Dronestagram: the locations behind America's secret drone war

These are the places most of us will never see. We do not know these landscapes and we cannot visit them.

October 11: a seminary in Bulandkhel, on the border of Orakzai and North Waziristan, Pakistan.

At dawn, on October 18: the outskirts of the town of Jaar, in southwestern Yemen.

The evening of October 21: a road through Waadi Abida, in the province of Maarib, Yemen.

October 24: a house in the village of Tappi, North Waziristan, Pakistan.

October 28: eastern Saada, the poorest and least accessible province of Yemen.

In the early hours of November 7, the night of the US election: Beyt al-Ahmar, a small village just 40km from Sana'a, Yemen's capital.

These are the names of places. They are towns, villages, junctions and roads. They are the names of places where people live and work, where there are families and schools. They are the names of places linked by one thing: they have each been the location of drone strikes in the past couple of months.

They are the names of places most of us will never see. We do not know these landscapes and we cannot visit them.

What can reach them are drones, what can see them — if not entirely know them — are drones. Most commonly, these are MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, the size of a Cessna, piloted in these cases not by the military, but the CIA. At anywhere between five and fifty thousand feet, the drones are impervious to the weapons of the people below them, and all-seeing across the landscape. Drones are just the latest in a long line of military technologies augmenting the process of death-dealing, but they are among the most efficient, the most distancing, the most invisible. These qualities allow them to do what they do unseen, and create the context for secret, unaccountable, endless wars. Whether you think these killings are immoral or not, most of them are by any international standard illegal.

For a few weeks now, I have been posting images of the locations of drone strikes to the photo-sharing site Instagram as they occur, under the name Dronestagram. Making these locations just a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism compiles reports from Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Their records, drawn from local newspapers and the international wires services, are publicly accessible. A variety of sources are used to locate a suitable view for each image, including the original media reports, wikipedia, local government and media sites, often translated from Arabic by Google's translation engine. Many are in outlying areas and the information on exact locations is scarce; where a precise location is not given, the view should be within a few kilometres in most cases. The landscapes and the places and their names are real.

The BIJ is currently only reporting on those three territories, where covert drone operations are occurring. Drones are in constant use in Afghanistan by British and American forces. Neither release any regular information about their use. The RAF has not even posted a public operations update since mid-September, which in any case only refer vaguely to reconnaissance, while Defence Minister Phillip Dunne was recently forced to admit in the Commons that UK drones have been used in almost 350 attacks in Afghanistan since 2008 (that’s a drone strike every four days), and recently moved to double the size of its fleet of Reaper drones.

Drones are also used under dubious circumstances in many other parts of the world, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran. China just unveiled it's own Wing Loong (Pterodactyl) drone. When information about other strikes is available, these will be included in Dronestagram too.

The political and practical possibilities of drone strikes are the consequence of invisible, distancing technologies, and a technologically-disengaged media and society. Foreign wars and foreign bodies have always counted for less, but the technology that was supposed to bring us closer together is also used to obscure and obfuscate. We use military technologies like GPS and Kinect for work and play; they continue to be used militarily to maim and kill, ever further away and ever less visibly.

Yet at the same time we are attempting to build a 1:1 map of the world through satellite and surveillance technologies, that does allow us to see these landscapes, should we choose to go there. These technologies are not just for “organising” information, they are also for revealing it, for telling us something new about the world around us, rendering it more clearly.

History, like space, is coproduced by us and our technologies: those technologies include satellite mapping, social photo sharing from handheld devices, and fleets of flying death robots. We should engage with them at every level. These are just images of foreign landscapes, still; yet we have got better at immediacy and intimacy online: perhaps we can be better at empathy too.

This post is an edited version of a post originally published at BookTwo.org

Instagram becomes Dronestagram

James Bridle is a writer, artist, publisher and technologist usually based in London, UK.

Photo: Getty
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No, Virgin Trains East Coast, I will not bid for the “luxury” of first class

Train tickets are already the height of decadence. 

You're sitting in standard class on a train journey from London to Edinburgh, and it's rammed. The man whose elbow keeps digging into yours is eating chips, and the grease is making you feel sick. You keep bumping legs with the man opposite. The woman sitting next to him is listening to music, with headphones seemingly designed to emit a tinny, irritating beat. And this is only the start. You've got five hours left to go. 

Virgin Trains East Coast wants to offer you a way out of this hellhole. Disgruntled standard class passengers can now bid for an upgrade to first class, where they can stretch out their legs, log in to the free wifi, proffer their glass for a top up of wine and look forward to their complimentary dinner. Prices start at just £5. According to the company's commercial director, this will allow passengers a chance to "treat themselves". The chief executive of Seatfrog, Iain Griffin, which runs the bidding platform, said it gave passengers "the chance to get a really good deal".

I can only assume Iain is a man who has never caught a Virgin Trains East Coast train before. Let's assume you're able to plan ahead. An advance ticket for a train leaving London on Wednesday 11 October at 7pm and returning at 7.35pm on Friday will set you back £72.50. That's the cheapest option. Or you can catch the Megabus, which takes more than 9 hours to get there. In fact, the price varies wildly. Buy a similar journey next week, and the cheapest tickets cost £102.50.

What riles the true East Coaster is also that it wasn't always this way. During the golden age, 2009 to 2015, East Coast was managed by the government (yes,  nationalised trains), and it had a generous loyalty programme, which allowed frequent travellers to trade points for full train journeys. It was still pricey (and profitable for the government), but regular customers felt valued, and there was a vigorous campaign to stop the government handing the franchise to Virgin Trains. 

Virgin promptly switched the loyalty scheme to Nectar. As the campaign group Save East Coast Rewards pointed out at the time, a £255 spend that once earned you a free train ticket now merely bought a sandwich. Not only that, but travellers complained that the cheapest advance tickets were harder to get hold of. 

It is already common for the East Coast traveller sitting in a packed train to be serenaded by announcements that the First Class carriages are spacious and empty. With First Class carriages taking up a third of all carriages on some journeys, there seems to me a more obvious solution - abolish First Class. 

Over the years, and especially during the golden age of nationalisation, I did occasionally find it worth my while to upgrade and drink wine for five hours straight. For £5 extra, it is great. One time, before it was abolished, I even had dinner in the buffet car. But £5 is the minimum starting bid, not the maximum, and frankly, I don't need to "treat myself" when I travel by Virgin Trains East Coast. Every time I pay more than £100 for a train to go home to visit my family in Edinburgh, I'm spending more than I would do for any other luxury. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.