Saturday, 25 March 2017

Who's In Charge?

I was walking through Piccadilly Gardens, quietly contemplating an article I had just read about aerial surveillance, when a violent scuffle erupted on the terrace of the cafe a few yards away. Tables and chairs went clattering around the concrete and a young man fled the scene while three others were wrestled to the ground by plain-clothes policemen shouting their statutory warnings as they struggled to cuff and search their prey. It was an unexpected bit of excitement for a Wednesday morning but reassuring on three counts: first that the authorities are attempting to put a stop to drug trafficking in the Gardens; second that the police gave a running commentary on what was happening; and third, that actual police officers are doing the work, not drones.
Drones? Well, yes. We already have surveillance cameras mounted on poles and helicopters equipped with thermal imaging devices; drones will be next, probably fitted with tasers. They are cheaper than helicopters and admirably suited to MOOTW – Military Operations Other Than War. James Madison, the 4th US President, was remarkably prescient when he said:”The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.” His insight, in itself, is disturbing but what makes matters worse is that drone operators are recruited, so it is rumoured, from the ranks of life-long video-gamers, many of whom are so inured to the inhumane consequences of their targeting that a group of artists has been moved to set up a project called #NotABugSplat, comprising a huge image of a young girl laid on the ground in Pakistan near the epicentre of US drone strikes. Her eyes look straight up at the cameras in the hope of influencing the operators’ perception of the consequences of their actions. Alas, the locals have since torn up the image and used the sheeting as building material, deeming that a more effective use for the project.
The proliferation of drones cannot be stopped – the technology is too easily accessible – but there may be a simple way to limit the potential threats they pose to life and liberty: we could take the toys away from the boys. Technology has always been the preserve of men, but it may be that women, given the chance, could deploy it in less destructive ways. It’s worth recalling here the case of Charles Babbage, inventor of the computing engine, and Ada Lovelace, the visionary mathematician who recognised its potential. When, in 1840, Lovelace saw a demonstration of Babbage’s device she went away and wrote what was the very first computer programme. Spurred on by Ada’s vision, Charles drew up plans for a more advanced version of the engine. But he was ineffective at raising the necessary finance and, though Ada pleaded with him to let her manage the project to fruition, he could not bear to hand over the reins. In the end, Lovelace’s genius foundered on the rocks of male chauvinism. 
But there are signs of change, at last. We now have females in the key positions of Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Head of the Metropolitan Police, Head of London’s Fire Brigade. Add to these achievements the fact that female soldiers will soon be joining their male counterparts in front-line combat operations and all seems set for a shift in the balance of power in favour of women. Whether or not they will do things differently remains a moot point but the real question is whether they will be allowed to, for real power lies not with figureheads but with those who control the nation’s capital and resources. The likely outcome is that we may, for some time to come, just have to make do with WINCE – Women In Nominal Charge of Everything. It’s a start, at least.

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