Drones And The Beautiful World They Reveal

Over the past year or so, I have, on multiple occasions, sat down with my toddler daughter to enjoy BBC’s epic nature documentary series Planet Earth. Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, it offers up hour-long packages of visual delight in stunning high-definition: giant waterfalls, towering mountains and icebergs, gigantic flocks of birds, roaring volcanoes and river rapids, deep canyons, majestic creatures of all kinds; the eye-candy is plentiful, and it is dished out in large portions. While watching it, I’ve been moved to remark that my co-viewing of it in the company of my daughter–and sensing her delight as we do so–has been one of the highlights of my parental responsibilities.

Filming a documentary like Planet Earth, the most expensive ever, takes time and money and technical aid. The featurettes for the various episodes explain how they were filmed: sometimes using a cinebulle, sometimes “the Heligimbal, a powerful, gyro-stabilised camera mounted beneath a helicopter.” Now comes news that Planet Earth II, the second installment of the series will deploy even more advanced technology:

The BBC…has not only shot the whole thing in UHD, but it also used the latest camera stabilisation, remote recording, and aerial drone technology, too.

The use of drones should make perfectly good sense. Drones can be commandeered into remote and difficult to access territories and zones with great ease and precision; they can be made to wait for the perfect shot for long periods of time; they can generate huge amounts of visual image data which can then be sorted through to select the best images; without a doubt, their usage will result in the previously hidden–and beautiful–coming to light. Perhaps they will descend into the craters of volcanoes; perhaps they will hover above herds of animals, tracking their every move to record and reveal the mysteries of migration; perhaps they will enable closer looks at the dynamics of waterfalls and whirlpools; perhaps they will fly amidst flocks of birds.

Their use will remind us once again of the mixed blessings of technology. Drones can be used for surveillance, for privacy invasions, for the violations of human rights; they can be used to conduct warfare from on high, sending down deadly munitions directed at civilians; they can also be used to reveal the beauties of this world in a manner that reminds us, yet again, that our planet is a beautiful place, one worth preserving for the sake of future generations. Technology facilitates the exploitation of nature but also, hopefully, its conservation and sensible stewardship thanks to the beauties of the images brought back to us by the drones we use. The use of drones in Planet Earth II may refine our aesthetic sensibilities further: many of our aesthetic superlatives are drawn from nature, but that entity’s contours will now be revealed in ever greater detail, with more aspects brought front and center. And so, as we have never stopped noticing, even as technology makes the world more understandable, it reveals its ever greater mysteries.  Technology may make the world mundane, quantify it all the better to tame it, but it may also reveal facets of the world we may have been previously blind to, rendering some sensibilities duller and yet others more acute.

One Vision Of A Driverless Car Future: Eliminating Private Car Ownership

Most analysis of a driverless car future concentrates on the gains in safety: ‘robotic’ cars will adhere more closely to speed limits and other traffic rules and over a period of time, by eliminating human error and idiosyncrasies, produce a safer environment on our roads. This might be seen as an architectural modification of human driving behavior to produce safer driving outcomes–rather than making unsafe driving illegal, more expensive, or socially unacceptable, just don’t let humans drive.

But there are other problems–environmental degradation and traffic–that could be addressed by mature driverless car technologies. The key to their solution lies in moving away from private car ownership.

To see this, consider that at any given time, we have too many cars on the roads. Some are being driven, yet others are parked. If you own a car, you drive it from point to point, and park it when you are done using it. Eight hours later–at the end of an average work-day–you leave your office and drive home, park it again, and then use it in the morning. Through the night, your car sits idle again, taking up space. If only someone else could use your car while you didn’t need it. They wouldn’t need to buy a separate car for themselves and add to the congestion on the highways. And in parking lots.

Why not simply replace privately owned, human-driven cars with a gigantic fleet of robotic taxis? When you need a car, you call for one. When you are done using it, you release it back into the pool. You don’t park it; it simply goes back to answering its next call.  Need to go to work in the morning? Call a car. Run an errand with heavy lifting? Call a car. And so on. Cars shared in this fashion could thus eliminate the gigantic redundancy in car ownership that leads to choked highways, mounting smog and pollution, endless, futile construction of parking towers, and elaboration congestion pricing schemes. (The key phrase here is, of course, ‘mature driver-less car technologies.’ If you need a car for an elaborate road-trip through the American West, perhaps you could place a longer, more expensive hold on it, so that it doesn’t drive off while you are taking a quick photo or two of a canyon.)

Such a future entails that there will be no more personal, ineffable, fetishized relationships with cars. They will not be your babies to be cared and loved for. Their upholstery will not remind you of days gone by. Your children will not feel sentimental about the clunker that was a part of their growing up. And so on. I suspect these sorts of attachments to the car will be very easily forgotten once we have reckoned with the sheer pleasure of not having to deal with driving tests–and the terrors of teaching our children how to drive, the DMV, buying car insurance, looking for parking, and best of all, other drivers.

I, for one, welcome our robotic overlords in this domain.

The Nature Documentary and its Edifying Functions

In response to my post on nature documentaries, reader Noor Alam offered the following thoughtful comment:

How the nature documentary is made, what types of animal behavior are depicted, and how they are then interpreted, provide early and formative impressions about the world around us. Does the documentary empasize nature as a world in which life is “nasty, brutish and short” or does it choose to focus on instances of social behavior in nature, such as the social coordination prevalent amongst bees, or the seeming altruism exhibited by dolphins? Does it emphasize the similarities between humans and other animals, or does it marvel at the alien nature of those animals. With such questions in mind, the “uncontroversial” nature documentary becomes inherently political, and we as parents should have an awareness of this so that we can not only expose our children to the wonders of the world that they portray, but so that we can discuss with them the different issues which any one nature documentary may raise.

As I had perhaps only hinted at in my post, the nature documentary often emphasizes or glamorizes the predator’s work, and may provide a form of ‘predator porn’: the kill is the ‘money-shot’, leading up to which is the foreplay of the slow, drawn-out stalking and set-up. Besides being a form of catexploitation, this emphasis can valorize a crude Nietzschean view of nature: the beautiful animal is the strong, the valiant, preying on the hapless weak, the timid, the meek; the strong feed on the weak because such is their nature, the weak serve as food for the strong because, well, such is their nature. It may too, reinforce a facile social Darwinism: survival depends on feasting on others, using stealth and violence and subterfuge judiciously blended; those who are unable to resist meet their deserved fates all too quickly. These ‘nature red in tooth and claw‘ visions can be problematic sources of moral and political edification.

As Alam points out,  we need to query whether the vision of the documentary maker extends to noticing and showcasing Kropotkin would have called the mutual aid of the wild–“the social coordination prevalent amongst bees, or the seeming altruism exhibited by dolphins”? Is nature understood as continuous with human societies or is it regarded as separable from us by radical discontinuities–biological, moral, cognitive? Does nature appear as unfinished, primitive human society or does it appear as a distinctive entity in its own right?

The nature documentary has the capacity to provide intervention elsewhere. For instance, the chauvinistic vision of the Great Chain of Being–which saw all of nature through a blinkered human-serving teleology–is not an easily displaced one, and neither is the notion of the human species and its achievements as representing an onward and upward movement through an arc of moral and technical progression.  These two easily combine to provide a motive force for unthinking and rapacious  environmental degradation–the kind that threatens to render this world uninhabitable for a generation not too distant from ours.

The nature documentary–whether those who make it like it or not–is saddled with the expectation of providing an ‘appropriate’ vision of the relationship between man and the wild.

The Nature Documentary and the Failed Hunt

Like many middle-class children, here or elsewhere, I watched wildlife documentaries while ‘growing up.’ There was a long-running Sunday feature whose name I forget that subjected one species to its lens each week; there were the full-length movies–sometimes on the big cats (my personal favorite), sometimes on elephants, sometimes on the primates–my parents took me to see in movie-houses; and then later, in my teen years, all too inevitably, there was David Attenborough, clad in parka, his hair askew, striding purposefully along a beach, wading through mud, tramping through a rainforest, showing us the undersides of damp, mossy rocks, and pointing out, in a throwback to Aristotle, that the lower creatures were as worthy of study, as evocative of awe and admiration, as ingenious in their adaptations to their environment, as the higher ones.

A wildlife documentary was, I think, considered an essential component of a child’s education by a certain kind of parent. (As was a trip to the zoo, I suppose.) Even if you weren’t taken to the wild–to say, a national park or an animal sanctuary–viewing a documentary was de rigeur. No middle-class parent would ever be caught saying–in the right company–‘Nature documentaries? What a waste of time!’ The documentary was educational, and that was it. Even if you wanted to shield your child from the gratuitous violence on television and cinema, there was no censorship of predator-on-prey slaughter, no shielding of the child’s eyes when a leopard or a lion clamped their jaws around a gazelle’s neck and slowly strangled it. (An exception to this might have been the anguished response to a recent documentary on life in the oceans in which a which a pair of adult killer whales casually and endlessly toss around, like a broken rag-doll, a baby seal that is clearly alive and remains so till they finally tire of their sport and kill it; the Netflix page for this movie features many comments from parents wishing they had been warned that such frightening acts were included on a documentary that they had unsuspectingly viewed with their children.)

I suspect I’m not alone in noting that as a child, my favorite moment in a nature documentary was invariably the big cat hunt: the stalking, the chase, the kill. But I was disappointed too, to find out that such hunts were not always successful, that those incredibly sleek and svelte felines could be outpaced by those wimpy, skittish antelopes, that on occasion, their claws didn’t find traction and simply slid off the backs of their putative meals; yet another disillusionment, yet another demonstration that in this world, never did the path of the bold run smooth.

So, interestingly enough, while the nature documentary was supposed to be a source of wonder and inspiration, of awe at the beauty of nature, and was intended, at least in part, to function as part of our societies’ syllabi in environmental and conservationist education, for at least one viewer, it also served as introduction to the notion that all was not what it seemed, that many ignoble failures could be experienced before spectacular success could be savored.

An introduction mind, not necessarily a lesson learned and internalized.

The Daily Shower As Nero-ish Luxury

Sometimes the most mundane of experiences can serve as a particularly acute reminder of how my life in the present differs from that lived in the past. And sometimes that experience can serve too, to put a simple daily act into global context.

For some twenty-five years now, whether in the US (1987-2000; 2002-present) or in Australia (2000-2002), I’ve performed the simple act–daily–of taking a shower. I might occasionally lose track of my location in the mental maps of the immigrant’s world but stepping under a running shower never fails to remind me that for the first twenty years of my life I lived somewhere other than my present location.

That simple act, of stepping under a pair of faucets–one marked ‘Hot’, the other ‘Cold’–which soon direct streams of water at appropriate temperatures to the shower head, jolts me out of whatever reverie I might be absorbed in and concentrates my mind wonderfully on the unimaginable luxury at hand: running hot and cold water. I have showered in dingy bathrooms, with dirty shower curtains, moldy tiles, slippery bathtubs, freezing floors, rusty taps, drafty windows, foul toilet bowls, and every other affliction you can imagine, but unless there has been a catastrophic problem with the water supply, I am guaranteed running water. Sometimes, a malfunctioning boiler has meant no hot water, sometimes, building repairs have necessitated a temporary cessation of water supplies to apartments. But, otherwise, the water flows. (And this has been true of drinking water as well: turn the taps, the water flows. In New York, it doesn’t need to be filtered, and tastes damn good.)

I don’t think I will ever cease to think of this as a luxury (even though it might have come to be a luxury I take for granted.) Bathing, not ‘showering’, in India meant: in the summers, strategically timing one’s baths for the morning so as to avoid the heated water from the overhead tanks in the afternoons; in the winters, heating up a bucket of water, using an electric heater, mixing it with cold water to get the temperature right, and then quickly, chucking mugfuls over my soaped-up body to finish the act. (Delhi winters made this business particularly miserable.) The overhead shower with running hot and cold streams still remains a rarity in Indian urban settings, though hot water in the Delhi winters seems to have become more easily available thanks to the almost-ubiquitous electric water heaters. The business of drinking water was even more onerous: potable water was only available for a few hours a day; it had to be stored and filtered before being used. I grew up getting used to the windows of time for this supply and making sure I did my bit to keep our home well stocked with drinking water. I left that all behind but it left its mark on me, one that assures I cannot be glib about my present comforts.

I’m inclined to think that this century of ours will see serious armed conflict fought for water supplies. Perhaps water will come to replace oil as the new liquid worth killing for. Thousands die every day because they cannot drink clean water. Whenever I step into my shower, or do the dishes with a running tap, and let dozens and hundreds of gallons flow, it’s hard for me to not think that I occupy a very peculiar space, that there is something Nero-ish in this daily activity of mine.