It’s a decade-long story that Josh Begley believes too few Americans know about. A story, he says, “that fundamentally shifts how we understand what war is.” It’s the story of unmanned drones redefining the front lines in the U.S. War on Terror. And a story of Apple—one of the most powerful and profitable corporations in the world—rejecting Begley’s iPhone application that maps strikes and alerts users to new attacks as they happen.
The next chapter started today at noon EST, when Begley, a 28-year-old graduate student in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Master’s program, began tweeting the complete history of America’s drone war in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
For the past several years, Begley, who previously worked at an organization that uses technology to advance social-justice movements, has felt a nagging need to open Americans’ eyes to the reality of this method of warfare. Begley himself says he “started caring about the issue because I knew so little about [drones].” Then Jane Mayer’s 2009 New Yorker piece, “The Predator War,” which brought readers into the air-conditioned Langley, Va., offices from which drone attacks are ordered, got him thinking.
Drones “bring up all sorts of interesting questions about the intersection of technology and international law and human rights,” he told The Daily Beast. “A bureaucratic chain of command deciding to execute [people] outside any law is a very interesting concept intellectually.” And so, last summer, he set to work designing an app that would map U.S. strikes, to bring a far-away war into the palms of everyday Americans.
Drone+, as the application is called, culls public information compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about U.S. attacks, translates the data into a user-friendly map, and pushes notifications to users every time a new strike hits.
Despite multiple redesigns, Apple rejected Begley’s app three times this past summer—first for technical issues, then for “objectionable and crude” content. Now, pushback is growing. Two weeks ago, activists launched a petition asking the tech giant that once warned of an Orwellian future to reconsider the ban. Dennis Kucinich came to the app's defense as well, telling The Hill "what is 'objectionable and crude’ are the drone strikes themselves." Drone strikes have increased exponentially under President Obama, yet the program remains shrouded in secrecy.
Begley isn’t overwhelmingly upset that Apple rejected his app. “In some ways the point … [was] that nobody would download it,” he said, which he believes only underscores the need for greater awareness. “This isn’t the type of notification people would want to get.” But he does hope to release Drones+ for Android and for the Web.
In the meantime, Begley has been strategizing about how to deliver information about U.S. drone strikes into Americans’ daily lives more immediately. And so, this afternoon, he’s tweeting every drone strike—from the first one in Yemen in 2002 to the latest one, two days ago in Pakistan, as part of a graduate class called Narrative Lab, which focuses on “the impact of interactivity and technology on traditional narrative structure,” according to its course description. “For me,” Begley said, “it’s about the way stories are told on new social-media platforms.”
Stories like the one that started with the first drone strike in 2002 and continues to be told on computers screens—from Langley’s to Begley’s—around the world.