Balloons and Kites and Watching Archaeologically

Balloon and kite photography has increasingly become part of the archaeologist tool kit. As my colleague Richard Rothaus explains, kites provide a relatively inexpensive method for taking aerial landscape photography. Archaeologists have also used balloons for such practices since the early part of the 20th century and balloons with kite-like aspects provide a relatively stable photography platform in even challenging environments. My impression is that kite and balloon photography developed, at least in part, during the 19th century in conjunction with both increasingly scientific map-making and military practices. Archaeologists, particularly those interested in landscapes, followed the lead of surveyors and the military tacticians and adapted both kites and balloons as low-cost alternatives for documenting archaeological remains. (In the 20th century, of course, satellite photographs and even our beloved GPS units are another point in this adapting military tools to archaeological needs. The line between military knowledge and archaeological intent remains quite fine and most archaeologists who work in strategically sensitive areas can tell (sometimes humorous) stories of the tension between local officials and their own easy access to high-resolution images of local strategic assets.)

With the growing popularity and sophistication of various unmanned aerial vehicles, the opportunities for low-level aerial photography and documentation have reached a new threshold. The University of North Dakota has been at the forefront of research into the design and use of UAVs and has come increasingly to recognize the potential threats to privacy that these kinds of technologies pose. For scholars in the humanities, however, the threat of a surveillance society is not particularly alarming or new. Since Foucault’s landmark Discipline and Punish, scholars have recognized surveillance as a crucial component of late capitalism and the production of a society designed around the optimal efficiency necessary to produce goods and ideas for the market. The expansion of the internet and various wired technologies in our everyday life (mobile phones, tablet computers, cars, et c.) ensures that companies monitor our daily transactions and movements to ensure that we can become perfect consumers. Online teaching – as I have argued elsewhere – has taken many of the ideas that we’ve learned from the internet, earlier forms of surveillance, and a pedagogy committed to transparency in the learning process and created an environment that prepares our students to move into a even more closely monitored society. In this context, the concern over privacy and UAVs seems an expected way to secure the barn door long after the horse has left.

That being said, the concepts of surveillance is not exclusive to corporate or government interests, however. Just as archaeologists have found technology developed for military purposes suitable for more subversive goals, we are recognizing low-cost techniques melded to the central tenets of the surveillance society can provide the basis for a subversive critique of at least some of the forces that produced this surveillance (either directly or indirectly). While we are all familiar with the threat that many law enforcement agencies see in citizens’ right to photograph or video record their interaction with the police, some colleagues here on the North Plains have begun to discuss using balloon and kite photography to document the activities of the oil companies in the Bakken Oil Patch. In particular, we have begun to think seriously about using new, low-cost balloon kits and open-source software to train residents of the Bakken counties to monitor the activities of oil companies.

This does two things. First it serves a practical purpose of providing a very recent aerial photographs of the rapidly changing activities in the oil patch. Second (and more significantly, I think), it provides an opportunity for archaeologists to teach local residents how to use  surveillance practices to regain some control over their local landscape. 

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