Drones and social research

Edgar Burns, La Trobe University:

Growing exposure and interactivity of participants and researchers is a feature of research in the digital era, in contrast to the creation of taste and preference bubbles that seem to decrease exposure. In relation to the Internet of Things (IOT) that tends to mediate this interactivity in research, Orton-Johnson and Prior’s (2013) e-book Digital Sociology offers five sociological frames for engaging new technologies: relationships, spaces, structures, mediations and practices. Drones, as prime examples of IOT engagements, combine physical and digital technologies and can produce large amounts of data. The challenge lies in the social arrangements adopted for processing this information, not simply its production, in research and other fields. The boundaries between research and application become less clear with this and other digital innovations. Drones as a technology are not a paradigm shift, but they could evolve into people transportation and other forms. In combination with other actual-measuring-and-acting devices, they help shift research foci and social research capabilities.

Drones make headlines, and with drones we are talking about a new era of applied digital devices. First, the growing use of drones in theatres of war and the im/morality of non-human killing agents is in line with predictions that within 25 years most warfare will be fought autonomously, i.e. fought by remote controlled robots with their own internal intelligence systems. Second, we can imagine suppliers like Amazon delivering products using drones along custom-built air corridors mere hours after ordering. These military and commercial uses of drones segue to creative leisure uses – drones replacing kites for having fun in fields outdoors, or drones tethered to mountain-biker travels or athletic endeavour, for instance. Third, drones have intriguing uses, like changing the ways that tourists can view Uluru and other famous sites, being used for inspecting/photographing bridge maintenance or checking effluent storage, or being deployed around cliffs in remote searches for endangered plant and animal species. Fourth, drones promise much in agriculture and horticulture, combining information and on-ground automation as drone range extends. Fifth, drones may soon become ubiquitous for police and government forces in crowd control, civil unrest and disaster situations. Sixth, drones today are rapidly extending scientific studies in toxic, hot and difficult environments.

Social research impacts are intimated in this selection of drone applications. First, use/misuse of power is a constant theme for sociologists. Who will be countering misuse – fighting drones with drones, in activism and other challenges to unfair power? Second, a developing trend for drone deployment is safety, in rural, urban, workplace, family and community settings. Third, a la Foucault, drones add complexity to surveillance in governing populations. This possibility becomes the generic default, even before specific surveillance within and outside of incarceration, and other applications of problematic police discretion. Indeed, new practices of corporate monitoring are potentially the greater long-term issue. Fourth, we should consider the flip side (is it?) of sports, civic occasions and public event management, namely journalists’ reporting. Do police drones or journalist drones provide admissible evidence? We already know the effects of photos and video-clips revealing what institutional powers do not wish known.

Social research intersects each milieu noted above. A new option for studying group processes sounds mundane and useful. Drones also invoke new ethical questions, the answers to which will evolve to meet the new ‘normal’ and other digital circumstances that extend each scenario. This will occur in combination with other digital IOT capabilities. The corny image of the annoying neighbour with a drone is actually important because it raises most of these potential ethical issues: personal privacy, civil rights, nuisance, theft, harm, harassment, informed consent. It may be that ambivalence is an appropriate stance regarding drones, as for other innovative technologies (Matthewman, 2011). Consider this: drones are equally adept at delivering life-saving medical drugs and extending the scourge of ice addiction and supply. This is consistent with Manion and Goodrum’s (2000, p. 18) broader observation that the internet releases two opposing possibilities, one towards emancipation and one towards domination.

(Full references available from the author)



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