Most analysis of drone technology from libertarian futurists these days is pretty pessimistic. They’re generally treated as part of a larger techno-fascist scenario, like the U.S. global hegemony (enforced by orbital lasers and remote-controlled UN teletroopers) depicted in Ken Macleod’s Fall Revolution novels
That’s an understandable temptation. After all, drones (combined with mobile operations like the assassination of bin Laden in May 2011) seem to have given the United States an unprecedented ability to take out the leadership and many of the rank-and-file of networked resistance movements like al Qaeda, far more cheaply than the old model of counter-insurgency warfare.
Extrapolating from this, it’s not hard to imagine the United States government, as a full-blown techno-fascist regime fighting to stave off the collapse of corporate power in a few years, using drones and remote-controlled soldiers to shut down web server factories producing knockoffs of GE’s patented goods, etc., or just flat-out assassinate political dissidents based on wiretaps from Ft. Meade.
Even John Robb, my favorite writer on networked resistance and asymmetric warfare, seems to take a dark view of the long-term effect of drones. The main advantage of his resilient communities, as he sees them, is that they’re too small, decentralized and hardened to present high-profile targets to states in their death throes.
But that’s far too pessimistic an assessment, in my opinion. The apparent spectacular successes of drone warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen are actually just early adopter advantages accruing to the first powerful states to put drones to use. This says absolutely nothing about the overall effect of drone technology as we move down the cost curve — any more than we could have predicted the institutional effects of cybernetics and the Internet based on the enormous vacuum tube mainframe computers of the late 1940s.
It’s a fair guess that increasingly sophisticated, autonomous hunter-killer drones will be governed by an exponential rate of cost reduction comparable to that described in Moore’s Law. In a few years time, we can expect remote-controlled or autonomous armed drones available as open-source, off-the-shelf technology that networked resistance movements can churn out with cheap tabletop CNC machines in their own garage factories.
When that happens, and the “World’s Sole Remaining Superpower” loses its early-adopter advantage, drone technology will work to the advantage of the side with the most decentralized, distributed organizational infrastructure, and the most widely dispersed and hardened end-points. And it will disproportionately hurt the side with the most centralized, hierarchical form of organization and the most concentrated target profile. Anyone want to venture a guess as to which respective sides fit those descriptions?
Imagine, if you will, a world in which drones are cheap and widely available. Then stop and think about the target profile of the Empire and the corporate interests it serves. Imagine how easy it would be to get targeting information on the homes, churches and country clubs of the senior management and directors of the aerospace companies that make American drones. The Boardrooms and C-Suites themselves. The factories. The whole South Asian chain of command, from CINC CENTCOM down to battalion and flight headquarters. The logistical tail of the drones, including the control centers at every airbase from which drones are staged. Begin to get the picture?
Even as it is, the current American advantage in drones is just an outlier in the general trend toward cheap area-denial technologies (carrier-killing Sunburn missiles, mines, etc.). In fact the panic in U.S. ruling circles is so extreme that the latest U.S. Defense Guidance document was centered on the need to prevent the United States losing its regional power projection capabilities to such technologies — the 21st century equivalent of the most powerful army in the world being defeated by a guerrilla army using punji sticks and a bicycle-borne logistical tail.
In every conceivable way — agility, resilience, feedback/reaction loop — the emerging networked successor society runs circles around the old hierarchical corporate and state dinosaurs it’s replacing. As I’ve said many times, the twentieth century was the age of the large, hierarchical institution. By the end of the 21st, there won’t be enough left of them to bury.