The 2008 sci-fi film Sleep Dealer imagines a grim geopolitical dystopia that hits fairly close to home — a future where the borderless global village brought on by vast computer networks is contrasted with the xenophobic proliferation of national barriers and immigration laws in the physical realm. Speaking with The New Inquiry, writer-director Alex Rivera says it is the emergence of this dynamic that makes the aerial drone such a powerful symbol for our time: a ubiquitous instrument of telepresence (and destruction) creating a dissonance between work and worker, distance and digitality.
The millions of undocumented workers who are physically present but whose political body is denied by a legal regime, occupy a place in my imagination very close to the call-center worker or the drone pilot. The military drone as a traveler headed from the global north to the global south is a kind of mirror image of these other histories that have brought human energy from the south to the north. The transnational space is circular, with flows in and out of the U.S., all of them disembodied and disfigured in complex and fascinating ways.
As for the most common argument made against the drones themselves — that they anesthetize their operators to acts of espionage and violence — Rivera says the issue is not so simple. "The drone has produced a third type of military sight," he says. "The drone pilot has a type of vision that no military actor has had before, that of lingering, of observing over extended periods of time, and doing so with absolutely no threat to oneself."