experiment living in the woods at Walden, is sometimes pointed out as if it called into question the seriousness of Thoreau’s commitments.  Much as the greatest benefit of living in the woods is the perceptual awakening that it affords, however, the more significant act of civil disobedience is the shift of perspective that comes with it.  Prison, Thoreau writes, afforded “a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it”; and “When I came out of prison, I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived” (238).  One sees from inside the walls of the town jail and from outside the law the totality of relations that constitute the law and hold it provisionally in place.

    It is a question for the present whether in insisting on the priority of the individual over the citizen, Thoreau neglects other equally valid (and today more pressing) relations and forms of collective political speech, personhood, and action — or whether indeed the “private man” who acts in accordance to the dictates of his own conscience is an impediment to the achievement of political ends that may be desirable to work towards today.  Behind these questions of course is the further one of whether and how far the individualist of the nineteenth-century America is adequate to the realities of twenty-first century political life.  One problem with importing Thoreau’s model of civil disobedience into contemporary political life is that the stakes for self-assertion may have become unclear in an age when individual voices are tirelessly asserted in various public fora.

    To his great credit Thoreau does not assume the preexistence of a common arena for meaningful political participation.  It is not enough to put a stake down and call any space (physical or virtual) a commons — as if, in an updated version of a Rousseauist fantasy, there were nothing more to a participatory democracy than the spontaneous consent of the governed to participate collectively therein, and to respect the rules of law (or the terms of service) that have been established for that place.  He perceives that a government worth the name must be the site of continual contest from within (if not also from without).  The commons is brought into being through periodic border raids upon it.  These interruptions to State power are motivated by crises of conscience from one among a minority who not only perceive things otherwise, but who speak and write of the things that they perceive.  Civil disobedience is an act that brings to visibility an existing relation of conflict between the interests of the State and those of the individual.  It is necessary to the State and to the formation of individuals for roughly the same reason:  as the integrity of the state is tested but also realized by those who break the laws of the state, the integrity of the individual is tested and ultimately asserted in acts of civil disobedience.  

    The “right healthful caustics” (Sidney) of civil disobedience may as Thoreau notes “convulse the body” of the State in the course of renewing it (232).  Some of the most impressively Shelleyan passages of Thoreau’s essay are dedicated to exploring the idea that civil disobedience introduces a necessary, if dangerous, element of the unpredictable into the (under normal circumstances all too regular) affairs of government and civic life.  One does not necessarily know the direction in which these actions tend; though principled and motivated by conscience, their effects cannot be known or calculated in advance.  “Action from principle, — the perception and the performance of right, — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with any thing which was” (231).  Civil disobedience tends in the direction of aliveness, where the presiding movement towards renewal may be the most important thing that can be said about it.  

May 12, 2013

Dedicated to my mother Georgeanne Jackson, public school teacher in SAD no. 22 in Maine.  


Citations from Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Owen Thomas (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966).