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Podcast: The Military’s Drone Obsession Isn’t Making It Better

How much data do we need to collect, what do we do with it, and what’s the purpose? Right now we’re just stuck on a treadmill of collecting because we can. We need to start asking the question “Why?”


The military is drowning in data: it collects eight NFL seasons’ worth of information every day.1 Drones are outfitted with cameras that can record 84 million pixels per second. The number of intelligence analysts has skyrocketed since 9/11.2

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, William Arkin describes America’s obsession with data-driven, drone-powered conflict. Arkin was a military analyst for many years; now he’s a reporter covering national security. His new book, “Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare,” argues that this relentless “treadmill” of collecting and targeting has prevented a larger conversation about why we’re fighting and how wars end. When everything is reduced to a tactical decision, it’s difficult to make moral judgments, he says.

Plus, this week’s Significant Digit: 70.1 percent of Americans 16 to 24 drive alone on their commute, according to newly released census data.

Stream or download the full episode above, and find a partial transcript, extra audio and video excerpts below.

Audio Extra

William Arkin discusses whether the U.S. military is vulnerable to a cyber attack.

Drone types, explained

How the military keeps up with big data

All targeting, no strategy

William Arkin: Here’s my lament in this book. When we think of fighting ISIS or we think of fighting al-Qaida, it’s almost as if [targeting] is all we’re able to do. We’ve become so good at this kind of targeted killing, and the weapons have become so precise, that we mistake our ability to find targets and destroy them with an actual military strategy. And that’s why I think these wars never end.

Jody Avirgan: That’s the underpinning of your book. There’s this infatuation with data that has blinded people to a larger sense of how we deploy our power.

Arkin: One of the things I learned in doing this book is that, in the end, it didn’t come out the way I expected it to. I learned about the way the intelligence world works today, [and it] was different from what my assumptions were. It alarms me that we are so IT- and information- oriented at the expense of the classic academic sense of what intelligence means to people. Intelligence means wisdom; it means there are real experts who have real expertise on countries, on people. I’m not saying that there aren’t those, but we haven’t increased those by thousands in the last 15 years; we’ve increased the number of IT technicians working on data in the last 15 years. So, we haven’t gotten much smarter.

Toward a Magna Carta of military information

Arkin: I don’t think that there’s some crazy person inside NSA or some devious mind at work who’s saying, “Let’s collect everything we can.” I think these are desperate people struggling with technologies that are completely new, who are paranoid and fearful of there being a strike on the United States that they are going to miss. So their only answer is, “Oh my God, let’s collect everything we can and hopefully we’re going to catch it.” We’re talking about deciding, within our society, what the Magna Carta of information is going to be. What are we going to decide are the limits of information?

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.


  1. All stats are drawn from William Arkin’s book.

  2. Arkin writes that there are now 100 analysts for every soldier actively engaged in combat. In the Vietnam era, that ratio was reversed.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.