Mandy Lingard is lying prone in her backyard at 553 The Esplanade, wearing only a g-string. This is her right as a private citizen in a free goddamned country. The drone sees Mandy Lingard, doing as she bloody well pleases, and photographs her. The drone has no choice. It rises slowly over Mt Martha, buzzing, riding each gust and vesper to a height of approximately sixty metres. Four rotors, two spinning clockwise, two counter-rotating, each with two blades. This drone is an extension of the surveillance organism; a creature created to record and reify human existence. Seeing is its business – unseeing is not.
Mandy herself was dimly aware of the drone’s presence. ‘I heard a noise and then I saw this odd thing flying around and thought it was a kid’s toy’, she said.
Controlled by a representative of Eview Real Estate Partners, the drone’s purpose was to photograph the neighbouring property, 552 The Esplanade, in the most flattering light possible. In the process, Mandy Lingard’s grainy image became a key promotional tool for Eview Real Estate Partners. She adorned online listings, paper listings, and of course the big ‘for sale’ sign at the front of the property. Perhaps a topless neighbour was considered an important aspect of the overall lifestyle package being sold – perhaps it was purely ancillary.
Either way, Mandy felt humiliated: her son had seen the billboard, along with friends and strangers. This she told to the Herald Sun, posing for a photo alongside the infamous sign. One imagines her shame, mingled with the thrill of achieving mass exposure (pardon the pun) in a major newspaper. It might have been her finest hour: to the public, it was her only hour.
That was in November. Unsubstantiated rumours claim that she has since been seen chasing the Google Street View car down the street while wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Mt Martha is a small town, and people talk.
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, were first developed for battlefield reconnaissance – seeing is the drone’s original sin – but the more benign, four-rotor civilian version has become ever-more prevalent in recent years. Children send them up at their local park; they dangle mistletoe over diners at TGI Friday’s (one drone went rogue and sliced a diner’s face with its rotor blades). eBay is currently developing a drone delivery option, for your mohair sweaters and free weights. Their prevalence is growing, and new uses are constantly being devised for these dumb bumblebees: slowly but surely, their tell-tale buzz sinks into the fabric of our lives.
Before drones started to fill our suburban skies, I, like the rest of you, was in constant danger of implosion. The vacuum of my vast, empty interior withstood the weight of the external world with only some flimsy cantilevering and judicious social media activity. I needed to be seen: I needed to push against the weight of another consciousness (and yes, the little blank eye of the drone is a consciousness, a ganglion in our great Skynet). I knew I ought to be nervous, outraged at the intrusion of these buzzing, wobbling drones, and yet I felt excitement, a frisson. I am alive, because I am watched.
Edward Snowden knew this when he martyred himself for the internet. He exposed the methods by which the NSA, the USA’s foremost surveillance organism, monitors the online activity of most of the world’s internet users, namely you: your emails, your phone calls, your billing history, your browsing habits – with hardware, software, hacking, coercion, and semi-legal means. He sacrificed his freedom not to protect the rest of us from cyber-tyranny (a common misconception), but to fulfil the necessary conditions of contemporary existence. Over the course of a week, he turned our glum present into a dystopian William Gibson novel. Almost immediately, we felt sexier, more dangerous.
It’s hard to imagine a time before all of this. What sound filled the space between our thoughts? It’s true that satellites have long saturated the planet with the light of surveillance, but they have done so silently. Now, drones fill this silence. They fill the blank cognitive spaces where satellites are momentarily forgotten, where CCTV is absent, where wiretaps cannot reach, where fellow citizens cannot gawk. The drones are few in number, but the main thing is that they exist, and that we feel their existence.
That we need such constant reinforcement is ludicrous, but inarguable. Right now, Snowden sits in Moscow, idly Googling himself and marvelling at humanity’s inability to grasp abstractions – of course, as the subject of constant and very concrete scrutiny, he forgets what it is to exist among the formless many.
While he searches, hundreds of millions of citizens hurl abuse at strangers, purchase t-shirts, bemoan their precarious existence, and watch porn (generally in that order). For many years, these actions were unilateral, hot, lonely probings into the cool blue space of the internet; then Snowden revealed the scale of the surveillance machine that was monitoring our every keystroke.
Were we outraged? Somewhat, yes, but it was a lovely, sensual outrage. We talked bravely of ethics and rights and such things, but we continued to probe, and we felt the NSA probing back, gently pressing against our bandwidth with its own. No matter what we said, then or now, it felt good. Now Snowden lives in exile, his grand gesture having generated a brief, global spike in self-esteem, and yet already half-forgotten.
Like any other organism, surveillance seeks the furthering of itself. The heat of its gaze sustains us, and so we, busy gardeners, reward it with the conditions that it requires to thrive, incorporating it into our daily lives, our social lives, our small fry real estate operations. We browse, and we sunbake, wearing only a g-string. We are dutiful in our outrage, but we make sure to show our best side to that blank, unblinking eye. Then we forget, just a little, the faintest of buzzing sounds passing in the distance.