Indignity Vol. 2, No. 87: The sky’s the limit.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 87: The sky’s the limit.
Miami, Florida. Photo: Joe MacLeod.

The Sky Drones Are Advertising That No One Can Protect the Skies

THEY'RE PUTTING ADVERTISING on the night sky. Again, I mean. They're putting advertising on the night sky again. I missed the first time, although it had always seemed to me, way back into the previous century, that this should be the red line, the point beyond which it would be necessary to resort to destruction, if not violence. They won't even leave the night sky alone.

They're using drones to do it. That was what they did the time before, the time I didn't even notice or hear about it. Then it was for the NBA Draft Presented by State Farm. Tonight it's for (I had to look this up again, the day after reading the article) Candy Crush. Instead of a video game you can play, it will be an animated representation of a video game, operated by someone else, that you can't control or turn off.

I learned about this, I think, in my kitchen. I think I was in the kitchen, cooking dinner, when I pulled the portable attention-box out of my pocket and gave it some of my attention, and it told me about the skyborne ads. I have a memory or an impression of the physical setting in which my eyes met the screen and the screen told me about the advertisements in the sky. Maybe it was that I was walking home, through the park aglow with autumn leaves, with my younger child at my side. The color has been sweeping down the trees from top to bottom and the leaves are starting to fall in earnest, so that the branches are still brilliant with color but the ground below is brilliant with color, too. Maybe that was what I wasn't looking at while I looked at the screen, getting mad about the ad in the sky.

The color is just pounding away out there. I got out of a cab into a pile of honey locust leaves and the taxi and the ground were one continuous blast of gold. I used my phone to take a picture of it, in too much of a hurry juggling the cat carrier to even compose it, one snap before the taxi drove off. Look at this:

Maybe I'll put it on Instagram. I paid attention to this, now you can pay attention, too. But despite Instagram/Facebook/Meta's worst efforts, that's still consensual. The only people who'll see it there are there to see things like it.

The advertising drones are supposed to take off from New Jersey, and keep their flight path in the skies there, because New York won't let them in. "Under the city’s Avigation Law," Gothamist reported, "flying one drone—let alone several hundred—is illegal anywhere in the five boroughs." Avigation! This computer's built-in dictionary doesn't even have the word, but the old American Heritage Dictionary on the shelf does: "[AVI(ATION) + (NAVI)GATION]." A word from a time when new technology had to be checked and registered into the lexicon.

In some sense, it makes me glad to know that the drones have to do a scummy workaround—that they know they're doing something wrong. The idea still survives, however tenuously, that it's not in fact a good or nice thing to jam a floating billboard up into the dome of the heavens where everybody has to see it. Some things are still off limits.

I could chip away at the principle of the thing by analogy, if I wanted to. We go to the beach in Delaware and there, in the same sky the ospreys cruise through searching the swells for fish, comes a light plane grumbling from south to north, trailing a banner for Geico or some other bullshit. I don't get mad at that, probably because planes have been doing that all my life, possibly also because it's so puny and concrete, the little plane and its banner, with a pilot actively negotiating the deal between themself and gravity and the air. Or skywriters, God bless 'em, leaving cryptic marks as the wind overpowers whatever they're trying to do.

For that matter, the truth is that when the clouds are sitting right, you can see the reflection of Times Square from more than a mile uptown—a concentrated smear of brightness, spilled carelessly onto the sky by the overflow of advertising. The sky is not exactly sacred around here.

Nor am I actually going to see these drones, in all likelihood. Maybe from the last apartment, with its view stretching off into New Jersey. Now we see the street, and some stretches of sky up high. The whole grandiose scheme of commandeering the city's skies—so attractive to supervillains—bounces off the immensity of the city itself. Everyone's in vertically stacked, horizontally oriented boxes. You get your little slice of view, and whatever you can see between buildings when you're out. Even the moon is a special occasion, on the handful of days a month that we happen to be in the right place at the right time to see it.

Regardless and also because of that, the idea of the clear night sky matters. It's like the wild elephants or the Amazon rainforest; I want to know that it's still there, that it's not being destroyed completely, thoughtlessly.

This is, I recognize, what the Candy Crush stunt is actually being forced onto. Not the physical sky, where it will log its furtive 10 minutes over New Jersey, but the concept of the sky, the idea that there's any place anyone can turn their eyes without someone trying to cash in on their attention. In the cab, I looked up through the moonroof, and between the clear blue November zenith and me there was the taxi's dorsal videoscreen, presenting colored text advertising a Louis Vuitton exhibition somewhere. The angle wasn't even meant for my eyes to read it—the cab had a whole separate interior screen for that—but it was in my line of sight regardless. The drones are there to tell you that you cannot look away.