In celebration of Naief Yehya's new book Drone Visions: A Brief Cyberpunk History of Killing Machines, Kaylee Arca interviewed Yehya on cyberpunk, technology and inspiration. Buy a copy here.
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Naief Yehya: When cyberpunk appeared, it was perceived as an anarchic and liberating force. It was a mix of the technological and the biological, energized by the rebel spirit of punk music, a universe of hybrid beings capable of throwing the world off balance. It was an appropriation of technology by “the street,” imagined as an empowering strategy that consisted in taking technological tools from corporations and governments, improving them, using them for the common good and empowering the imagination. But eventually the trend was inverted and what had been retrofitted and redesigned to be used by the people was retaken and recycled by industry and the military. This applies mostly to software, but it happened all over the technological landscape. I believe that movies and other popular culture artifacts that belonged to that subgenre of science fiction became very relevant in the way we adopted new technologies. Cyberpunk made high tech sexy and brought it to the masses. Suddenly we were surrounded by innovative communication devices, cyborgs, computers, screens everywhere and all kinds of gadgets but also by weapons and killing machines capable, at least in theory, of choosing their targets.
|Drone Visions' back cover: Click to enlarge|
NY: I became really interested in missiles and this kind of weaponry during the first Gulf War. Especially, I found myself concerned and terrified by the missile-camera that the USA used against certain targets in Iraq. It was in part a propaganda campaign to prove the smartness of its bombs. These devices turned the war into a spectacle, entertainment pretending to be information. The idea of being able to see the path of the missile all the way to the point of impact and witness, in a flash, the destruction of the lenses, thecamera, the bomb and the building was a reminder of the pornographic image syntax:the obsession of showing the unshowable, a penetrating gaze that tries to reveal more and more, and of the money shot, the external sperm shot that validates the porn narrative.The war drone takes this logic a step further by becoming, in the imagination of politicians and military strategist, an all-seeing eye, an indefatigable, persistent, patient, Never-blinking spying device and precise enforcer. The use of this machine in the theatre of war has been portrayed as prodigious, infallible and a lifesaving resource for the military in a series of never-ending wars. I’m terrified and fascinated by these deadly machines and the way they have been normalized, standardized and accepted as the humanitarian option in war.
KA: Do you have experience with the weapons you discuss?
NY: No, just from my research. I don’t like weapons. I like studying them and their psychological, cultural, moral, economic, political impact.
|Page spread from Drone Visions--more below, all are large/high res clickable images|
Enormously. Since I discovered cyberpunk, my work shifted permanently. I received a degree in industrial engineering and have always been fascinated by machinery. So,when I found out that you could actually write about technology and think about The implications of our relationship to gadgets and machines, particularly intelligent machines,I knew I had found my calling. Since then, I have written about cyborgs, pornography, war, the internet and the media sphere from the point of view of how we engage with the technologies that made those phenomena possible. During the 90s these topics were considered unworthy by most of my colleagues, there were not literary enough, too niche and morbid. But now we live in a highly technological time and, in one way or another, we’re all immersed in a techno culture.
KA: How did you choose Mad Max, Alien, Blade Runner and The Terminator to examine?
I believe that those films are the canon of cyberpunk. Besides being extraordinary films that were ahead of their time, they were viewed as genre entertainment when in fact they were fascinating masterpieces that spoke about the human condition at a time of fundamental transition. Just like John Ford's westerns showed the transformation of society in a new world when the wild west “opened,” these movies reflected on the inevitable changes to the Human condition at a time when technology was redefining the boundaries of the biological and the mechanical, the evolved and the manufactured, and the appearance of cyberspace. All these films —which started before the massification of the internet, cell phones and the digitization of everything— have sequels, some even have prequels and reboots, and I believe these serials have been amazing at keeping track of the changes that our technologies and dreams of technology have brought. I try to prove in the book that even the lesser products from these franchises and films derived from them are revealing in many ways.
KA: How is Drone Visions different from your other published works?
The main difference is that Drone Visions was going to be a part of another book thatI have almost finished and which is a more straightforward history of the war drone.The part of that book devoted to the cultural history of the drone became too voluminous and eventually it became evident that it was a book in itself which gave birth to Drone Visions as an independent project. Technology changes quickly and continuously, making the research and writing process very challenging. And it was difficult to have access to military sources.
KA: What was your writing process for Drone Visions?
It took me a long time. I have written extensively about the cyberpunk canon. I wanted to write about how the technological dystopias in these films merged and the way that these ideas have entered the mainstream. I was particularly interested in understanding how some ideas in these films became part of our techno cultural zeitgeist, the most relevant one of those ideas being the notion of the killing robot or artificial intelligence playing the role of executioner.
KA: Do you think films and video games will continue to change future war technologies?
Definitely. In ways that we cannot even fathom at this time. It’s clear that drone Technology was heavily influenced by video games and films. Now they are unavoidably linked and, as the nature of digital entertainment evolves, its military counterpart will do the same.
KA: Do you think technology has created a cultural desensitization to violence? What is technology's role in desensitization?
Yes, in general, I think that is true. Digital entertainment has made violence extremely appealing, interactive and fun. The abundance of cameras makes it possible for everything to be recorded and eventually broadcasted, the beautiful and the atrocious alike. Special effects and imaging technologies allow for the creation of almost anything imaginable. We have been over exposed to all sorts of violence, brutality and extreme practices in every domain. There are very few things that can shock us now for a prolonged period. Nevertheless, there is a constant search for new technological thrills, it’s part of our nature and the way we are wired. The military drone offers a very special paradigm, by showing scenes happening in real time on the other side of the world as if they were right in front of the viewer. At the same time, these scenes could be imagined as unreal, scenarios of a video game. The viewer can perceive these human beings as playthings to be eliminated in some perverse game. At the same time, drone pilots and operators, in a way, become intimate with the people they spy on, following them for days or weeks, becoming familiar with their world, their everyday lives and, eventually, may receive the order to blow them to pieces. So, in a way, we are becoming more desensitized to violence but also our relationship with what we see on the screen is complex and unpredictable. By turning human hunting into a regular, daily nine to five job, made possible by this peculiar way of telecommuting to war zones and to “suspect hunting grounds” in peace zones, we are creating an unprecedented dilemma. Killing by remote viewing and digital representations is without any doubt one of the most extreme and desensitizing activities we can perform.
KA: What do you think are the most impactful changes on technologies caused by films and video games?
Just as many aesthetic choices in films like 2001: A Space Odysseyinfluenced space programs, and design in a great number of areas. Blade Runner and the rest of the sci-fi films I’ve written about have been a major influence in the minds of programmers, engineers, artists and designers who have created most of the gadgets that are part of our lives today. Nobody really imagined 30 years ago that everyone was going to have a powerful portable computer and an amazing communication and entertainment device in their pocket, or that we would become inseparable to our gadgets. It would be hard to find specific movies or games that were responsible for those huge changes in the way we use and relate to technologies. Killing human beings with joysticks is still a morbid irony difficult to accept.
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