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Eye in the Sky: What a Surveillance Blimp in Amish Country Says About Theocracy and Technocracy

On 28 October 2015, a US military surveillance blimp rampaged across rural Pennsylvania after breaking its tether above Maryland 

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Behind an Amish horse-drawn buggy, an unmanned U.S. Army surveillance blimp which broke loose in Maryland floats through the air about 1,000 feet about the ground, Wednesday Oct. 28 2015. Courtesy: Associated Press; photograph: Jimmy May

Behind an Amish horse-drawn buggy, an unmanned U.S. Army surveillance blimp which broke loose in Maryland floats through the air about 1,000 feet about the ground, Wednesday Oct. 28 2015. Courtesy: Associated Press; photograph: Jimmy May

The image – taken from the ground by a local aerial photographer, Jimmy May – is of a giant US military surveillance blimp on the loose, floating across rural Pennsylvania after breaking its tether above Maryland on 28 October 2015. In the background, we can see the USD$175 million dirigible in a state of partial deflation, having been shot down by police following a four-hour chase up the Atlantic coastline, escorted by fighter jets while trailing cables that ripped up power lines and plunged communities into darkness. In the foreground, an Amish man rides on, his carthorse spooked by the behemoth overhead.

Deployed in Iraq since 2004, helium-filled aerostats were introduced to Afghanistan in 2007 and still hover over neighbourhoods from Kabul to Helmand, where residents dub them ‘milk fish’. Like a cross between the ‘Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’ and a CIA drone, the ‘Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System’, or JLENS in military parlance, was part of an exorbitant USD$2.7 billion sophisticated radar programme ostensibly designed to defend Washington against a long-range missile attack. Pentagon officials claimed no cameras were onboard; yet it is impossible to verify the blimp’s true purpose since its capabilities remain classified, despite the project being defunded after the crash.

One possible piggybacker was the ‘Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System’, or ARGUS-IS. Named after Argus Panoptes – a multi-eyed mythological Greek giant entrusted with safeguarding the heifer nymph Io from Zeus’s rapacious lust – the surveillance device uses 368 mobile phone cameras to deliver what is termed ‘Wide Area Persistent Stare’ and is an advanced version of the more rudimentary imaging system christened ‘Gorgon Stare’. (Weapons manufacturers have a fondness for mythological, zoological and anthropological nomenclature, with planes and helicopters conforming to honorific and crypto-colonialist naming patterns: from F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons to AH-64 Apaches and CH-47 Chinooks.) Although intended for surveilling foreign civilian populations unencumbered by human rights laws, privacy advocates speculate that such surveillance systems may already be deployed domestically.

ARGUS is the brainchild of the US Government’s ‘Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’ (DARPA), whose Orwellian ‘Information Awareness Office’ was defunded by Congress in 2003 owing to fears that it could expand into a mass surveillance system (fears which Edward Snowden confirmed a decade later). Its heraldic symbol, the all-seeing Eye of God, is a persistent theme in US iconography, signifying Divine Providence along with its corresponding imperialist ideology, Manifest Destiny, represented by an incomplete pyramid on the dollar bill.

Providence, from the Latin providentia (pro ‘ahead’ and videre ‘to see’, meaning ‘foresight’ or ‘foreknowledge’), personifies Christian theology’s spiritual melding of pastoralism and miraculous intervention. The concept, as it applies to US history, was perhaps best summed up in George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789 when he spoke of ‘the favorable interpositions of His providence’ over the course of the Revolutionary War. A more recent US Army general captured the sentiment in blunter terms: ‘It’s kind of like having God overhead. And lightening comes down in the form of a Hellfire.’ Hellfire being the missile of choice in drone warfare, second only to its British cousin, the Brimstone — soon to arm variants of the Predator drone (paternalistically rebranded the Protector by the Royal Air Force) as part of a fleet of SkyGuardians, described unironically as ‘Medium Altitude, Long Endurance’ (MALE) remotely piloted vehicles. It’s impossible not to imagine Psalm 23 providing a bucolic soundtrack to this warrior-shepherd’s flock: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.’

Whatever the ill-fated blimp’s payload, there is a more insidious consequence of this kind of overwatch than the actual threat it poses to people’s privacy or security – and that is its perceived threat. As one military report made clear in its recommendations, the balloons in Afghanistan ‘serve as a great deterrent even if they aren’t operational. INS [insurgents] and LNs [local nationals] alike believe the blimp can see everything and will act differently when it’s up.’ The very presence of an eye in the sky serves as a kind of airborne panopticon, irrespective of its true capabilities. Like the omniscient stare in Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century circular prison, wide-area surveillance offers governments a means to control their populations through sheer apprehension, or what Michel Foucault called a ‘disciplinary’ power mechanism.

Mohammadullah, a resident of Kunar province in Afghanistan, described the sensation of living under a surveillance blimp in an interview with The New York Times: ‘Whenever our female family members walk in the yard during the day, or whenever we want to say “hi” to our wife when we sleep on rooftops, we feel someone is watching us.’ One can imagine the deeper psychological effects on civilian populations subjected to more aggressive forms of surveillance. After a drone attack killed his 67-year-old grandmother and injured his nine-year-old sister in Pakistan, 13-year-old Zubair Ur Rehman testified before the US Congress: ‘Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear.’ The persistent fear caused by these ecclesiastically-themed systems of social control brings to mind the pervasive paranoia characteristic of certain ultra-orthodox Protestant sects. As Elizabeth Proctor remarks in Arthur Miller’s allegorical play about McCarthyism, The Crucible (1953), set among the Puritan community of Massachusetts Bay Colony during the Salem witch trials of 1693: ‘The magistrate sits in your heart that judges you.’ God needs no thunderbolt if His wrath has been sufficiently internalized.

1693 was also the year that a group of Anabaptists in Switzerland, led by a man named Jakob Ammann, broke away from their congregation to form what would become the first Amish community. Among the strict and varying idiosyncrasies of their Ordnung, or ‘order’, notable is the practice of stitching faceless dolls. Like a computer’s camera which can be secretly switched on, the Amish believe that a doll’s eyes are portals to spirits that could possess their children. This, together with the prohibition on idolatry and photography, gives rise to a metaphysical mixed blessing: without faces, there can be no facial recognition.

One of the unexpected outcomes of consumer technology is that, while dystopian literature may have imagined a future in which our privacy is stolen by the state, the reality is that the post-millennial digital generation has surrendered it voluntarily. Our biometric data is made legible every time we unlock a Mac with our fingerprint, or voice activate Amazon’s Alexa, or spit into a tube and mail it to 23andMe. Even facial recognition software, once a bugbear of the Chinese and Russian governments, is now promoted enthusiastically on the new iPhone X. We have willingly given it all away. Like their Amish predecessors who emigrated from Europe to escape persecution by the state, what has driven many in today’s burgeoning neo-Luddite movements to renounce technological conveniences is the realization that such innovations are often developed to control, rather than facilitate, social interactions.

With a didactic complexity more akin to myth than fable, the photograph of a carthorse and a blimp is inscribed with a series of political and ideological binaries: theocratic vs. technocratic; pacifist vs. militarist; agrarian vs. industrial; ascetic vs. consumer; frugal vs. profligate. Yet, when we look at this image, rife as it is with contradiction, what we are also looking at is a study in authoritarianism – theological and technological – and a contest for control, played out in one of the most religiously fundamentalist secular nations on earth, in which the hubris of imperial might is humbled by the Almighty. It is a scene of cosmic comedy: the weaponized whimsy of a military superpower falling flaccid into the field of a peaceable parishioner.

David Birkin is an artist based in New York, USA. His video Charade (2018) was commissioned by the human rights organization Reprieve and was recently screened at the BFI, Southbank as part of Art Night, London, UK. His skywriting project Severe Clear, a collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union, has been shown at The Mosaic Rooms, London; Casino, Luxembourg; and Benaki Museum, Athens. His work is included in ‘She Sees the Shadows’, at Mostyn, Llandudno, UK, until 4 November.

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