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  • A camera drone operated by a civilian flies near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion in New York, in this file photo taken March 12, 2014.

    A camera drone operated by a civilian flies near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion in New York, in this file photo taken March 12, 2014. | Photo: Reuters

Published 9 February 2015
Will anyone stop 1984 on steroids before it becomes 2015 commonplace?

Yesterday's imagined horror, Big Brother, is barely scary compared to today's horrible reality: eyes in the sky.

Drones are on the verge of being able to stay in the air for weeks and maybe months on end. They can, not only have weapons for shredding people like a giant disposal might, but also super cameras. Wait, check that. A super camera — but what a camera.

Imagine taking video from 3.5 miles high. Forget about those on the ground hearing or seeing the drone from below. This is an eye in the sky, looking down, invisible to us, looking up. One camera on one drone can take video around the clock. Big deal you might think. One camera on one telephone pole can do that too. What can a drone possibly see from way the hell up there? And, even if it can see a lot in its sharp visual field, how big could that sharp field possibly be? Perhaps 100 square feet?

Well, no. When you take a photo, outdoors, the precise image part is huge, though the precise part is, what, 100 square feet, if that? The innovative video machine the drone carries can snap video covering 15 square miles, and it has billions of pixels so it is all precise. Every square foot of fifteen square miles recorded sharply. Put ten drones up there, and you are covering a mid size city, or more. 

Big, deal, you say. What could it possibly see with enough resolution to make any difference? It can't be much. No, it isn't much. It is everything down to about six inches.

Yes, but the drone is there and then it is gone, so there is no lasting menace, you say. Well, no, it is there and then it is still there. And what it sees, it stores. So the drone's camera videos everything that is outdoors, everywhere, every minute, and it stores the record as long as desired. Big Brother has grown up. How long before super cameras can produce highly informative images even through obstacles?

When I was in college in the mid-to-late sixties, a movement developed in part around the slogan, "do not fold, spindle, or mutilate." People shouting the phrase, often while organizing mates or occupying streets or buildings, were rejecting being treated as mere objects in the very early days of computer technology.

In those days, we were coming of age caring about being — well, people, not targets. We were due respect. We were due privacy. To be cataloged in any way felt invasive. Now, however, does anyone care? Maybe we are not people, and we are not targets, we are frogs, slowly being immersed into and accommodating to a boiling pot of water whose heat has been raised, day after day.

One indication of our accommodation would be to notice that toy drones, quite capable items, have become very popular. Kids request them. Parents buy them. And they have cameras — though not yet, machine guns or missiles. Quality time for parent and child? Fly the cute things. Take funny pictures. Marvel at their fantastic capacities. Drone equals fun.

Will anyone stop 1984 on steroids before it becomes 2015 commonplace?

Again, when I was in college, we had to sneak onto military bases to discover what our researchers were developing — in my case, we discovered, for example, that a helicopter stabilization program being researched and enacted via my college, MIT, was actually not sprucing up traffic copters to be more stable in rainstorms over Detroit, as claimed, but sprucing up gunships used in Indochina, making them more stable to mow down peasants more effectively. Anything that flies against anything that moves.

Nowadays it isn't as hard to find out what is going on. And we protest less. And the incredible technical marvel of a video camera in the sky? Yes, it tracks everything that moves — and can already carry weapons to shoot too.

View the following, if you don't believe me. But not right after lunch, is my advice: Rise of the Drones.

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