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Drone Country: See America From Above

Affordable drones are giving us a new—perhaps temporary—vantage on the world

When a drone looks at a thing, that thing has a way of looking like a target. People become silhouettes at a shooting range. Buildings look vulnerable, their roofs helplessly exposed and defenseless. Most colors disappear, and the remaining blacks, whites and greys evacuate the scene of all human meaning. What we see becomes data: body counts, damage reports, strategic value.

In these photos, shot as part of an ongoing series, Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve looks at America through the eyes of a drone, a small quadcopter he bought online and equipped with a high-resolution camera. “A drone seems particularly appropriate because it’s increasingly how America views the rest of the world,” he says. “I wanted to turn things around. What do we look like from a drone’s-eye view? Suspicious? Prosperous? Free and happy?” Every age brings with it new technology for looking at the world. Van Houtryve has embraced the technology of ours.

Drones are becoming an increasingly common sight in our domestic airspace. Pilots have started spotting them from airliners: the FAA reports up to 40 cases a month in which drones are seen exceeding the legal ceiling of 400 feet. As they get cheaper, more popular and more ­plentiful—one online community for enthusiasts, DIY Drones, has over 60,000 members—they are bringing with them a host of unanswered questions, and the White House is scrambling to bring regulatory order to the aerial chaos. In December, the Federal Aviation Administration delayed its long-awaited guidelines on drone flights, initially due next year, until 2017. The questions are about safety, but also about privacy: we’re a lot more comfortable looking through drones than suffering their all-seeing, all-judging gaze.

From this godlike point of view, teenagers playing lacrosse on a field look like lunar shadows of themselves. A housing development in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., takes on an abstract geometric beauty. Everything every­where looks silent and calm, still and waiting. Even scenes of economic and ecological chaos take on their own serene perfection. In California’s Central Valley, van Houtryve found order in rows of houseboats moored in a reservoir. Rings on the shoreline show how profoundly the water level has been reduced by months of drought.

Tomas van Houtryve photographs Lake Oroville Carl Costas

That same order is echoed by rows of RVs parked near an Amazon fulfillment center near Reno, Nev. (coincidentally, Amazon is where van Houtryve bought his drone). Migrant workers flock there in RVs for the extra jobs that materialize during the holiday season and then, like the water in that California reservoir, evaporate into thin air. In a strange way, the pitilessness in the drone’s stare inspires its opposite in human eyes: empathy.

Tomas van Houtryve is a Paris-based photographer, artist and writer. His reporting on this story was supported in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

Lev Grossman is TIME’s book critic and its lead technology writer. He is also the author of the New York Times bestselling novels The Magicians and The Magician King.

Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.

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The Man Who Wired the World

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Zuckerberg in Chandauli, a village in India where a new computer center opened this year Ian Allen For TIME

Mark Zuckerberg’s crusade to put every single human being online

Chandauli is a tiny town in rural India about a four-hour drive southwest of New Delhi. India’s a big country, and there are several Chandaulis. This is the one that’s not on Google Maps.

It’s a dusty town, and the roads are narrow and unpaved. A third of the people here live below the poverty line, and the homes are mostly concrete blockhouses. Afternoons are hot and silent. There are goats. It is not ordinarily the focus of global media attention, but it is today, because today the 14th wealthiest man in the world, Mark Zuckerberg, has come to Chandauli.

READ THE FULL STORY HERE.

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How Apple Is Invading Our Bodies

Apple Watch Cover
TIME Photo-illustration. Hand: Milos Luzanin–Alamy

The Silicon Valley giant has redrawn the line that separates our technology and ourselves. That may not be a good thing

For the full story, read this week’s TIME magazine.

With the unveiling of the Apple Watch Tuesday in Cupertino, California, Apple is attempting to put technology somewhere where it’s never been particularly welcome. Like a pushy date, the Apple Watch wants to get intimate with us in a way we’re not entirely used to or prepared for. This isn’t just a new product, this is technology attempting to colonize our bodies.

The Apple Watch is very personal—“personal” and “intimate” were words that Apple CEO Tim Cook and his colleagues used over and over again when presenting it to the public for the first time. That’s where the watch is likely to change things, because it does something computers aren’t generally supposed to: it lives on your body. It perches on your wrist, like one of Cinderella’s helpful bluebirds. It gets closer than we’re used technology getting. It gets inside your personal bubble. We’re used to technology being safely Other, but the Apple Watch wants to snuggle up and become part of your Self.

This is new, and slightly unnerving. When technologies get adopted as fast as we tend to adopt Apple’s products, there are always unintended consequences. When the iPhone came out it was praised to the skies as a design and engineering marvel, because it is one, but no one really understood what it would be like to have it in our lives. Nobody anticipated the way iPhones exert a constant gravitational tug on our attention. Do I have e-mail? What’s happening on Twitter? Could I get away with playing Tiny Wings at this meeting? When you’re carrying a smartphone, your attention is never entirely undivided.

The reality of living with an iPhone, or any smart, connected device, is that it makes reality feel just that little bit less real. One gets over-connected, to the point where the thoughts and opinions of distant anonymous strangers start to feel more urgent than those of your loved ones who are in the same room as you. One forgets how to be alone and undistracted. Ironically enough experiences don’t feel fully real till you’ve used your phone to make them virtual—tweeted them or tumbled them or Instagrammed them or YouTubed them, and the world has congratulated you for doing so. Smartphones create needs we never had before, and were probably better off without.

The great thing about the Apple Watch is that it’s always there—you don’t even have to take it out of your bag to look at it, the way you would with an iPhone. But unlike an iPhone you can’t put the Apple Watch away either. It’s always with you. During the company’s press event the artist Banksy posted a drawing to his Twitter feed of an iPhone growing roots that strangle and sink into the wrist of the hand holding it. You can see where he was coming from. This is technology establishing a new beachhead. To wear a device as powerful as the Apple Watch makes you ever so slightly post-human.

What might post-humanity be like? The paradox of a wearable device is that it both gives you control and takes it away at the same time. Consider the watch’s fitness applications. They capture all data that your body generates, your heart and activity and so on, gathers it up and stores and returns it to you in a form you can use. Once the development community gets through apping it, there’s no telling what else it might gather. This will change your experience of your body. The wristwatch made the idea of not knowing what time it was seem bizarre; in five years it might seem bizarre not to know how many calories you’ve eaten today, or what your resting heart rate is.

But wearables also ask you to give up control. Your phone will start telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat and how far you should run. It’s going to get in between you and your body and mediate that relationship. Wearables will make your physical self visible to the virtual world in the form of information, an indelible digital body-print, and that information is going to behave like any other information behaves these days. It will be copied and circulated. It will go places you don’t expect. People will use that information to track you and market to you. It will be bought and sold and leaked—imagine a data-spill comparable to the recent iCloud leak, only with Apple Watch data instead of naked selfies.

The Apple Watch represents a redrawing of the map that locates technology in one place and our bodies in another. The line between the two will never be as easy to find again. Once you’re OK with wearing technology, the only way forward is inward: the next product launch after the Apple Watch would logically be the iMplant. If Apple succeeds in legitimizing wearables as a category, it will have successfully established the founding node in a network that could spread throughout our bodies, with Apple setting the standards. Then we’ll really have to decide how much control we want—and what we’re prepared to give up for it.

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