Drones. Both of my boys are inveterate video game players, so I am long familiar with them. When Nikko was 10, we gave him a hover craft. Over all of these years, it is still my favorite gift to him. As the Air Force began to deploy them in our Middle Eastern conflicts, I had a reaction that was ill-formed but instinctive. I was relieved for U.S. lives saved and yet wary about something spookily inhuman. The philosopher Peter W. Singer gave a fine articulation to this ambivalence in a New York Times Op Ed some weeks ago.
And so now is it any wonder that Congress with President Obama's signature is about to unleash these devises into the commerce of American society?
Just when we thought we could begin to contemplate a framework for data privacy, doesn't it stand to reason that another technology will throw us back on our heels. That it be in the visual realm should also be no surprise since it was photography that launched the original Warrren and Brandeis salvo. And with Google Earth, together with everything else Google, having identified who I am, where I live and what my house looks like without my permission, I don't suppose I should be even bothering to raise the specter of privacy concerns about this application.
Hold back commerce of devices with many beneficial uses? No, that is not what I am suggesting. I grew up in Rochester, New York, after all, home of Eastman Kodak, and beginning with my Brownie camera and extending to early adult membership in the Eastman Museum, I have enjoyed a life filled with photography not to mention a city whose twentieth-century history would not be thinkable without that industry. I am a humanist, but not a Luddite. From the perspective of the first category, I observe with irony the revenge of the drones. We built and deployed them for national security and now they come to us with the potential to diminish our privacy. From the perspective of the second, as in a person interested in politics, I observe that for once we have an opportunity to regulate a technology proactively in the name of the public good rather than have it alter our perceptions of what that means in light of its hegemony over us.
I refer to the fact that Congress has given until 2015 to work out the kinks. That may be almost too long of a wait for the salutary uses of drones, for example in agriculture. Perhaps in clear-cut areas of beneficial uses, exceptions to this time line might be made? But in the other areas that have raised concern: surveillance and law enforcement, commercial espionage and individual privacy (not to mention the tug of war between the famous and the paparazzi), let us turn not just lobbyists and government lawyers to work on regulation, but American society loose in a debate about what is appropriate use of this technology.
Am I picking on drones specifically? Not for any intrinsic reason; that is why I told you about the present we gave Nikko. I grew up one mile from the Rochester airport, ate ice cream with my father on the observation deck many a summer day and smelled jet fuel the first glorious night in spring when we could open the windows. I retain a fascination with all things aeronautic. No, public policy motivates me. We might have, could have, should have been more thoughtful about the legal and policy implications of information technology as this industry emerged throughout the twentieth century rather than playing a constant game of catch up now. We didn't, and I would be happy in another blog to offer my historian's analysis of why, an observation not so much as from regret but for prescience. Suffice it for now to say: lesson learned.
But will it be a lesson applied when in this case we can so clearly see it coming?