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The Labor of Surveillance and Bureaucratized Killing: New Subjectivities of Military Drone Operators

Publication Type: 
Academic Writing
Publication Date: 
March 14, 2013

As the military’s armed surveillance drones have become the iconic weapon of the early twenty-first century, they have also introduced radical transformations in the traditional labor of those who operate them the pilots, crew, analysts, and commanders. In so doing, these transformations have engendered new kinds of subjectivity, with new ways of experiencing the work of surveillance and killing. This paper investigates the nature of these new subjectivities, how they are constructed through new technologies that combine surveillance with remote agency, the bureaucratization of killing, and the psychological implications for operators. It examines how scientific management strategies from Taylorism to business process re-engineering have contributed to reconstituting the subjectivity of drone pilots and sensor operators through decomposing their labor practices and reconstituting them within professionalized careers and technological systems of supervision and management. It also looks at how the decisions to use lethal force are themselves decomposed and distributed among individuals designated as responsible agents within the chain-of-command. In light of the creation of these new subjectivities, the paper examines the psychological stress experienced by those who occupy these new subject positions through an examination of several recent military studies, journalistic accounts, and a recent short film based upon an interview with a drone pilot, Omer Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011).

Asaro, P. (2013). " The Labor of Surveillance and Bureaucratized Killing: New Subjectivities of Military Drone Operators," Special Issue on Charting, Tracking, Mapping: Technology, Labor, and Surveillance, Gretchen Soderlund (ed.), Social Semiotics, 23 (2), pp. 196-224.