Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Drone Age: Streetview Stories

This is a review I just wrote for Michael Brooks' latest book. You can read his blog here.

The Drone Age: Streetview Stories is the latest book by Michael J. Brooks. It explores similar themes to his preceding novel Digital. It explores themes such as privacy, interconnectedness, loss of privacy, collective guilt, mass proliferation of pornography and violence, virtual reality and paranoia.
In his preface, Brooks states that 'the drone is the defining technology of the 21st century.' Many commentators are claiming that we are undergoing a new technological revolution – and that we are struggling to keep up with it. Brooks claims that political figures, television and cars are being supplanted by new media such as drones, computers and social media. Sometimes painting with broad strokes, Brooks claims that the entire social matrix is being remade by these technologies.
The 1960s and 1970s are often mentioned. These years are commonly characterised as an epoch of paranoia. A collective neurosis pervaded about the hydrogen bomb, government surveillance and the Vietnam draft. This sense of paranoia also suffuses this book. Indeed, some of the characters are mad, as in 'Antrocophene Now.' In 'I am at Ease with Myself,' the central protagonist lived through that period. Having worked for the government as a computer scientist in the 1960s, he later surmises that he can strike drones in the middle East by swiping left or right on a Tinder account. Another story which likens contemporary politics to the 1960s/70s is 'The Assasination of Mark Zuckerberg,' which is modelled on a story in J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. In Ballard's story, Joseph Kennedy's death is morbidly re-imagined as a 'downhill motor race.' In Brooks' own offering, he argues that politicians have been replaced by social media (hence Zuckerberg's inclusion). Ballard argued – in line with the theories propounded by Marshall McLuhan – that we lived in a media landscape. Politicians back then commanded a towering presence on our television screens. Our lives were increasingly artificial, as we increasingly tuned in to our television sets. Now, Brooks contends, politicians have lost their power to reach us, since we choose to glue ourselves to social media instead. Interestingly, Donald Trump won an election by bypassing traditional journalistic media and instead reached social media users directly via Twitter. On the whole, there's a sense that that there are now more reasons to be paranoid, but we are apathetic instead. The paranoia of the 1960s has become a reality – government really is spying on us, we really do live in a global village and American imperialism has become even more pronounced – but we choose to live in the bubble of our Facebook profiles.
All this would suggest that we live in de-ideolgised times and that we live in a global village – politically, personally and economically. If anything, the events of the last year prove that ideology has returned and that this apathy has dissipated. There seems to be a backlash against the idea of this ever-increasing interconnectedness. Borders are closing and nationalism is on the rise. Liberalism and civic rights in the 60s were both consolidated whilst those values are now unravelling. Hence, the 1920s and 1930s are perhaps a more apposite comparison to our own times.
Brooks also argues that we are losing our privacy. One story ('All Watched Over by Lights of Sky') suggests that we are losing personal relationships and that that era was an age of innocence. We are saturated by an an omni-presence of pornography and this seems to put romantic love at jeopardy. Pure thought and introspection also seem to be in jeopardy because the internet and social media distract us. Both of these themes are classic preoccupations of literature. Indeed, many people claim that the entire medium is at risk because of it and Brooks rues all this. He also seems to take a moralistic stance against the sleaziness and narcissism of hook-up culture and the air-headedness of social media. There is a perennial sense that we need to de-plug ourselves from such media so that we can simply get the chance to think. As such, the whole project could well be seen as an attempt to give literature a life-line.
Another theme that recurs is that, for all the technological advancement, we are still human. Brooks does believe that there is such a thing as human nature. There is plenty of violence and bloodshed in human history and we still retain those tendencies. In the final story, a Vietnam vet meets a younger character who works at the military. The veteran argues that humans have always had the tendency to be irrational, frail and to carry a guilty conscience. War for the contemporary military officer is completely impersonal – he merely strategies from a distance and strikes drones, whereas the vet had to fight in the horrors of the battle field. This story – as do several others in the book – argues that, however much technology advances, we remain the same. Technology and science might outgrow us, but we might still manage to destabilise it.
The book also evinces an almost anarchistic dislike of government and foreign wars. There is a sense that we share a collective guilt about drone strikes in Yemen, the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Calais crisis. Indeed, at a time when there is conflict and bloodshed in the middle east, we close our borders to refugees. The book appears to despair at this injustice.
There is, finally, a sense that technology can help us to transcend our human limitations. The phrase 'self-transcendence' often recurs throughout the book. A story set in the Silicon Valley charts a character submerging himself in a virtual reality. This seems to offer a more tangible hallucinatory experience than psychedelic drugs. However, even casual use of social media is described as transcendent. There is a sense that we are constantly escaping from the real world – be it our relationships or suffering in the third world – to submerge ourselves in a virtual one.
Stylistically, the book uses a lot of complex sentences that sometimes give me a bit of a headache. In future, Brooks could try to be simpler and more succinct. As such, the book didn't always flow well enough for me. As a whole, though, the book is very well-written. Brooks uses a lot less jargon than usual, which boded well for me.
The book as a whole is sometimes too 'macro,' in that it focuses on broader political events instead of developing the nuances of plot and characterisation. On the whole, this is a fascinating book that explores interesting themes and appears to urge literature to innovate itself more and to engage more with the contemporary world.

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