Remaking the Pilot: Unmanned Aviation and the Transformation of Work in Postagrarian North Dakota
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation examines changing forms of expertise and their institutionalization as piloting becomes an activity undertaken on the ground rather than in the sky. Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in and around the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota between 2010 and 2015, I show how the maturation and proliferation of unmanned aircraft or drones has precipitated changes in what it means to be a pilot that, in turn, index wider transformations in contemporary work. The forms of skill associated with operating an aircraft are revealed to be in flux, as drone pilots learn to compose environments for perception and action and to navigate new media infrastructures. Yet transindividual social forms also prove to be evolving, as the profession of piloting is riven by heterogeneous temporalities and as the hobby takes on new importance as a handler of exceptions. This dissertation seeks to push past the fascination with spatial discontinuity that marks so many responses to the drone, and to locate the elaboration of this technology in a particular, troubled place. In making sense of a coordinated, decade-long effort to position North Dakota as a center of the unmanned aviation industry, I develop an account of Plains biopolitics, a regionally specific mode of governance that aims to keep a sufficiently vital settler population in place by fostering an economic milieu in which potential outmigrants can and do choose to stay. It is, I argue, the failure of settlement that haunts Plains biopolitics, marking efforts to retain and grow the region’s (non-Native) population as at once a bid to maintain settler dominance and an expression of sublimated anxiety about settlement’s fragility.