20 May 2014 • by Christopher Haydon
Metadata - a text in the night.It's one in the morning. Tomorrow I go back in to rehearsals for Grounded - Lucy and I will be revisiting the show we made last year in order to bring it back to the Gate before it transfers to DC. But right now it is late and I need to sleep. As I drift off, my phone vibrates. It's a harsh, annoying sound and I have no idea who would be texting me at this time of night.
Fighting my way through the fog of sleep I reach out, and examine the dimly glowing screen. It is a message, though not actually a text. It just says: "April 20, 2014 Yemen. After dawn prayers, three drone strikes shook Mahfad, killing 25 people."
I've had drones on the brain for several months now, but who on earth would be messaging me about this in the middle of the night? And then I remember - a few weeks ago I downloaded an app called 'Metadata'. It was designed to tell you every time a lethal drone strike is carried out. American foreign policy seems to have been slow of late because up until now the app has lain fairly dormant. But all of a sudden, here I am, in the middle of the night, being told that 25 people are no longer alive. Were they really all terrorists? That seems unlikely. Maybe they were just 25 military age males who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Of course, there is nothing in the papers the next day about this massacre. Though to be honest, I've not given it much thought either. The rehearsal period is always stressful and intense and I have mainly been thinking about how to recapture Lucy's brilliance from the last time round. So, I'm sat in the Gate, we are about to start a run through and then my phone buzzes again. I check seruptitiously, and, once again, it is metadata: "April 20, 2014 Yemen. Late on Sunday, another strike flipped a car in Shabwa, killing 5 people." The US Air Force or maybe the CIA have clearly had a busy couple of days.
It's jarring, being suddenly told that an airborne slaughter has been unleashed half way around the world. But that feeling is obviously of infitessimal significance compared to brutal, lethal disruption felt by those on the recieving end of these heavily armed robots.
Apparently, the designer of the App failed, several times in a row, to get it approved for the App Store. It was only when he removed the word 'drone' from its name that it finally got through. No one, it seems, really wants to talk about these things. In advance of going to Washington I have been trying to find out how to contact the Pentagon to invite people there to see the play (they have, in the past apparently, been surprisingly proactive about engaging with artists who are exploring military topics) but I have been told that I am unlikely to have much luck in this instance - despite the fact that drones are now a core part of the way we fight war, no one wants to talk about them openly. Indeed, the RAF now flies drones from RAF Waddington, but there has been barely a whisper of protest or discussion about this in the British media.
So the discussion is largely left to plays like Grounded, a small group of hardcore journalists and activists, and an imaginative App developer. And all the while people in middle eastern and North African countries are forced to wait nervously for the next lethal payload to be delivered remotely.
The App has been silent for the last few days. The most recent contact it has made was a couple of weeks again When it just said, cryptically, "May 12, 2014 Yemen, 6 people killed'. It's silence is obviously a good thing - no notifications means, hopefully, no drone strikes. But it still sits there - on my screen - a silent but persistent reminder that these weapons are not going away and that for many people, the world is now a whole lot less safe.
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