I was doored this past weekend, for the first time ever, after some 10,000 miles of city riding. It’s not worth getting into the semi-sordid details, but I made it through relatively unscathed despite the fact that I essentially landed on my face). Besides questions of what transpired, whether I had to go to the hospital, etc., many people were perhaps unduly sympathetic, wondering if I confronted the perpetrator with whatever righteous indignation apropos the gratuitous transgression (long story short, I did not).1
In fact, the sheer senselessness of the incident is precisely what I like about riding a bicycle in New York City: an underlying threat of violence necessitates an all-but-prescient ability to anticipate traffic of both the vehicular and pedestrian varieties, viz. an absurd degree of vigilance. A backwards analogy: The autonomous car is more an AI model of a seasoned cyclist than of a driver, and even though LIDAR and algorithms can accurately predict 99.9999% of possible traffic patterns and even account for the frequency of aberrations, there necessarily remains the (un)lucky millionth draw that escapes the range of known data.2
Thus, the diehards—fellow cyclists who have logged similarly untold miles in our fair city—were less concerned with the specifics, acknowledging the inevitability of such an occurrence with the mutual understanding that it’s the rider’s responsibility to anticipate a door in any given situation: It’s part of the game.
Because in retrospect, I should have gone wide and taken the lane instead of attempting to thread the needle, and my mistake is as clear as day to me (incidentally, the weather was absolute shit at the time of dooring). While I accept the responsibility and the consequences of my actions, the accident was neither a lapse of judgment nor an act of hubris but a leap of faith, a canonical case of the cyclist ‘eating the sins’ of the motorist (literal act of eating pavement notwithstanding).
Which is to say that it’s simply too much to expect debarking passengers to heed non-motorized traffic, and frankly no cyclist should expect the courtesy—after all, every last one of us has unknowingly committed the verysame negligence at some point. It’s precisely why people drive (or take taxis) in the first place: so they don’t have to pay attention to every stupid little thing. By forsaking the vicarious superiority of the internal combustion engine, so too do cyclists forfeit the luxury of distraction, of roving the world in a glass bubble… or, as it were, a metal cage.
And at risk of sounding completely deluded, this, for me, is the fundamental appeal of riding fixed: a brakeless bike doesn’t forgive you for making mistakes.
There is a growing body of literature—if news reports, essays, blogposts (reflexivity duly noted), etc. constitutes such—concerning the contemporary phenomenon of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, an easy shorthand for technologically-optimized efficacy in modern warfare. (The epigram is from an article on college-level UAV training from a recent Times Education Supplement.)
But if UAV has the euphemistic ring of a state school or an STD, or a prophylactic measure obliquely related to the latter—the letters ‘U’ and ‘V’ tend to suggest as much—common parlance prefers the slangy alternative.1 Drones have increasingly made headlines not only as an indication of America’s purported Omega-level superiority in strategically targeted carnage but also as a threat to a justifiably paranoid citizenship. The semantic irony, of course, is that naturally occurring drones are precisely the hive or colony members who do not work, the small fraction of ants or bees whose sole duties are to feed and mate (as opposed to gathering sustenance).2
Yet insofar as its homonymous forms are polysemous—etymologically related despite their semantic divergence—the third meaning of “drone” has particularly relevant subtext for the hapless hoi polloi, an uncannily felicitous connotation for the masses who may be in denial about UAVs.
As a function of human agency, to drone denotes a dull, monotonous manner or tone, colloquially equivalent to ‘carrying on,’ for which alternate descriptors such as discursive, meandering, aimless, etc. vaguely suggest sense of purposeless motion; second-order associations such as ennui and banality evoke a contrary metaphor of inertia or stasis qua static. This twofold characterization ultimately represents a kind of nothingness, specifically a empty signification, vocalization without peaks or troughs, speech sans the variation or modulation that conveys passion, emotional investment, or, as it were, fallibility.
To drone implies background noise, a low-pitched hum that does not register consciously, rather more subtle than the liminal roar of an airplane engine; not stimulus but possibly its very opposite, a soporific or otherwise anesthetic blanket of white noise. A drone becomes part of the landscape, an ontological given of an environment: in a word, omnipresent—the auditory evidence of existence.
Thus, on one hand, a drone is essentially senseless or meaningless, that which goes unnoticed (albeit not necessarily by design); on the other, to drone connotes persistence, super- (or sub-) human degree of endurance that comes at the expense of intelligence or autonomy.
But if the English Language informs our concept of aerial technology as much as it betrays and elucidates our ambivalence towards a paranoid present, another now-quotidian acronym belies its equally bleak subtext. Almost exactly half a century after Turing’s eponymous test entered the lexicon of artificial intelligence, a team at CMU has turned the concept on its head with the CAPTCHA, an oblique insinuation that any upstanding netizen might just be a malicious machine.3 The inverted imperative defines us as that which we are not—bot until proven human—capturing, so to speak, the vague concession that the robots have already won.
Insofar as the current generation of UAVs in service are instruments of mortal hand and eye, these glorified (and lethal) remote-controlled vehicles are not yet autonomous. In fact, both cases underscore the shortcomings of artificial intelligence (cf. employing humans to crack CAPTCHAs), and I was curious to learn of a new service that ‘learns’ from one’s Twitter behavior in order to publish 140-character missives from beyond the grave. Contrary to the social-media-soteriological morbidity of its intended purpose, I can only assume that it would also be possible to use _LivesOnin vivo as well, such that particularly lazy or otherwise uncommitted Twitter users can train their bot-ghosts to emulate their musings for perpetuity.
But I digress: Like its digital analogue, airspace is (for all intents and purposes) infinite, and the point has less to do with whether robots are actually out there than the fact that they are a permanent possibility of our ever-new reality—hovering out of sight as opposed to merely blips on the horizon.