One question—maybe the most pressing question—is how the public feels about that brutal ratio of one targeted death to five or six unintended. The evidence so far is that the public is more or less okay with it.
In Spring 2014 I was driving through Boston on my way to visit family in New Hampshire. I started researching what some good lunch options might be along the route we were taking and decided to try out a new app I’d just installed called Jelly. It’s kind of like an instant, mobile app version of Quora: you can ask the app a question that gets broadcast out to your friends and friends-of-friends. Then, within a few minutes, answers are beamed back to your phone. Presto, I can get local recommendations for a lunch spot!
I’d recently finished reading Ethan Zuckerman’s Rewire. The book discusses how the scope of information we encounter—what ideas we’re exposed to—is limited by the boundaries of our pre-established social networks, an important aspect of the filter bubble phenomenon. I was thinking about how my lunch scenario fit into what I’d just been reading, me leveraging my social connections to solve the most first world of problems. And then this notification unexpectedly pops up on my phone, instead of the lunch tip I was waiting for.
This was a notification from Josh Begley’s Metadata+, another app I’d recently installed. The app has a vague name, but its purpose is very particular. Whenever details emerge about a U.S. drone strike, it broadcasts a notification (also available via the Twitter handle @dronestream). It’s an invited interruption, a gentle reminder about how interconnectedness also includes 67-year-old midwives from North Waziristan.
Begley’s app is a great example of critical design. The first, and most obvious critique, is of the U.S. Government’s reliance on drone strikes abroad. The experience of living with this app shows just how infrequently we’re reminded that we are still at war, going on 14 years as of next Wednesday.
The other critique is about the capricious power Apple wields over digital culture. The name Metadata+ was chosen to obfuscate its purpose from app store reviewers, who rejected it repeatedly saying it was “not useful or entertaining enough.” Both Apple and Google have the last word on what software is deemed legitimate enough to install on a mobile phone. And as mobile phones increasingly become a default computing platform, it’s not hard to see the danger involved with censoring apps on the basis of political sensitivity. We’ve ceded control over the boundaries of permissible thought to corporate entities.
Which brings us to this past Sunday, when Apple decided to remove Metadata+ from the app store because of “excessively crude or objectionable content.”
Apple has a long and storied history of arbitrarily applying its decency policies to reject apps. As Sam Biddle has pointed out in Gawker, there are many, many other apps of questionable value that get approved all the time. It’s both a matter of inconsistency, and that political speech is being confined to those computers that happen to have keyboards and file systems.
But the larger issue, as pointed out by Zuckerman in his book, isn’t necessarily about what information is available to us, but rather that we care enough to seek it out. The removal of Metadata+ is about not being able to imagine why you’d want such a thing. And the extent that companies cater to our desires to be endlessly amused by safe and familiar material. We need these gatekeeper corporations to treat us more like digital cosmopolitans, to use Zuckerman’s phrase.
I was glad to learn from the Gawker piece that Begley is one step ahead of Apple on this one. He’s already released an identical version of the app, just with a different name: Ephemeral+.
Also, I highly recommend Life Alive for lunch, it’s a lovely vegetarian place in Salem, MA.
This morning, after turning off the interminable NPR coverage of the Republican primaries, I saw that The Morning News recently linked to this ABC News story about the case of Tariq Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani killed in a US drone attack.
In late October, he accompanied a group of tribal elders when they traveled down to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the anti-drone conference. There, he sat with dozens of foreign lawyers and journalists and displayed no signs of hatred or animosity at them or the government, according to the people who spoke with him. According to family and associates, he said he wanted to refute Washington’s claim that the drone program had killed zero civilians in the last few years.
I was struck by the wide range of civilian deaths in various reports compared to the CIA’s claim of zero civilian deaths. From Wikipedia:
Daniel L. Byman from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that experts disputed and have called absurd. Based on extensive research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that between 391 - 780 civilians were killed out of a total of between 1,658 and 2,597 and that 160 children are reported among the deaths.
Zero civilians is a pretty bold claim that I can only come up with two explanations of. Either each attack is backed up by thoroughly documented research or the CIA simply designates anyone they kill as a de facto terrorist. Perhaps it’s a mix of both, but without any public accountability we’ll probably never see evidence that it’s the former case.
If accurate, this description of drone tactics contradicts the “heavy research” explanation, and is eerily reminiscent of the follow-up bombing tactic used by Iraqi insurgents:
Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, [the attorney for Tariq’s family] did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.
It’s maybe no surprise then that two thirds of Pakistani journalists regard US drones attacks as acts of terrorism.
At least for now these attacks have been suspended.
Drone strikes were halted in November 2011 after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Salala incident.
Update: this NY Times article offers a more nuanced discussion of the "zero civilian deaths" claim. It sounds like John Brennan simply overstated drone effectiveness and offered a more evasive explanation that "the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths."
Update #2: I'm coming back to this post after several months, and thinking I might have underplayed this a little. Just to spell it out more clearly: an anti-drone activist, who was trying to draw attention to Pakistani civilian deaths, was himself killed by a drone. This would be kind of funny and ironic, if it wasn't so not funny.
Strangely, the coverage of this incident on Democracy Now has his name as Tariq Aziz.