A drone taking off. Photo credit: Steven Bain/PA via Guardian


As a Bruneian it might seem unimportant to you to think about drones. But with the right mindset even a subject so remote from you can change the way you think about your everyday life. Drones are essentially aircraft without pilots present in the aerial vehicle. They are instead controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground in a remote location. In recent years, there has been a commercialization of drones by companies such as Amazon who are testing them for a new delivery system. However drones are used mainly for reconnaissance, surveillance, and warfare. By equipping drones with missiles and bombs, military strategy has become more efficient and it is possible to engage in warfare without being in the warzone. In many other fields, technology has made it easier to save lives (medicine), improve living (energy), or keep in touch (communication). In this field, technology has made it easier to kill.

Since its increasing use in the West, there have been debates on ethics and morality concerning the use of drones. On the plus side, they are certainly cheaper than other forms of aerial technology such as fighter jets. Moreover, there is less need to put troops on the ground reducing the risk of casualty. But most wars are asymmetrical. In contemporary warfare, usually between developed states and non-state (or aspiring to be a state) actors, the side under the threat of drones stands to lose more. They can suffer civilian casualty and furthermore non-participants suffer the psychological stress of living under the threat of drones. Of course killing bad guys is the main point here – but the main point becomes a weak one when ‘civilian casualty’ is conveniently justified as ‘collateral damage’.

From behind the monitor. Photo credit: Vertigogaming.net


While I may sound like I am writing against drones, I still remain neutral precisely because it is a subject far away from direct experience. Furthermore, the use of drones is still a contentious issue in discussions of international norms. The brief arguments above are a summary so I can get to my point – the face. The moral point about drones is that they induce a desensitization of the human experience because the act of killing is done on an interface away from the warzone. Even in acts of violence there is still a calling to think about a certain human experience which the face invokes. More specifically, my thoughts about the philosophy of the face originate from the work of the French philosopher Levinas. He believes that a system of ethics (how we ought to treat each other) is based on the face-to-face. In seeing another person’s face (he does not mean literally, but figuratively) we engage in a responsibility to the other. For Levinas, this figurative face comes to us and says “do not kill me”.

This demand brought to us comes prior to any  consideration, judgement or reaction. It is the first thing we feel and what strikes us is the vulnerability of what we encounter. We need to recognize the infinity  (of possibilities) behind the face. Only by realizing this infinity do we see the other as human as we are. To ignore this infinity is to totalize. To totalize the other is to limit his possibility and make him less human. In many works of literature or film, there is often a climatic ending in which the hero is standing over the villain. We are waiting for his final blow for the kill. Often we don’t see this happen and the hero lets the other live. Such scenes have a particular focus on the face. While this is a caricature of Levinas’ philosophy it should help you come closer to what my interpretation of Levinas’ work might mean.

It is perhaps easier for the drone operator to deliver the final strike behind monitors. Elsewhere, cyber encounters become a quick transaction of data.  The absence of the face-to-face distorts our perception of humanness. It is simpler to pass value judgements on someone behind the screen: I like this and I hate that.  As a Bruneian trying to relate to this post, think about how easy it is for you and me, behind our phone screens, Facebook layouts, Twitter feeds, Instagram photos to conduct ourselves differently than what we might have done if we were to see each other’s face in real life.

Categories: Philosophy, Technology

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