No, it’s not April 1.
Just wanted to throw out that reassurance to readers of The Washington Post, who might have questioned today’s date after encountering the paper’s article about the possibility of “robobugs”—government- engineered, robotic cameras made to look like flying insects—being used to spy on antiwar protesters in D.C. and New York. Seriously.
Talk about an eyeball-grabbing headline: “Dragonfly or Insect Spy? Scientists at Work on Robobugs.” And the story it heads is nothing if not amusing—it’s hard not to chuckle at the image the piece conjures of a fleet of government-engineered dragonflies swarming above political rallies, “Flight of the Valkyries,” perhaps, blaring in the background. “Dragonfly” is about more than humor, though; it implies a political environment that is at once Kafkaesque and Orwellian—one in which Big Brother (Big Bugger?) is as invasive and insidious as, literally, a fly on the wall.
But for all the noise it seems intent on generating, “Dragonfly,” like the insects it writes about, is bigger in buzz than in body. It’s thinly sourced; it sites only “a handful” of people who believe they’ve been spied on during a September peace march in D.C. and a New York City antiwar rally that took place during 2004’s Republican National Convention—and only two of them are quoted by name. The article’s author, Rick Weiss, skirts the sourcing issue by making the story not an answer of the “dragonfly or insect spy?” question, but rather an analysis of why the robot-looking insects could have been spies. “No agency admits to having deployed insect-size spy drones,” Weiss writes. “But a number of U.S. government and private entities acknowledge they are trying.” Caveat reader, in other words: the story you’re about to read is explanatory, not exclamatory, journalism.
But it’s questionable whether “Dragonfly” is Washington Post material in the first place. The article is essentially military history made “journalistic” by a weak “news” peg—the “sightings” by the “handful” of activists—and some choice quotes from experts. (“You might recall Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic Lord of the Rings used a moth to call in air support,” says one particularly eloquent researcher. “This science fiction vision is within the realm of reality.”) Weiss, to his credit, provides a fascinating evolutionary history of “robotic fliers,” starting with their WWII-era genesis, but focusing on the newer species of “literal shutterbugs”—from the CIA’s 1970s-era insectothopter* to DARPA’s cyborg moth* to the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project*’s cyborg beetle* to CalTech’s microbat ornithopter* to Georgia Tech’s entomopter.* Great, “who knew?” stuff, all of it.
“Dragonfly,” in extended form, would make a great story for The New Yorker*—or even, hey, a nice cover feature for Spy Drone Aficionado.** But the piece’s placement on the Post’s breaking-news pages is out of place. It groups the story with that growing swarm of articles whose primary goal seems to be not information, but circulation—articles that exist merely to generate buzz before they expire, in a blaze of glory, on a Most E-mailed list.
** (just kidding)
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