A little more than a decade after it entered public consciousness, the drone has become a cliché of late imperial American culture.
They’re everywhere: Whether in Showtime’s television series Homeland, Alex Rivera’s 2008 film Sleep Dealer, or William Gibson’s latest novel, The Peripheral, a drone’s appearance instantly signals menace. Hellfire missiles will soon rain down. Some mysterious agency is spying on our heroes. The ubiquity of fictional drones is not surprising. Whatever one thinks about their value as military tools, there are myriad compelling human stories behind every strike. And the appearance of a drone can give a story, even one set in the present, a science fictional flavor. As the writer and artist Adam Rothstein argues in his slim 2015 book Drones, we are attracted to “drone stories” because such stories are “narratives about ourselves, but told through our technology.”
One of our strangest and most compelling drone stories is “Fartcopter.” “Fartcopter” is an entry in Adult Swim’s 2014 Infomercial series, a set of 11-minute short films that air at 4 a.m. and are listed simply as “infomercial.” Like other Adult Swim Infomercial shorts, such as “Too Many Cooks” and “For-Profit Online University,” “Fartcopter” presents itself as if it were real late-night paid programming. The infomercial hawks a small yellow helicopter—a drone—with a speaker hanging from its underside. The drone does one thing and does it well: It makes obnoxious fart noises. The infomercial’s host is a belligerent kid named Michael, who wears a suit and speaks with a fake British accent. The creepy boy explains with increasingly aggressive cheer that “when kids get bored, kids get violent.” We witness a montage of children beating each other up, waterboarding their teacher, robbing a supermarket, and attacking a graph chart titled “Kids are Violent.” The solution to this mayhem is a delightful farting drone. Violent kids, enamored by fart noises, instantly become peace-loving. “Wow, thanks Fartcopter!” Michael repeats again and again.
Halfway through, “Fartcopter” transforms into an Intervention-style drama. Michael’s terrorized family tries to rescue the sociopathic boy from his addiction to drone-produced farts. After reading pro forma declarations of love, they summon forth a squadron of Fartcopters, which all fart one last time in unison and fall to the ground, reporting with electronic sighs that they are “out of farts.” Michael seems at first to be cured of his fart addiction—momentarily returning to humanity—but proceeds immediately to murder his family … with a Fartcopter, of course. As it turns out, the drone’s speaker is also a powerful sonic weapon. “One hell of a copter, the toy that sounds like a fart—Fartcopter!” the informercial’s jingle concludes as Michael sits among his slaughtered family, fallen to the floor, soaked in their own blood.
At the risk of arousing the stoned mockery of Adult Swim fans everywhere, I think “Fartcopter” has something profound to teach us about our troubled relationship to drones (perhaps more so than works of art that take themselves more seriously). Whatever else it is, “Fartcopter” is a brilliant little work of science-fiction filmmaking about the repurposing of military technologies for the commercial marketplace. “The UAV 4000 Death Hawk,” explains a general played by Tucker Smallwood, has been “re-engineered … for civilian use, and we’re redeploying them into the public sector. … Its light weight and low noise allows the Death Hawk to fly unnoticed anywhere today’s enemy might hide.” The Fartcopter can use weaponized farts to murder America’s many enemies, the general explains—at birthday parties, graduations, funerals, yacht launches, dog adoption fairs, quinceañeras, and so on.
The Fartcopter seems to be the satirical fulfillment of the logic of what we used to call the Global War on Terrorism: The whole planet is now a battlefield (including the United States). Miniaturized unmanned aerial vehicles have rendered the military’s effective Kill Box small enough to exterminate enemies with no collateral damage. Finally, the childlike drone operators who have been recruited to operate these powerful death machines are now ready to turn violence on their own families. The implication is that the violence-loving pathology that leads us to embrace imperial wars abroad is a version of the same pathology one finds in young sociopaths such as Michael. By removing drone operators from the scene of combat, critics have suggested, drones have transformed warfare into a bloodless video game, although some studies claim that drone pilots experience combat-related mental health problems at about the same rate as pilots flying manned vehicles.
Yet what makes “Fartcopter” most compelling isn’t its commentary on military technology’s deployment into public life. More important is the insight the short film gives us about the strange emotions drones arouse. That is, “Fartcopter” teaches us something about why we find drones creepy. As the political theologian and pop culture commentator Adam Kotsko notes in his book Creepiness, when we find something creepy we do not just feel afraid of that object. Lots of scary things aren’t creepy. This is an insight Sigmund Freud developed in his important 1919 essay, “The Uncanny.” In that essay, Freud considers the possibility, derived from the German psychiatrist Ernst Anton Jentsch, that the uncanny has something to do with encountering things that hover between the animate and inanimate, such as automata and wax figures. Freud rejects Jentsch’s version of the uncanny, arguing that the uncanny is triggered by “something which is secretly familiar,” but I think Jentsch’s view of the uncanny goes a long way to helping explain why we find drones creepy.
Drones are creepy because the human agency behind them is, by design, ambiguous. In “Fartcopter,” we see Michael personally controlling a Fartcopter only once. But the little helicopters often seem to have minds of their own, farting randomly, often appearing without prompting. Michael giggles at the murder of his family, but we’re never sure exactly how he kills them. So what makes the Fartcopter unsettling isn’t just the that the murderous drone reflects Michael’s puerile aggression. It’s also that this sensibility has been technologically externalized from the boy. The Fartcopter menacingly threatens to outlive its creator.
The Fartcopter and drones more generally elicit uneasy emotions resembling the feeling of “uncanny valley.” The term was originally used by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe robots that are almost—but not quite—perfect simulations of human beings. “In climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human,” Mori writes, “our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley.” In this emotional valley, we suddenly find the simulacrum repulsive. The term today is used most often to describe computer-generated graphics that don’t wholly convince us of their reality. But the term can, I think, justly describe any failed simulation of the human (not just a visual simulation). For instance, Google’s romance-novel-reading poetry-writing algorithm is arguably quite uncanny. Drones likewise become uncanny (and not just frightening) to the degree that they have taken on humanlike agency and decision-making autonomy. And yet, for all their growing autonomy, these vehicles cannot help but constantly remind us that they are not quite human.
Our drones are arguably far from being genuinely autonomous today—although Skynet, the National Security Agency’s machine-learning metadata datamining program, may have killed many innocent people—but we are attracted to science-fictional drone stories like “Fartcopter” because they give us a preview of the emotional landscape of our near future. It is a disquieting future filled with quasi-humans that have been entrusted with making life-and-death decisions that can have devastating human consequences. But perhaps what we’re most afraid of isn’t only that our not-quite-human technologies might exceed our control over them. What we find most creepy is the possibility that when they finally break loose of human control, our technologies might look and act all too much like us. What is most “secretly familiar” about drones is that they remind us very much of our foul-smelling flatulent selves.
This article is part of the drones installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on drones:
- “Do Drones Have to Be Creepy?”
- “Your Cheat-Sheet Guide to the Key Players and Debates for Drones”
- “The Rise of Nonviolent Drones”
- “The Six Biggest Misconceptions About Drones”
- “What Can Consumer Drones Actually See?”
- “Drone Privacy Is About Much More Than Protecting Sunbathing Teenagers”
- “Why You Shouldn’t Think of Drones as Planes”
- “How to Fly a Drone Without Being a Jerk”
- “If You Can Fly a Drone, So Can Police”