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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.