21/79: Drones, part 1

The computerized battleground — the real one, unlike computer games, the one where real people really die — is not a new idea. I encountered an early developmental version, lacking fine details but unmistakable, forty years ago.

It was a short-lived encounter, but a few strong images remain clear in my mind today. This, roughly, is how it came about.

A friend who ran a small but prosperous ad agency asked me to write some copy for him him. One of his clients was a research facility which contracted to the Defense Department on ideas and projects related to planes and reconnaissance. Battlefield intelligence. Spying from the air, not to put any finer than necessary a point on it.

My friend got cleared to work for this company, and he called me to help with his first big project, apparently some sort of pitch to the Defense Department. I visited the facility and had a preliminary tour of the project, which clearly established it as
a forerunner of today’s aerial intelligence procedures.

  • . . I never got to work on the project. My client — an old friend, in fact — knew I spent several years in Army intelligence, and assumed I’d easily be cleared for the work.
    . . Wrong.
    . . He called me the next day, upset and confused. The CEO of the company told him not to allow me to work on the project, to visit the facility again, to hear any information about the project, and preferably not to work at all with my client/friend again.
    . . He was puzzled. I was not. I had, a few years earlier, taken part in several demonstrations against the Viet Nam war.

What I saw, when I took that tour, was a large room tricked out to resemble a war room. A modern war room. People sitting in front of screens; on the screens, ragged yet coherent images of countryside somewhere, hills and dirt roads and buildings in the distance. What we saw, our guide assured us, was an “almost real-time” image, periodically updated by information “from the field.” I thought at the time the operator at the screen was getting information from ground observers; later, I realized that aerial observations — whether real or simulated — lay at the heart of the project, and were somehow being incorporated into the images on the screen.

It was not a battlefield, or a combat situation of any kind, so far as I could tell, but a remote rural setting, where these observers were tracking the events of ordinary life. Practice for tracking the events of extraordinary life.

It was, in fact, a stepping-stone toward the robot warfare we know today. Drones. (I note that armed forces right now recruit more drone pilots — people who sit in a truck or a bunker or an office rather than a plane — than real “flying” pilots.)

For a look at how and where drones are being used — and to what end — look at Glenn Greenwald, whose commentary has moved from Salon to The Guardian.


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