8-2 Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​L​D​.​8​.​2.8| FishetalPDF

Drones Caught in the Net

Abstract | This short exper­i­men­tal essay reflects upon our video Points of Pres­ence. In pro­duc­ing the video we used unmanned aer­i­al drones to visu­al­ly and ver­ti­cal­ly exam­ine under­sea fibre-optic cables of the North Atlantic. We reflect upon how the drone’s fly­ing tech­nolo­gies allow pilots to cre­ative­ly engage with the atmos­pher­ic ele­ment. We argue that the drone’s opti­cal and object-avoid­ance tech­nolo­gies share sim­i­lar­i­ties with the mam­malian sens­es. In con­clud­ing, we exam­ine how drones and infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures reflect each oth­er as com­plex and imper­fect sys­tems designed to extend the human body and sens­es across geographies.

Drones empris­on­nés dans le filet

Résumé | Ce court essai expéri­men­tal se penche sur notre vidéo Points of Pres­ence. En pro­duisant la vidéo, nous avons util­isé des véhicules aériens sans pilote pour exam­in­er visuelle­ment et ver­ti­cale­ment les câbles de fibres optiques sous-marins de l'Atlantique Nord. Nous réfléchissons à la façon dont les tech­nolo­gies de nav­i­ga­tion du drone per­me­t­tent aux pilotes d’interagir de manière créa­tive avec l'aspect atmo­sphérique. Nous soutenons que les tech­nolo­gies optiques et d'évitement des objets du drone parta­gent des simil­i­tudes avec les sens des mam­mifères. En con­clu­sion, nous exam­inons com­ment les drones et les infra­struc­tures d'information se reflè­tent comme des sys­tèmes com­plex­es et impar­faits conçus pour pro­longer le corps humain et les sens à l’échelle de la planète.

Adam Fish | Lan­cast­er University

Bradley Gar­rett | Uni­ver­si­ty of Sydney

Oliv­er Case | Lan­cast­er University

Drones Caught in the Net: Piloting Above Information Infrastructure

This short exper­i­men­tal essay reflects upon our video Points of Pres­ence. The core pro­duc­tion strat­e­gy was to employ unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles – drones – to exam­ine under­sea fibre optic cables of the North Atlantic. We reflect upon how the drone’s aer­i­al capac­i­ties allow pilots to engage cre­ative­ly with the atmos­phere. We encounter sur­pris­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties between the drone’s opti­cal and object-avoid­ance tech­nolo­gies and oth­er non-human sen­si­bil­i­ties. This expe­ri­en­tial ori­en­ta­tion chal­lenges more util­i­tar­i­an drone meth­ods and pro­pos­es a more inti­mate rela­tion­ship between humans, drones, and the envi­ron­ment. In what fol­lows, we exam­ine how drones and infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures par­al­lel each oth­er. They are both com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems sit­u­at­ed in ele­men­tal forces and designed to extend the human body and sens­es across geographies.


I. CANTAT-3 Tjørnuvík, Faroe Island

What is com­mon­ly called envi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness could be described as sub­ter­ranean con­scious­ness - the aware­ness that we are in a very real sense not liv­ing on the earth but inside of it.”
-Ros­alind Williams (213)

The video above is an exper­i­ment in appre­hend­ing infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures from a unique per­spec­tive using cam­era-equipped unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles or drones. This view from the air is nov­el not only because the drone’s motil­i­ty ren­ders pre­vi­ous­ly un-sensed atmos­pher­ic vol­umes but also because we are able to move through them with extreme flex­i­bil­i­ty. We chose to inhab­it this par­tic­u­lar vol­ume in order to trace a sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between land­ing sta­tions and data cen­tres in the North Atlantic, stretch­ing from Ice­land to the Unit­ed King­dom and fol­low­ing the under­sea cables CANTAT-3, DANICE, and FARICE-1. Though these cables extend in myr­i­ad direc­tions, we are inter­est­ed in the cables that con­nect Ice­land and the Faroe, Shet­land, and Orkney islands, because of their unique geo­graph­i­cal loca­tions as com­mu­ni­ca­tion arch­i­pel­ago and the inter­con­nect­ed geopo­lit­i­cal con­no­ta­tions that arise from their ter­res­tri­al “land­ing sites”—also known as “points of pres­ence” (PoPs) in the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions indus­try. Yet the land­ing sites, like the cables, reveal lit­tle about their func­tion as they pro­vide no begin­nings nor end­ings but instead act as medi­at­ing nodes in a net of evolv­ing tech­nolo­gies. They trans­mit the hopes, dreams, and fears of mil­lions of peo­ple and do so impar­tial­ly along­side a child’s home­work or a president’s tweet. As drone pilots explor­ing these cables and the beach­es that har­bor them, we encounter local his­to­ries embed­ded in the envi­ron­ment, a cache of sto­ries medi­at­ed by geo­graph­ic prox­im­i­ty to this infra­struc­ture. Sur­round­ed by data, sto­ries, and nar­ra­tives trav­el­ling at light-speed under the Earth and beneath the sea, we linger in the atmos­phere on quad­copter props—navigating a dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion infrastructure—and scru­ti­nize the (often imag­ined) mate­ri­al­i­ty of the media assem­blage. Fram­ing one infra­struc­ture with­in anoth­er, we pull back and pass over the vol­ume con­tain­ing the cables in an attempt to ren­der it, trac­ing and etch­ing the infor­ma­tion infra­struc­ture with move­ment. In the process, we encounter par­al­lel sense regimes in ani­mals, drones, and cables.

A clutch of inter­ven­tions have sought to describe the mate­ri­al­i­ty of glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion infra­struc­tures. For instance, as Stephen Gra­ham out­lines in the intro­duc­tion to Dis­rupt­ed Cities: When Infra­struc­tures Fail, infra­struc­tures have been framed as “com­plex assem­blages that bring togeth­er all man­ner of human, non-human and nat­ur­al agents into a mul­ti­tude of con­tin­u­ous liaisons” (11). Through the lens of polit­i­cal ecol­o­gy, Matthew Gandy argues that these net­works blend the social, the tech­ni­cal, and the nat­ur­al through process­es of cybor­giza­tion. The politi­ciza­tion of infrastructure—thinking about ques­tions of access and sup­ply as well as frailty and security—have chal­lenged ten­den­cies to rel­e­gate “infra­struc­tures to an apo­lit­i­cal con­text or back­drop, as not note­wor­thy of atten­tion, too hid­den from view” (McFar­lane and Ruther­ford 364). Anthro­pol­o­gists have worked towards an ontol­ogy of infra­struc­ture, sug­gest­ing that infra­struc­tures are “mat­ter that enable the move­ment of oth­er mat­ter; they are both things and the rela­tion between things” (Larkin 329). This is where the rev­e­la­tion of infra­struc­ture shocks, when their mute oper­a­tions take shape. Mun­dane yet allur­ing, data pack­ets mov­ing through a fibre-optic cable, for instance, play this mys­te­ri­ous dou­ble game of twin­ning the banal and the awe-inspiring.

Inter­est in infra­struc­tures is by no means monop­o­lized by researchers. As Shan­non Mat­tern writes, in the desire to devel­op infra­struc­tur­al tax­onomies, “a new wave of Cloud explor­ers are push­ing the lim­its of the field and the work they do in it—from drone spot­ting to algo­rithm foren­sics to glob­al infra­struc­ture expe­di­tions” (Mat­tern np). Seek­ing to elu­ci­date the spa­tial arrange­ment of com­mu­ni­ca­tion nodes with ref­er­ence to their oft-over­looked geog­ra­phy, fragili­ty, and tem­po­ral­i­ty, these inves­ti­ga­tions can be renewed and reworked through the use of atmos­pher­ic plat­forms such as drones. By ascend­ing into the atmos­phere and allow­ing us to sense celes­tial space remote­ly, drones offer van­tage points that are not only nov­el for the pur­pos­es of trac­ing and record­ing but also chal­lenge our under­stand­ing of how phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal bound­aries are com­pli­cat­ed by emerg­ing assem­blages of bod­ies, tech­nolo­gies, and spaces. The drone, a data-col­lect­ing and trans­mit­ting device, relies on its own infra­struc­ture to oper­ate. Drone pilot­ing is there­fore a method­ol­o­gy for under­stand­ing cable net­work ontolo­gies in a par­al­lel cir­cuit­ry. It is from this stand­point, or rather hov­er-point, that we begin our jour­ney into a new­ly recon­fig­ured Earth-computer.

Although the drone as an object has a lin­eage aligned with visu­al and phys­i­cal vio­lence, artic­u­lat­ed by schol­ars such as Derek Gre­go­ry, Ian Shaw, and Lucy Such­man, the new tech­nol­o­gy also enables us to see and imag­ine dif­fer­ent­ly. Drones have the capac­i­ty to bring antipo­dal, alien, under­rep­re­sent­ed, incon­gru­ous, and inscrutable spaces into a dia­logue with an audi­ence. Fly­ing drones around the PoPs fur­ther accen­tu­ates the par­al­lels between the two objects, as infor­ma­tion sys­tems in the air and infor­ma­tion sys­tems under the sea. This par­al­leli­ty refers both to the move­ment of the objects and to a trans­fer­abil­i­ty of a spec­u­la­tive geo­graph­ic con­scious­ness where the scal­a­bil­i­ty of the­o­ry and exper­i­ment is con­front­ed by dif­fer­ent assem­blages. Econ­o­mist Ver­non Smith explains par­al­leli­ty by dis­cussing how lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­ments with gas­es gave sci­en­tists pur­chase on under­stand­ing the atmos­pher­ic con­sti­tu­tion of celes­tial bod­ies (Smith 936). The mir­ror­ing of bod­ies by oth­er bod­ies does not “reveal” those bod­ies as much as it medi­ates our aware­ness of them through a repeat­ed cou­pling and uncou­pling of the assem­blage that forms the parallelism.

Ours is a rel­a­tive par­al­lelism, fol­low­ing recent work that uses the term to the­o­rize exper­i­men­tal method­olo­gies. Drone pilot­ing over North Atlantic infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures enables us, through our machines, to see and sense in ways that tra­di­tion­al, ter­res­tri­al approach­es unavoid­ably omit. In devel­op­ing this process, we found our­selves, our tools, and our tech­niques trans­form­ing in tan­dem with the objects and envi­ron­ments we sought to inter­ro­gate. Drone mobil­i­ty, vis­i­bil­i­ty, and fal­li­bil­i­ty allowed us, how­ev­er humbly, to move and see in par­al­lel along­side the ani­mals, land­scapes, and infra­struc­tures encoun­tered on our jour­ney. A reflec­tion takes place, both on the sub­jec­tive and the inter­sub­jec­tive lev­el, but we do not envi­sion a mir­rored rela­tion­ship between the drone and the net­worked object under inves­ti­ga­tion, nor between the videos and the envi­rons depict­ed (Barad). Rather, par­al­leli­ty for us refers to how drone method­olo­gies sit­u­ate us and our drones in an index­i­cal rela­tion­ship with our sub­jects and envi­ron­ments. The “reflec­tive” sur­faces trans­mit­ted by the drone are not repli­ca­tions or accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions but rather dis­tort­ed in-situ per­for­mances of the func­tion of the observed object.

Our exper­i­ments with pilot­ing above infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures sug­gests a sen­so­r­i­al par­al­leli­ty with a range of phe­nom­e­na includ­ing, strange­ly enough, local Indige­nous hunt­ing tech­niques as well as the under­sea fibre-optic cables. By enter­ing the ele­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly air and water, and trac­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion infra­struc­tures that run along­side and through these places, it is appar­ent that the ele­men­tal is an infrastructure—the mat­ter facil­i­tat­ing mat­ter allud­ed to above—and that there are more porous bound­aries between the cable and the sea as well as the drones’ sens­es and our human sens­es (McCor­ma­ck). Empha­siz­ing the ele­men­tal and his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ities that link the mate­r­i­al and imma­te­r­i­al, atmos­pher­ic and ter­res­tri­al, and the tech­no­log­i­cal and bio­log­i­cal, thus mit­i­gates per­ceived dualities.

As we cruise the PoPs, straf­ing them with the cyclops’ cam­era-eye, the drone asserts its pres­ence, which also affects us as researchers, since we sense through the machine. The vol­u­met­ric sen­si­bil­i­ty enabled by the drone sit­u­ates the view­er at an atmos­pher­ic stratig­ra­phy between satel­lite views and the human field of vision. We can imag­ine “the cloud” from here as a rel­a­tive­ly clear strati­graph­ic domain of glob­al con­nec­tiv­i­ty trenched into the geo­log­i­cal and archae­o­log­i­cal matrix; the two ideas dove­tail, though nei­ther is strict­ly revealed. Pilot­ing chal­lenges vision. Often the drone flies at such a dis­tance that it can no longer be seen by the ground-lev­el human eye. Instead of look­ing at the hov­er­ing craft, referred to as “line of sight” flight, the pilot scru­ti­nizes video on a tablet sutured to a radio con­troller or through first-per­son-view gog­gles, thus sens­ing via the drone’s “pay­loads” of sonar, 4K, and infrared video, GPS, and altime­ter. The drone, lev­i­tat­ing in the atmos­phere, may in fact be relay­ing sen­so­r­i­al data from hun­dreds of metres away. This would be an exis­ten­tial­ly dis­con­cert­ing expe­ri­ence were it not for the immer­sive capac­i­ties of the air­craft, remote con­troller, trans­mit­ting WiFi, and tablet inter­face. The inter­ac­tion with the drone, via these tools work­ing in con­cert, begins to con­di­tion not just how the human body acts with the drone but also how the body imag­ines one can act. In her ethno­graph­ic work with the NASA Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­to­ry Mars Rover team, Janet Verte­si writes that the “body work involved in sim­u­la­tion, and the embod­ied imag­i­na­tion that prac­ti­tion­ers must gain about their objects of study as part of their train­ing” (Verte­si 398) also retrains the body of the human (we might also look here to the post-phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy of Don Idhe or James Ash who refers to human-tech­nol­o­gy inter­faces as “envelopes”). This con­cept clear­ly demon­strat­ed than in the now all-too-ubiq­ui­tous swip­ing ges­ture of the touch­screen that chil­dren attempt to use on glossy “dumb” sur­faces they encounter (Mowlabo­cus).

Mov­ing past the nov­el­ty of drone pilot­ing to see whether it har­bors poten­tial for think­ing dif­fer­ent­ly is key. What does the aer­i­al per­spec­tive and its intrin­sic mobil­i­ty real­ly show us? Does it have the poten­tial to reveal the Janus-faced nature of the tech­nol­o­gy (Chamay­ou), to ground the “cloud” (Starosiel­s­ki), to imag­i­na­tive­ly dive under the waves of the sea as we move with the cable (Wright)? Or does it sim­ply skim across the mar­itime and ter­res­tri­al sur­faces, reveal­ing lit­tle more than the car­to­graph­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion we used to locate the site? (Fig­ure 1).

Fig­ure 1. Car­to­graph­ic depic­tion of CANTAT-3, Faroe Islands in the cen­ter of map

Among oth­er sites, the video above exam­ines the under­sea inter­net cable CANTAT-3, which con­nects the PoPs of Vest­man­naey­jar, Ice­land and Tjør­nu­vík, Faroe Islands. The edit, which includes some lim­it­ed archival layering—the place-based speech, sound, his­to­ry, and labour that revolve around the object—is spa­tial­ly ordered but tem­po­ral­ly mot­ley, much like the infor­ma­tion is depicts. The video thus oper­ates at a range of reg­is­ters, rework­ing geo­graph­i­cal and cul­tur­al imag­i­na­tions. The vol­u­met­ric sen­si­bil­i­ty of the drone as a remote-sens­ing infra­struc­ture, from which lens­es and sen­sors focus, expos­es the eco­log­i­cal sit­u­at­ed­ness of the infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures stretch­ing between the geo­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion of Vest­man­naey­jar in Ice­land to the envi­ron­men­tal expan­sive­ness of Tjør­nu­vík in the Faroe Islands. Tjør­nu­vík has a per­ma­nent pop­u­la­tion of only 64 human habi­tants, yet it has cul­tur­al salien­cy as more than just a land­ing site for an inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion cable. The Færøsk Antholo­gi (Ham­mer­shaimb) describes how, once upon a time, the giants in Ice­land decid­ed that they want­ed to obtain the Faroe Islands. A giant and a witch were sent there to retrieve the frag­ment­ed land­mass. The witch tied a rope to Eiðiskol­lur Moun­tain and gave it to the giant to pull towards Ice­land. As he did so, the resis­tant land­form split. In their labours, the giant and the witch failed to notice the sun ris­ing and they were both turned into stone at the mouth of the fjord, where they still stand as a warn­ing to those who would threat­en the sov­er­eign­ty of the Faroes.

Fig­ure 2. The lay­ing of the CANTAT-3 in front of the witch and the giant

In the shade of a Faroese fish­ing hut, we stared at the tablet, direct­ing the path of the drone with a del­i­cate nudg­ing of the joy­stick along the tra­jec­to­ry of the cable stretch­ing out to sea. The nov­el­ty of this method was quick­ly sub­sumed by the loca­tive­ness of the act of flight. This prompt­ed archival research and rumi­na­tion in an effort to depict the con­ver­gence of human, mam­malian, and tech­no­log­i­cal sens­es at play on the beach at Tjør­nu­vík. The sto­ries we heard here about the lay­ing of the cable were a knot­ty cul­tur­al stratig­ra­phy of place par­al­lel­ing the com­pli­ca­tions we encoun­tered through flight. Even those images (cap­tured in 4k res­o­lu­tion no less) were archival, for as Rebec­ca Sol­nit writes in Riv­er of Shad­ows, pho­tog­ra­phy may be history’s most para­dox­i­cal inven­tion since each image pro­duced is already the past (Sol­nit). This is espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant in the case of the con­sumer drone, a tech­nol­o­gy that from its incep­tion has been sub­ject­ed to prof­itable planned obso­les­cence. The tem­porar­i­ly extend­ed per­cep­tion enabled by the drone, while open­ing out new per­spec­tives, also fur­thers the dis­place­ment of space and mem­o­ry that is trig­gered by pho­tog­ra­phy. In con­trast to record­ed inti­ma­cies at ground lev­el, in the air our mem­o­ry and expe­ri­ences of the Earth becomes detached and dif­fer­ent­ly tan­gi­ble. This may lead us into unknown places with a new sense of shared familiarity.

The black basaltic sand in Tjør­nu­vík is a site for the annu­al grindadráp, where pods of pilot whales (grind) are stam­ped­ed to land and killed for food. The beach is ide­al for herd­ing pods because of its prox­im­i­ty to the open sea where the grind ambu­late and because of its sandy shore, which absorbs the sonar of the whales instead of bounc­ing it back and inform­ing the whales of the shore’s loca­tion. The result is that they do not sense the shore and thus swim into vil­lagers, where lances are stuffed into blow­holes, lac­er­at­ing spines and pro­vid­ing ample cetacean meat for the dark win­ter months. Like the whales, our drone has sonar, which feeds back infor­ma­tion about its prox­im­i­ty to the shore, telling it to rise autonomous­ly from sur­faces to avoid fatal col­li­sion. The sonar kicks in sev­er­al times dur­ing the video­ing at Tjør­nu­vík and does indeed pre­vent us from crashing—unlike the pre­vi­ous three drones which lacked this pay­load and all met their end slam­ming into trees, mud embank­ments, and lava out­crops. Drone and whale sonar is an imper­fect adaptation.

Watch­ing archival video after our depar­ture, we see that had we staged a mod­est exca­va­tion below the black beach we would have indeed “found” the cloud. Under the sand anoth­er form of sens­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing, light pul­sat­ing in data pack­ets, coursed through the fibre-optic cable. These pen­cil-lead-thin cables are prone to fail­ure; they break because of errant anchors, shark bites, and ill-plot­ted dig­ging. When break­age occurs, elec­trons are absorbed into the salt water, nev­er arriv­ing to their sender, like a 19th-cen­tu­ry postal let­ter on a sunken steam­er. Yet the ele­ments here act as bridges as much as bar­ri­ers. Infor­ma­tion trav­els by using the ele­ments as con­duc­tors and insu­la­tion (Starosiel­s­ki 19). The bound­ary between the infra­struc­tur­al and ele­men­tal can­not be clear­ly cleaved along human/nonhuman lines.

Pilot­ing a drone in this location—a site of great aes­thet­ic beau­ty that many also con­sid­er a locus of brutality—slots us and the drone into a his­tor­i­cal stratig­ra­phy of place, sand, sea, and sonar. The drone becomes a “bound­ary object” (Star) where sen­so­r­i­al res­o­nances meld the com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems of machine and mam­mal. The data being relayed to us on our sutured touch-screen trans­fers more-than-rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al infor­ma­tion (Lorimer). It relays impor­tant sig­nals and bridges the gap between ani­mal and tech­no­log­i­cal ontolo­gies at the locus of ethno­graph­ic and phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, in sur­veil­lance activ­i­ties, tech­nol­o­gy (whether archi­tec­tures or preda­tor drone flights) allows those in pow­er to watch those with­out the means to avoid sur­veil­lance. More recent­ly, the pop­u­lar­iza­tion of drone tech­nol­o­gy allows for new forms of sousveil­lance, where the watched watch the watch­ers. This was evi­dent, for instance, at the 2016 Stand­ing Rock protests in South Dako­ta, USA, where pro­test­ers used drones to track police move­ments. Yet one more step removed here, the drone, expe­ri­enced through the tablet, allows us to inhab­it two posi­tions at once, watch­ing our­selves as the watch­ers, thus prompt­ing two par­al­lel phe­nom­e­nolo­gies of place, one dis­placed through the drone by sen­so­r­i­al exten­sion and one dis­placed through the tablet because of vir­tu­al simulation.

In oth­er words, the drone offers a method­ol­o­gy which both pars­es and mul­ti­plies ver­ti­cal strati­gra­phies. The result of “see­ing” (or more accu­rate­ly sens­ing) from here may be that stratig­ra­phy becom­ing more com­pli­cat­ed. Every lift-off is an “open­ing” or a renew­al of the attempt to dif­fer­en­ti­ate tem­po­ral lay­ers from and with­in the aer­i­al atmos­phere. As we saw, the effi­ca­cy of drone and whale sonar is dis­rupt­ed by the sonar absorbent sand. We are right to be ner­vous, giv­en that the tech­nol­o­gy is based on ani­mal mim­ic­ry. These machines bring with them their own sets of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties repro­duced from the bio­log­i­cal for the tech­no­log­i­cal. Yet at some point the machines exceed the lim­its of the bio­log­i­cal organ­ism and a spec­u­la­tive evo­lu­tion kicks in, where the machines sense in ways bod­ies can­not and thus offer an indi­ca­tion of what bod­ies might one day do. In this sense, fly­ing the drone is clear­ly a kind of extra-sen­so­r­i­al expe­ri­ence in which we are assist­ed in sens­ing by tech­nolo­gies. This harkens back to the inter­tex­tu­al roots of cin­e­ma, as when Dzi­ga Ver­tov buried cam­eras in rail­road tracks to cap­ture trains dri­ving over them, or filmed the process of mak­ing a film only to replay that footage in a the­atre where the audi­ence was also being filmed. Like­wise, we are obsessed not by what the tech­nol­o­gy does, but in how it might change the way we think, if we allow it to. This is the nature of this meta-method­olog­i­cal experiment.

Ulti­mate­ly, posi­tion­ing the drone into the sen­so­r­i­al assemblage—where the tech­no­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus enables us to inhab­it parts of space oth­er­wise inaccessible—partially melds us into the stratig­ra­phy of place where we are attuned to the PoPs but also more con­scious of how the cable cre­ates a space of mobil­i­ty and flow as the drone does. As we fly peo­ple talk to us, some­times ini­tial­ly out of won­der or out­rage; trac­ing the con­nec­tions across moments trig­gers con­ver­sa­tions, as peo­ple offer up unso­licit­ed mem­o­ries and archives. In the process, the cable itself gets dredged up through a refrain when the nov­el­ty of the flight rein­vig­o­rates an inter­est in places, myth, sto­ry, and memory—and how these things flow across space.

Rather than a mere method­olog­i­cal nov­el­ty, the new tech­nol­o­gy caus­es us to return to the old tech­nol­o­gy, con­form­ing to Mar­shall McLuhan’s the­o­ry of the tetrad of media effects, an archae­o­log­i­cal cycle of enhance­ment, death, and res­ur­rec­tion that occurs with the devel­op­ment of each new tech­nol­o­gy (McLuhan and McLuhan). The spa­tial and tem­po­ral mobil­i­ty invoked by pilot­ing uncov­ers a stratig­ra­phy in the con­text of the vol­u­met­ric which runs in par­al­lel or, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guat­tari put it, along hor­i­zon­tal lines (Deleuze and Guat­tari). The inclu­sion of the atmos­pher­ic gaze into future ethno­gra­phies, we argue, may also serve to iden­ti­fy undis­cov­ered bal­ance-points between social, geo­graph­ic, and tech­ni­cal circuits—a climate’s view of the Earth’s anthro­pocen­tric arrhythmia.

When we began this project, we were inspired by those schol­ars and artists who encour­aged us to improve our infra­struc­tur­al lit­er­a­cy through vis­it­ing, see­ing, and visu­al­ly doc­u­ment­ing the ter­rain-based sys­tems of com­mu­ni­ca­tion around us. In so doing, it is hoped, cit­i­zens will become empow­ered to under­stand how infra­struc­ture works (Gra­ham and Mar­vin), to assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for gov­er­nance of these sys­tems (Mat­tern), or, at the least, to take more inter­est in how indi­vid­u­als, gov­ern­ments, and cor­po­ra­tions build and main­tain these sys­tems (Gar­rett). This shift in atten­tion rais­es impor­tant social, cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic, and even geopo­lit­i­cal ques­tions. An impor­tant ques­tion not exam­ined in this brief essay is the rela­tion­ship between see­ing or sens­ing the actu­al infor­ma­tion infra­struc­ture and the vir­tu­al and poten­tial­ly mali­cious forces that use these sys­tems, such as big-data crunch­ers, high-fre­quen­cy traders, per­son­al­iza­tion pro­gram­mers, drone com­man­ders, and mobile-mast-enabled pilot-whale fish­er­men. Can par­al­leli­ty bridge the actu­al and the vir­tu­al, the prag­mat­i­cal­ly wicked and the sym­bol­i­cal­ly cir­cum­stan­tial? In this video and essay we have reflect­ed upon how socio-tech­ni­cal and mam­malian sys­tems of com­mu­ni­ca­tion run par­al­lel to each oth­er. This ten­u­ous the­o­ry is based on exper­i­ments with drones, infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures, and human and non-human sens­es and sens­ing. This realm of tri­al and error is a call to return to the field, to fold our­selves back in the var­ie­gat­ed vol­umes of place.


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