How do drone technologies imagine an automated public sphere? This talk analyzes early experiments with drone aircraft to show how automation and machine autonomy are predicated on the paradox of unmanning: pilotless planes are defined by the "man" the technology claims to negate. This is highlighted in the ways race and colonialism are enmeshed with early drone experiments. I detail these through two archives: the autobiography of an American drone pilot from World War II, self-published with the title "American Kamikaze" in 1984, and the scrapbook from a photographic unit for Operation Crossroads, which tested drones for aerial filming during nuclear weapons tests in 1946. The "superiority" of the drone in World War II was imagined against the "inhumanity" of the Japanese military and the removal of Marshall Islanders from Bikini Atoll. These accounts position the "evolution" of early drone technology in relation to the "kamikaze" or "savage." That neither drone system functioned did little to uncouple its supposed technological advantage from the ascendancy America claimed in the Pacific. These early experiments lead to a reconsideration of contemporary drone use, indicating how targeted killing continues to conflate and overlay technological advances with moral superiority and political legitimacy. By emphasizing how unmanning is defined by a particular ideal of "man," I rethink the drone as an expression of global inequalities that contemporary automation reflects and exacerbates. I argue that a closer engagement with the human actions that make drone warfare can challenge and transform the myth of a machine-like world that unmanning upholds.
Katherine Chandler is an assistant professor of Culture and Politics in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Her research studies how technology and media create infrastructures that reinforce, challenge and transform the nation-state and a global public. She uses theories and methods from science and technology studies, media theory, geography, political theory and art practice. Her first book, Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare, was published in 2020 by Rutgers University Press.