smart cities and drone warfare: a shared visuality?

Geographer Derek Gregory was in Cambridge recently, delivering the Clare Hall (that’s a college, not a person) Tanner lectures.  Called ‘Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war’, the two lectures were fantastic, a forensic account of the histories and geographies of drone warfare delivered with panache and rich visuals.  (Derek blogs about his work here.)


There were also three panellists responding to his lectures, journalist Chris Woods (check out his Airwars site), philosopher Gregoire Chamayou (author of Drone Theory) and legal scholar Jochen von Bernstorff, all also excellent.  Videos of both Derek’s lectures and their responses can be found here.

The first point to make – not a trivial one – is that at what, as the chair pointed out is one of the most prestigious lectures to be invited to deliver (at least according to Wikipedia), everybody without exception on the platform was a man.  And not only that, in the discussion time with the audience, the first 45 minutes were filled with men asking questions.  I was waving my hand NEXT TO THE WOMAN WITH THE MICROPHONE and the chair still contrived to avoid asking me to speak.  Finally, Chris Woods said he’d like to hear about drones from someone who wasn’t a man (thankyou, Chris) and I got to have my say.

So, what did I want to say?  Here’s an expanded version.

Well, Derek’s was a rich and nuanced account of drone warfare, embedding it in the historical geographies of aerial warfare more broadly.  One of Gregoire’s contributions was to say that there were also other contexts for understanding drones, not least the history of ‘counter-terrorism’, from urban police forces to colonial counter-insurgency operations.  But there is another context that kept occurring to me as Derek spoke: smart cities.

The link between drone warfare and smart cities isn’t that obvious on the face of it, but bear with me.  One of the reasons that drone warfare is increasingly acceptable to the states and organisations that conduct is that, as Derek described, it is embedded in a very specific set of spatialities, temporalities, visualities and subjectivities – and I would argue that many of those are shared with, or are at least very similar to, the rhetoric and practice of both drone warfare and smart cities.  Here’s a list of some of those similarities:

1 advocates of both smart cities and drone warfare share an absence of historical narrative so that their technologies can be seen as new, modern, better and more desirable.  (Which of course conveniently ignores various histories of failure, imprecision, rejection and unreliability.)

2 drone warfare and smart cities both claim to remove human actors from their practices.  This is often achieved via the generation of data (both smart cities and drone warfare convert (some) people into geolocated data in order to track them), and the execution of decisions on the basis of data.  There is thus a parallel between war being conducted by unmanned machines (drones) and smart cities being governed by databases and algorithms.

3 drone warfare and (many) smart cities are both managed through remarkably similar-looking command-and-control centres.

4 like drone warfare, smart cities rely on an elaborate cartographic and figurative visualisation in which the aerial view is central – and this appears in many of those command-and-control centres’ screens.

5 both are heavily masculinised fields of practice.  Derek is very good on this in the first lecture in relation to drones, and I’ve blogged previously about the dominance of men in smart policy, product design and marketing.  Derek also spoke at length about the ways in which drone warfare’s development was and is intimately bound up with (post)colonial power, and Gregoire underlined this too.

6 both smart cities and drone warfare are often resisted by the claim that they ‘dehumanise’ urbanism and war respectively (see point 2  above).  In drone warfare, not only are the victims of bombs delivered by drone rendered less-than-human (usually by being labelled ‘terrorists’ before being converted into geolocated data), but it is also argued that the men and women who control the drones are estranged and alienated by their work.  In smart cities, critics also complain that people are ‘reduced’ to data and that sentience is given to machines rather than people.  One of the things I found most useful in Derek’s lectures was the way he resisted this rhetoric by ‘peopling’ both the drones – which require a massive human as well as technical infrastructure to run – as well as their victims – as human agents embedded in complex societies.  Critics of smart cities tend to position the people/communities/inhabitants of cities against smart governance/corporations, as if the latter too aren’t run by people – which has various critical and theoretical ramifications, not all of which are helpful, I think.

Now clearly smart cities are not similar to drone warfare in the very fundamental sense that smart city tech is not designed to kill people.  And all those parallels that I have nonetheless proposed need nuancing of course.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting to speculate on what drives those similarities.  The patriarchal and racist “god-trick” of seeing everything from nowhere, dissected by Donna Haraway many years ago?  A deeply masculinist coding culture embedded in software corporations?  Nigel Thrift’s (2011) neoliberal, affective, “security-entertainment complex”?   A resilient scopic regime of surveillance, of the sort described by Nicholas Mirzoeff (2015)?

Whatever the answer, it’s a question that needs a lot more interrogation I think.  And in relation to smart cities, it’s one which won’t entirely be address using the current critical theoretical tools of data ownership and participatory design…


Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5–26.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. How To See The World. London: Pelican Books, 2015.






2 thoughts on “smart cities and drone warfare: a shared visuality?

  1. Pingback: Gillian Rose on the shared visual imagination of drones / smart cities – great post | Sam Kinsley

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