The Evil of banality in a wired world

Warwick McFadyen

December 29, 2013

How is it possible to preach love in a wired world where we know drones are killing civilians?


Illustration: Matt Davidson

I don’t want to know about evil/I only want to know about love. Yes, it sounds like someone has been at the bottom of the garden talking philosophy and teapots with the fairies. But a year such as the one about to end tends to ferment such thoughts.

I can’t take credit for the couplet, however. It was written by British songwriter John Martyn, who was known to having a liking for the odd reefer or three. (I saw him in concert in London years ago with a giant joint wedged into the neck of his guitar.)

But I digress. From the bottom of the garden to land’s end, metaphorically, where the time is out of joint. Shakespeare heaped the worries of the world on Hamlet’s shoulders:

Let us go in together,/And still your fingers on your lips, I pray./The time is out of joint – O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!/Nay, come, let’s go together.

How to set the world to rights, there’s the rub. Hamlet was merely talking about his small world of Denmark. But there are no small worlds now. Things still fall apart as they always have, but now we know about it instantly.

When Archduke Ferdinand was shot dead in 1914, it was said the shot was heard around the world because of the chain of events it triggered leading to WWI. Now, a shot is not only likely to be heard, it is likely to go viral. A massacre, an assassination, a coup. We know so much, yet learn so little.

Ignorance isn’t really an excuse in this day and age. You have to work at it, be wilful. But even if you plunge wilfully into this great sea of information, it has its perils. You can drown from despair and/or cynicism. It’s true we now have unprecedented levels of unfettered choice, but this freedom may be just another word for nothing left to choose. We can try to swim to shore, turn our back on the waves, but how hard is it to truly switch off? It takes willpower. You must swim against technology’s tide and, short of an apocalypse, the tide will not stop.

In two days, the clocks will strike 12. High hopes will be declared, resolutions will be proclaimed. The Queen at Christmas said people needed to get ”the balance right between action and reflection”. The Pope invited the world to ”unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace”.

Lovely words. Lovely sentiments. It’s not called the silly season for nothing. Time may be given shape by a calendar, but the events of history can often be free radicals – and the most radical is war. As it was this year. War is not just the big ones: it’s the civil ones, the skirmishes, the coups, the tribal conflicts, the assaults of one group against another.

Throughout history wars have been marked finite: WWI, WWII, the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War, Vietnam. Even the Cold War.

Not any more. War now may have departure dates of troops from foreign lands and their return, but the aggression of intention against another is continuous. It is without frontiers. The war on terror didn’t begin after 9/11, nor did it end with the death of Osama bin Laden.

It’s a continuous operation and its two most far-reaching instruments are surveillance and drones. Both are not confined to theatres of war; in time, they will seep into all aspects of life.

Drones will be able to help in, for instance, fighting bushfires and monitoring traffic flows, but the more troubling aspect is intrusive. In a military operation an individual can be targeted by a drone, the data recorded and stored and, as more data comes in, the cross-referencing of their movements begins. A person’s entire pattern of life can be seen and thus analysed.

This is a revolution in warfare and, indeed, in human-state interaction as monumental as the laying of rail lines across continents and the establishment of the telegraph. It is the future. Edward Snowden’s disclosures on American surveillance within his country and globally show how close to the future we are.

US President Barack Obama is caught in the middle of defending both drones and spying and, as is the case when you’re stuck in the middle, appearing to not know the way out. It does not help when you say one thing and do another.

Last May, Obama said: ”A perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” It has cost America, the President acknowledged, 7000 lives and a trillion dollars.

Yet in Dubai, the US Defence Department runs a drone operation that can, according to an article in The Atlantic by Mark Bowden, ”maintain capability for 65 simultaneous combat air patrols”, each of which involve drones. America is going to dismantle this? It is the eye-in-the-sky advantage. It is sending drones to Iraq and its drones haven been accused this week of killing civilians in Yemen.

Eliot Cohen, who lectures at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote recently in relation to Syria: ”Despite the hopes of some proponents of an air campaign, this would not be surgical. No serious application of air power ever is, despite administration officials’ claims about the drone campaign, which, as we now know, has killed plenty of civilians. A serious bombing campaign means civilian casualties, at our hands. And it may mean US and allied casualties too, because the idea of a serious military effort without risk is fatuous.”

How will the twinning of surveillance and drone play out? Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, says one day his company may use drones as a delivery service. He may have been at the bottom of the garden when he said it, but who knows? In 100 years, all this worry about the diminishing of the human may be just a jeremiad.

But this year has fuelled the thought that what is good or bad is not always predicated on evil. Hannah Arendt, reporting on Adolf Eichmann’s trial more than half a century ago, gave the world the phrase ”the banality of evil”.

Perhaps there is also a case for the phrase ”the evil of banality” when the speed of technological change is so fast, yet seemingly so innocent, we cannot comprehend its true impact. In its wake, everything blurs.

Yes, it’s getting hard to listen/Hard for us to use our eyes/’Cause all around the gold is glistening/Making sure it keeps us hypnotised.

That is Martyn again. I can hear him calling from the bottom of the garden.

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Posted on December 29, 2013, in ConspiracyOz Posts. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on Real News Australia and commented:
    “When the speed of technological change is so fast, yet seemingly so innocent, we cannot comprehend its true impact. In its wake, everything blurs.”


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