Adam Smith

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.