This Artist's Database Compiles All Known Data on the Drone Wars

But all it shows is that more data doesn't mean more power.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Images: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

London-based artist James Bridle has previously given viewers a peek into the realities of mass surveillance and drone warfare. Bridle's latest work takes those occasional glimpses we get of the drone war and collates them all in one place: a single database of everything to do with drones.

"A Quiet Disposition" is named after the Disposition Matrix—the name given to the shadowy "kill list" of suspects targeted by US military drones.

"Somewhere at the heart of the covert drone war is this database," Bridle told me when I met him at the V&A museum in London, the location of his latest exhibition. "We don't know if it's a single database and we don't know to what extent it's automated or how the information is gathered … But what we do know is that there is a list with people's names on it and those people get killed."

It builds on prior work including his "Dronestagram" project, which reveals snapshots of drone strike locations, and his "drone shadows," which remind passers-by of the presence of UAVs in far-flung skies. But none of those past projects puts the entirety of the drone war in one place.

For about a year and a half, his database has been working with whatever information does get reported. "A Quiet Disposition," which as of this week is publicly available online, is, in Bridle's words, "like a really dumb AI." 

It essentially combs through news websites for terms related to drones, and extracts significant words like names and places. Links are then drawn between the terms in the database and weighted depending on how often the same connections are drawn.

Search a term and you can see how often it occurs, what other terms it's linked to, and peruse the relevant documents—it's a tantalising hint of quantified knowledge with no overarching qualitative meaning.

The overall result is vast, containing tens of thousands of documents, but it's also quite senseless, only inferring meaning through the relations it picks up on. "So it's just this huge web of metadata," explained Bridle, and the inferences of that word aren't lost on him either. The homepage of the database quotes former NSA Director Michael Hayden: "We kill people based on metadata."

The idea that more data is power—that's what the NSA thinks

Bridle's growing database is as much about the vastness and limitations of Big Data as it is about the actual drone-related content. He's previously printed some of the data in books, "just to kind of emphasise the vastness of this data, and the fact that it's always slightly unknowable, and the fact that it makes mistakes."

The online version of the database is the result of a commission by the Open Data Institute, and Bridle produced a printed newspaper based on some of the data for the V&A's Digital Design Weekend. Three stacks of 1,000 papers called "The Remembrancer" were piled in the museum's great halls for unsuspecting visitors to pick up like a free magazine.

The content of the paper is divided into 46 columns, each titled with the name of a company. Bridle explained that the work was created by pitting his drone database against financial data from London's business centre. 

"Actually, that turned out to be really hard because there isn't much open financial data; you have to pay an absolute bloody fortune to get anywhere near any real stuff," he said.

He ended up simply comparing the FTSE 350 against "A Quiet Disposition," and seeing which companies appeared in both data sets. Forty-six did.

Some of the links were obvious; BAE Systems and Qinetiq, for example, are directly involved in drone manufacture. Others are linked to drones in less sinister ways, such as Dominos Pizza, which has touted drone delivery as a PR stunt. Bridle found Dairy Crest, a British dairy product manufacturer, the most confusing.

But any company the database recognises finds itself on the list, regardless of whether there's a clear reason for them to be there, just as names mysteriously end up on the real-life Disposition Matrix. "I feel that by association, by inference, they're linked to the drone campaign, to the drone wars, and everything that implies," Bridle said.

To create the "articles" about each company, Bridle used a Markov text generator, which builds realistic-sounding but meaningless text. It's the same kind of system used to generate spam emails, and Bridle describes it as "something that looks like human language to a machine." A sample nonsensical sentence from the Coca-Cola entry reads: "Coca-Cola decided the drones are the rest of money is the litigation's to the norm through its Amazon wins."

The absence of comprehension ties back into Bridle's statement on the unknowability of Big Data: Just having the information doesn't make it mean anything.

He admitted that this perhaps contradicts the mission of the Open Data Institute, which pushes for more data to be publicly available. "The idea that more data is power—that's what the NSA thinks," he said.

WikiLeaks and the NSA both believe there's a massive secret out there, and if they just get hold of the secret everything will be better

Bridle's position questions the "radical transparency" of groups like WikiLeaks, and the idea that simply knowing more will make things better. It's impossible to discuss the subject without reference to Edward Snowden and Bridle pointed out that the outcome of the NSA leaks wasn't all that great. 

"While we now know loads more about what's going on, it hasn't made it go away," he said. "In fact, it's kind of legitimised it—like most of the stuff that's been revealed was in like a legal grey area and now it's been signed into law."

He credited his friend and fellow artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan with showing him that WikiLeaks and the NSA actually have a very similar view of the world. "They both believe there's a massive secret out there, and if they just get hold of the secret everything will be better," Bridle said.

To be clear, Bridle is generally not against transparency and is for greater equality of information; he just doesn't believe that simply knowing more will help anything. His database shows the inadequacy of a computer system to process information with meaning, but it also reveals our own incapability to do the same.

When I asked him what he suggested as a solution to the transparency quandary, he said that we have to "evolve ways of thinking that understand that things are incredibly complex," and that the technologies we're building might be able to help us out in that mission.

"What I think eventually we'll figure out is how to deal with that complexity without freaking out," he said. "But it's not going to be by eventually cramming everything into a computer and doing something with it."