Empire in an age of robots and drones

Lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow

On July 7, 2016, police forces in Dallas attached a small explosive device to a robot and sent it to kill Micah Johnson, the gunman who shot five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally. Dallas Police Chief David Brown defended the lethal action, insisting, “We saw no other option than to use our bomb robot . . . Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

The remote-killing was the first of its kind on U.S. soil, and generated intense debate about the ethics of using robots to destroy humans. Did Johnson pose an imminent threat at the moment of explosion? What about due process? And when should a robot perform an exceptional act of state violence? These questions mirrored established concerns about drone warfare. For more than a decade, the U.S. military and intelligence communities have killed by proxy.

Outside of “hot battlefields,” from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Yemen’s deserts, Predator and Reaper drones have hunted from above. Hundreds of strikes and thousands of deaths have crystallized a new way of waging war. Bruised by nearly a decade of billion-dollar skirmishes, the White House slowly pivoted to the robotic. Drones circling in the clouds, rather than soldiers scrambling on the ground, became a nonhuman solution to a very human problem. As troops withdrew from Afghanistan after fighting the longest military operation in U.S. history, drones stayed behind: unblinking sentinels in the sky. In Syria and Iraq, Reapers continue to provide the military with a high-definition picture of below. At the outset of the war on terror, the U.S. military had a handful of drones. Now, more than 11,000 unmanned vehicles constitute a robotic armada, from hand-thrown Ravens to the large Global Hawk drone. How can we describe this cyborg imperium?

For millennia, empires have risen and fallen. They are an enduring feature of human history. After launching the war on terror, empire was a term widely used to describe the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Neoconservatives and liberals alike embraced the idea of a distinctly American empire. In their eyes the world was now a battlespace and the U.S. military a beacon of order. The network of military bases installed in the Cold War expanded to serve a vast military manhunt. Yet as the years passed and the death count rose, the specter of another “Vietnam Syndrome” seeped into the corridors of Washington, D.C. Bogged down in a vicious counterinsurgency, the war on terror had slowly transmuted into a forever war. The Obama administration subsequently oversaw a drawdown of U.S. troops. Behemoth bases were mothballed, and the number of Americans in foreign lands fell.

But did this mean that empire was fading or simply changing?

This question is crucial. Is “empire” still a relevant term to describe the “small footprint” approach enabled by robotic prosthetics? I think so, but the empire of today is unlike anything before. Although empires have always relied on technology to project their power—from Roman roads to British ships—we now live in an age of advanced artificial intelligence, supercomputers, robots, the Internet, and satellite communications. An artificial skin has been grafted on the planet, with earthlings joined together in electromagnetic communion. This has profoundly changed the spaces, subjects, and apparatus of state power. Violence, although a distinctly human activity, is increasingly conducted by proxy. The rise of the Predator drone at the dawn of the war on terror enabled the U.S. military to project power without projecting human bodies. The interface between American imperium and its enemies was mediated by robot. And this continues to materialize a transition away from a labor-intensive American empire to what I call a machine-intensive Predator Empire.

Empire abhors a vacuum, and the U.S. homeland—long a target of police militarization—soon saw Predators deployed along its national borders. The killing of Micah Johnson was therefore the latest case of robotic blowback. Robots from the battlefield are routinely transferred to police departments across the U.S. Financed by the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, together with funds from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, around 1,000 ground robots have joined a cache of war gear that has spilled onto U.S. streets. And that’s in addition to police drones that are starting to swarm in cities and suburbs.

Robots, whether in warfare or policing, on the ground or in the sky, are clearly changing the conduct and spatiality of U.S. power, politics, and violence. And we are only beginning to understand the meaning of this artificial regime for what it means to be a human. A key battleground will be how democracy, legitimacy, and accountability function in a world where decisions—and the ancient art of killing—are severed from humans.

Ours, after all, is the age of alienation. A toxic individualism rips through the planet, splintering lifeworlds and entrenching a pervasive paranoia. It is little wonder that the machinery of imperialism today reflects this system that birthed it: a grinding war of all against all. In her essay On Violence, Hannah Arendt warned that governments who feel legitimate power slipping away from them “have always found it difficult to resist the temptation to substitute violence for it.” My fear is that governing by consent, a victory hard-won over centuries, is at risk of being radically overturned by governing by violence. Shoveling billions of dollars within the belly of the Predator Empire risks such an inversion. This would represent a Hobbesian Leviathan shorn of any pretense to protect a unified commonwealth: a state apparatus whose sole duty is to police segregation. A new social contract for the robotic Leviathan of the twenty-first century.

Empire has not disappeared. In the twinkling of satellites, the snaking of undersea fiber-optic cables, and the whir of data storage facilities, a robotic imperium thrives. Perhaps it is more difficult to see than legions of Roman phalanxes, but the Predator Empire exists. It never sleeps or blinks in its attempt to secure a splintering planet. Our task is to wake up to a brave new world marching into a future without us.


Ian G. R. Shaw is author of Predator Empire: Drone Warfare and Full Spectrum Dominance. He is lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow.

“A compelling account of the geopolitics of the drone as it haunts ‘policing, predation, and planet.’ Ian G. R. Shaw’s book is as attentive to the historical and cultural geographies of the unmanned aerial vehicle as it is to the preemptive foreclosure of political futures.”
—Louise Amoore, author of The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security Beyond Probability

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