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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > August 2010
back Edwin Drood's Column
27 August 2010
Caution, tunnel at end of tunnel at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
Caution, tunnel at end of tunnel
In which Edwin searches for the universal reset button and truth in an inside-out world.
Cut paste slide glide pull pinch push-mail enter copy file delete oops ... undo save changes replace original file create new one (decisions, decisions) send reply (not to all, stupid!) octet megapixel gigabyte download upload firewire 3g wi-fi highest resolution optical fibre go to previous next up down save to disc make back-up shuffle play add to list forward draft scroll cover-flow cache overflow (cash overflow?) overwrite skim over mouse-over sweep-over roll-over Beethoven tell Tchaikovsky the news this is ssso cool I’ve done a week’s work in half an hour too smooth to believe makes everyone who touches it feel like a millionaire and who needs punctuation anyway but why oh why in this super-colour-interactive-extra-applications world where people strip their souls and bodies bare at the touch of an icon and everyone talks to everyone else’s navel in a hundred languages with full-orchestra soundtrack and in 3D does no one in power tell the simple truth before they’re forced to cough it up and why oh why do the Chilean mining accident the BP gulf oil spill the 100-kilometre so-far-12-day Chinese traffic jam (projected end-date mid-September) anything at all in Pakistan Afghanistan Somalia Sudan Congo Israel Palestine Belgium Haiti take your pick they’re all the same can of worms not only exist but take such an age to creep forward to some kind of resolution?

Yours, Clueless in Gaza, 15

Dear Clueless, I suspect this is not your real name. If it is, then you have a genuine issue there that needs to be taken up with your school counsellor and your parents. Leaving punctuation aside, as you seem to have done, I cannot help feeling that your writing style and your inherent grasp of this, one of life’s significant paradoxes, shows a maturity beyond your years. Why, indeed, is it going to take forever to rescue those miners, clean up some oil, detoxify Siberia, get Shanghai traffic moving again, etc. in a world where I can post this blog for millions to read in the twinkling of an eye? Perhaps the simplest answer is that we have become so used to the speed of our virtual world with its dependence on micro-timing and micro-technology that we have forgotten that there is another scale out there, where the rise and fall of mountain ranges, the slow transition of seasons, the build up of floodwaters, incremental changes in surface temperatures, the labour party conference and millimetric movements of the earth’s crust dictate another agenda. We cannot “upload” the miners, nor can we “undo” the 9-day traffic jam, “backup” the floods in Pakistan nor replace the existing Congo file with a “new version”. It would be lovely if we could “mouse-over” the BP oil-spill or, with the flick of a finger, “cover-flow” or “simul-sync” it back into the earth.

I’m not so sure what Belgium is doing in your list of dysfunctional states. I suspect you were having a dig at me because I happen to live there, in which case, “touché”! However, although we are a political basket case, this country is nonetheless something of an economic and social success, even a powerhouse, with one of the world’s highest per-capita GDPs, a very steep rate of technological innovation and a long record, despite appearances, of civil concord. That this is not reflected in the political life of the nation maybe has to do with our politicians eating far too much white bread at their endless receptions and thus being in serious need of systemic evacuation.
And, at n° 664, we have the “neighbour of the beast”
Speaking of evacuation, floods, mineshafts, endless traffic jams, civil wars etc.: how many of us are desperate for a re-set button that never gets installed? If we would only follow the advice of the Galilean who so strongly suggested we should only do unto others as we would have them do unto us, three-quarters of the problems you mention would be solved. Yet so short is our span of attention that while I am taking care of my neighbour to the left, my other neighbour at number 664 is feeling neglected, disgruntled and coming increasingly under the unhealthy influence of the unmentionable neighbour-from-hell to his right. Nations are much the same. That our leaders spend more time mending fences than building bridges lies in the very nature of their mandate.

There was another paradox you mentioned, almost in passing, namely this: in a world where we are in constant communication with one another and being encouraged more and more to live our lives inside-out on FaceBook and similar platforms, why do we still find it so hard to tell the truth? Truth, what is it? It is a zebra of the forests of interpretation. As regards the soul-baring life you mentioned, I imagine that as we become more image-conscious, our approach to truth grows more cosmetic. We have learned to manage, to market and to manipulate our online persona, bigging-it-up like a lot of drama queens. Thus the truth we tell also suffers from augmentation, from “Botox” language and from the nip’n’tuck of enhancement. Now that even young teenage girls are starting to resort to the knife, the capsule and the liposuction syringe as a way to upgrade their outward appearance, there would seem to be no end in sight to this escalatory gyre of verisimilitude.

On the broader international stage, the coin, as Kipling observed, has not yet been minted that can buy the truth. To elaborate: if you offer too much, you will only be told what you want to hear and if you offer too little, you will only be told what you do not want to hear. The obvious conclusion is that truth can only be offered up freely and thus cannot be bartered. This alone is the soundest argument against the funding of intelligence agencies and for the advancement of a free press. We could all live with this, were it not for the unfortunate corollary that a “free press” is also “free” to print lies! For just as companies only want to tell good news to their shareholders – which in turn constrains them to only hear good news from their marketing people, their auditors and their managers – so that which we, the public, are permitted to access as “truth” has usually passed through any number of filters to render it into the kind of content our expectations can handle. Who spins the spinners? Make a guess.
“Faction”: the fickle bonding of fact and fiction
We must all live in the “real” world of our own creation. The submarine is whichever colour your spectacles happen to be. In this multiple world, Kipling’s “Great Game” is far from dead (though it certainly smells very odd in the Internet age), and the use of money to buy the facts remains a pertinent and troubling device. For in the field of international relations too, where there is still regular recourse to the irregular activity of espionage, the search for truth in an objective sense is similarly complicated by the attitude of the seeker. However, like our commercial example above, the spy might also not actually want objective intelligence at all, but is both willing and eager to hear a more subjective version, which in his case usually means the worst possible slant, because that is what his paymasters are employing him (or her, for that matter) to discover. And they want to learn the worst because the worst is far more likely to swell the budget of the so-called “military-industrial complex” (in reality a very wide range of political and economic interests) who are, in turn, their paymasters, and who are always ready to pay top dollar for bad news. In the end this leads to the worst kind of intelligence being gathered, or to put it another way, the worst kind of intelligence-gathering.

Taken together, all of the above is a conundrum that is extremely difficult to solve for anyone who is seriously and, within the bounds of ethical constraints, actively concerned in guarding the interests and maintaining the security and stability of a particular nation. For obviously you can’t just walk into a country and ask for the inside track on its military strategy. So the option of freely seeking and freely receiving information is not available. This means that any information you might discover will always be compromised. In the search for this a priori compromised information, various avenues are open to you. Technical surveillance delivers hard data, but the interpretation of that data is subject to the same constraints as any other kind of intelligence: what do you want to know, what do your bosses want to hear? Technical surveillance is also, as we saw in 2002/3 in Iraq, easily duped, whether deliberately or by chance. Softer intelligence options are web analysis (what is the Internet saying on the surface, what is bubbling below?), the view from the street (our man in Havana, Hong Kong or Helmand: he is often a moonlighting journalist, by definition dubious) and the information gained by covert action involving informants, surveillance personnel, moles and interrogation. The informant wants to keep his courier happy, the surveillance operator has a job to keep and expensive tech to maintain, the mole has ideological reasons to distort reality (plus he’s blind, right?) and the inquisitor, like the purser of Kipling’s un-minted coin, will hear whatever he wants to hear because his captive will sing whatever song he provides the sheet-music for. All these are pretty weak foundations for national policy.

Through and around this skulduggery floats the feeble wind of back-channel projection: what political leaders and their ministers mean, as opposed to what they say. There will be buzz words and euphemisms to be understood here and, in addition, the things that are not said will need just as much attention and analysis as the things that are. It’s a wonder we can even comb our hair without entanglements, Mr Samson. Pull the pillars down, my man, “God will recognize his own”. And if truth is famously the first casualty of war, it is usually the last corpse to be resurrected in peace-time. Even fifty years later it still hurts too much, as anyone in Gaza must surely know. By the way, if your hand-held personal technology is really operating as smoothly as you would have me believe, then either you don’t live where you claim to live, or I have been misinformed. Are you telling me you can get iPads and a fast connection in a zone that is so manifestly lacking in bandages, baby-formula and disinfectant? Now that’s another paradox: can pixels exit where parcels can’t enter? Of course they can and do. But something tells me you are not a genuine strip-dweller, Mr Clueless. Beethoven & Tchaikovsky, eh, now why didn’t I notice that before? Here’s looking at you, Chuck! I rather think you are closer to 51 than 15 and that your real name is probably...

© Edwin Drood, 27 August 2010

Illustration: "Caution, tunnel at end of tunnel" by David John © 2010
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