Picture yourself going through your day and feeling a vibration in your pocket. You think that perhaps you got a text message or Facebook notification, so you pull out your phone. Instead of being greeted by a friendly message, though, your phone tells you that your government just killed three people.
That scenario played out for me four times last week, as America carried out drone strikes that killed a total of nine Yemenis.
The iPhone app Metadata+, created by journalist Josh Begley, sends users a notification every time a drone strike is reported. There are no graphic images—merely a tweet's worth of description and a pin on the map where it occurred.
I can say from first-hand experience: it’s uncomfortable. So much so that when the app was first titled “Drones+,” Apple rejected it from the iOS App Store five distinct times due to its “objectionable and crude” content.
Only after the app was given a new name, a new icon, and submitted for approval without a single mention of drone strikes was it able to slip by Apple’s filters. Once approved, the creators then filled the app with information on every known drone strike, and began sending notifications when new strikes occurred.
Unpleasant though these little interruptions may be, this is what informed citizenship looks like in the digital age.
As our interactions are increasingly digitized, it’s far too easy to live in a haze of electronic information in which entertainment is valued above education, and simulation is acceptable where reality is not.
Take, for example, the numerous existing iPhone apps that directly simulate drone warfare, allowing gamers to gun down enemy combatants. While these apps are apparently not considered “objectionable” or "crude,” an app that simply reports on on the same real-life events was rejected.
Among the highest-grossing video games of all time are first-person shooters, lauded for their ability to portray battle as accurately as possible. At the same time, mainstream American news outlets are timid to run images of war that they deem to be overly graphic. As an Egyptian viewer of American TV put it, “I watch CNN—nobody gets killed. I watch al-Jazeera—it’s like a tragedy."
This dichotomy isn't helped by the fact that our news and entertainment industries are tied together so inextricably.
NBC is owned by Comcast, the nation’s largest internet provider, which is slated to purchase Time Warner, which owns CNN. The Walt Disney Company owns ABC, along with a huge array of entertainment outlets in video games, movies, and television. Apple gets a cut of all sales through its App Store and (as we know) has veto power over any content therein.
If every American had a more intimate understanding of world events and US foreign policy—the actual lives lost, the graphic images from around the world—entertainment that profits from virtual blood-lust would undoubtedly be less successful. Are the media conglomerates going to promote a culture in which we’re truly in touch with the real-life tragedies that are so profitable in digital form? It hasn’t happened yet.
To be truly informed, we have to make the active choice to seek out uncomfortable information, because the overarching corporate culture isn’t going to present it to you.
The status quo has inertia. There are very real interests in a culture that placates us with entertainment rather than education.
To change is to disrupt.
If a simple message from Metadata+ is uncomfortable, it’s because the truth is uncomfortable. The tradeoff between security and human life is uncomfortable. The fact that our tax dollars and votes are supporting real violence and death and suffering is uncomfortable.
Wherever you fall in the debate on drone warfare, whether you’re in favor of or opposed to our remote-controlled campaigns, democracy is only possible through education, and we have a patriotic obligation to stay informed.
While it might be easier to put unpleasant facts out of sight and mind, the task of citizenship requires otherwise. The Afghans, Pakistanis, and Yemenis with drones flying overhead can’t ignore American foreign policy; we shouldn’t be able to, either.