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Works and Days

High-Tech Nothing

February 24th, 2012 - 11:26 am

Drones

Predators allow us to kill hundreds of would-be terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan in ways that we otherwise might not have with special forces missions. It gives us, then, new advantages. Yet Afghanistan will be won or lost not through technology per se, but through age-old considerations about the cost in blood and treasure of making the Taliban accept our political agenda of a constitutional Afghanistan, and the degree to which we select the proper balance between hearts-and-minds counter-insurgency and punitive killing of the enemy — and have courageous troops, good officers, fine equipment, sound strategy, and public support to carry out those missions. The danger, then, is that some think we can disconnect from the war, and assume console killing from Nevada substitutes for much of the cruel calculus of the battlefield.

The horror, the horror …

Of course, we can now see daily horrific images from Syria. Thousands there are photographing the Assad (no longer apparently Hillary Clinton’s purported “reformer”) atrocities, which in turn can then be text-messaged in real time around the world. That results in millions watching grotesqueries in a way they could not when the father’s bulldozers leveled Hama and 20,000 corpses beneath it.

But is the world thereby more moral, more shamed, now more ready to intervene and stop what it did not in Cambodia or Rwanda? Maybe, maybe not. But the decision will be made largely through a balance of humanitarian considerations and realpolitik (blowback from intervention, costs, losses, aftermath, etc.). These photographs from Syria may make our choices more clear, but I doubt they themselves will change much about our ultimate decisions — other than to cause greater embarrassments for a short time should we not act. The German people did not need photos from Auschwitz to know well enough what their government was engaged in; I remember hearing vague accounts of Rwanda, and could imagine the level of carnage without seeing hourly pictures. The Clinton administration chose not to intervene not because it did not have enough evidence.

Facebook to Google

When I walk about in the rural countryside of central California I see the very poor texting while they peddle at intersections, and I see the same zombie-like mesmerization while walking a few hours later on University Avenue in Palo Alto, not far from the ground zero headquarters of it all at Google and Facebook. Millions are second-by-second obviously reading and typing away in a manner not true just a decade ago. And whatever they wanted to do back then, they are certainly doing it faster and more easily now. Twitter language surely is faster than old-fashioned English.

But are they speaking any more clearly, writing more effectively, gaining more pleasure from reading a tweet than a letter? In some cases yes, in others no. But as an out-of-it observer, who reads students’ papers, receives lots of emails and paleo-letters, and visits many campuses, I do not see any marginal increase in either happiness or literacy. In our zero-sum lives, for every minute spent writing “Hey, Liz, just hanging at the mall, whatsup?” at 60-second intervals, there is also another minute lost. I am not saying that those lost seconds would have been spent browsing Dante or reviewing advanced electronics, but they might have. It is not inconceivable that the brain can be more productive while silently walking than by walking and texting — or even that it might be pondering how to be a better friend or communicator than friending and communicating instantaneously without such requisite prep.

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