Study Reveals Unconscious Gender and Racial Dynamics Influence Drone Use

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A drone vehicle is tested against a blue sky with jet contrails showing
A drone vehicle is tested.

Advances in technology open up an almost unlimited number of opportunities that will change our lives in ways that are often unimaginable. The computer and cell phone are cases in point; civilian drones seem poised to accomplish a similar transformation. Yet new technologies inevitably have unintended, and sometimes negative, consequences.

Researchers at Virginia Tech are examining those broader impacts.

Philip Olson, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, and Christine Labuski, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, both in the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, recently published an article in the journal Social Studies of Science revealing the often unconscious gender and racial dynamics that permeate thinking about the expansion and use of drones among the general public.

Olson and Labuski’s research addresses such issues as the social consequences of developing these technologies: Who gets to speak about their concerns and to whom?

“We would like to see a more richly diverse group of stakeholders at the table to talk about the development of new technologies like civilian drones,” said Olson.

Their study found that attitudes and beliefs about drones are shaped by a primarily white, masculine, technology-focused perspective.

Labuski and Olson argue that if this perspective is not expanded to include the views of more diverse groups, it limits the understanding of drone use — particularly with respect to how it may affect people of color, women, gender minorities, and individuals from lower socioeconomic groups.

Surveillance is a common concern among these groups, whose members have often had the experience of being watched and controlled by people with greater social power. For example, the practice of nonconsensual, “upskirt” photography illustrates why social groups accustomed to technological surveillance may have good reason to be more skeptical about the coming proliferation of commercial drones.

“A technology that some people see as empowering will appear threatening to other people,” said Labuski.

Drones are now becoming commonplace in everyday life. Virginia Tech is one of seven sites nationally that is studying how to integrate drones safely into U.S. airspace; the university’s researchers have pioneered new technology and conducted groundbreaking operations, and are informing policy, safety, and industry standards. With a unique drone park and progressive policies on campus, Virginia Tech is leading the way in education and training, too.

But Labuski and Olson note that a comprehensive approach to this technology should also address drones’ ethical implications and social impact.

“Virginia Tech has world-class researchers who specialize in the social study of science and technology,” Olson said. “It’s important to tap this talent when researching technologies as potentially transformative as civilian drones.”

As part of an interdisciplinary team representing three colleges and six departments, and with joint support from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment and Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, the researchers embarked on a two-year study to examine the social and ethical dimensions of drones.

They conducted five focus groups, with individuals who were drone users and those who were not. The researchers asked the participants about their views on themes such as safety, privacy, security, freedom, and public good.

In their article, Olson and Labuski state that participants consistently imagined drone users as men and the deployment of drones as a masculine endeavor. Many of the participants, even the women, were unaware of how their language and assumptions reflected a masculine, technology-based perspective.

It was only when Labuski identified herself as a women’s and gender studies professor that words like “she” or “they” were uttered in any of the focus-group conversations.

“This kind of invisibility is one of the ways that gender dominance works,” Labuski explained. “Maintaining a ‘masculine’ perspective doesn’t mean actively disparaging women. But it can mean, in the context of drones, for example, not being able to picture women in any role other than that of a Peeping Tom victim.”

When asked to imagine safety or privacy risks associated with drones, participants focused on aggressive topics such as trespassing or sexualized surveillance rather than on issues like immigration, harassment, and racial profiling — issues that tend to affect minority groups more negatively.

And, when asked about drone expansion, participants talked about issues in technological rather than social or ethical terms. “Many participants believed that technical expertise could successfully resolve social concerns about the misuse of civilian drones,” Olson said.

Olson and Labuski believe one way to address these unconscious assumptions and beliefs would be to formalize and encourage local, regional, and national conversations about drones, and to make sure these conversations include women, minorities, and drone users they label “emerging.” In fact, in their next round of research, the investigators plan to focus specifically on disadvantaged groups and how they may be thinking and feeling about drones.

“We have an opportunity to shift the conversation and focus on not only how drones can be used and their safety, but also their impact on people of all walks of life,” said Labuski. “Otherwise, we risk developing policies, standards, and societal norms that may be shaped by and reinforce stereotypes.”

“The field of Science, Technology and Society studies the relationship of science, technology, and their social, political and cultural contexts,” Olson said. “We train our students to facilitate informed public involvement.”

Labuski, as a core faculty member in Virginia Tech’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, also draws attention to the impact of technology on everyday American life. She coordinates an interdisciplinary biannual conference that explores the intersections between gender, bodies, and technology. The next conference, TechnoLogics: Power and Resistance, which will take place in spring 2019, will explore how recent events can teach society about power and how technology can be harnessed to reimagine that power in constructive ways.

Olson and Labuski see these programs, along with their future research, as crucial to better understanding the impact of drones and other technologies on all Americans as well as important in helping to facilitate informed public debate.

Written by Yancey Crawford