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Digital Nation: Exploring Technology’s Impact on Society

February 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In an excerpt from the PBS program "Frontline," Rachel Dreztin examines how our brains are being shaped by technology, how companies are spicing up conference calls with avatars and how advances in weaponry have reshaped war.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight: how technology has reshaped warfare.

The Pentagon has used remote-controlled drones in the Iraq war, in Afghanistan, and, today, to search out an elusive enemy along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is warfare launched from thousands of miles away.

Tonight’s “Frontline” looks at this phenomenon as one part of a massive transformation of modern society through digital media and technology.

Producer Rachel Dretzin narrates this excerpt.

RACHEL DRETZIN: From air-conditioned rooms on this Air Force base in the desert outside of Las Vegas, pilots fly unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, that execute missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MAN: Other aircraft, airspace, altitude.

MAN: All right, it looks like we’re by ourselves out here in victor three bravo high.

RACHEL DRETZIN: Airmen here are required to wear flight suits to work, even though they sit 7,500 miles away from the battlefield. It’s one way of reminding these men that they are fighting a real war.

MAN: Every so often, you have technologies that come along that rewrite the rules of the game, yet we don’t talk about it, because it’s costless to us.

RACHEL DRETZIN: Drones have the capacity to strike with extraordinary precision, and at no cost to American lives. The number of drones has multiplied in recent years, and the Pentagon is clamoring for more.

NOAH SHACHTMAN, contributing editor, “Wired”: The risks are all one-way. In today’s wars, right now, the pilot gets to do all the shooting and never gets shot at. And that creates a very different attitude than somebody who is both dealing out risk and is accepting risk.

MAN: Room, 10-hut.

COL. WILLIAM BRANDT, 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, U.S. Air Force: The biggest risk that we accept is that feeling of detachment from the aircraft. You need to be able to think through a three-dimensional problem that’s located 7,500 miles away from you.

A real-live aircraft, real-live weapons, doing a real mission.

I try to ensure that people understand there are people who are counting on us to do the mission.

You can fly in Afghanistan one day, and, the very next day, you’re flying in Iraq.

Though they’re physically located here, they need to think in their mind that they are in theater, because that’s where the business end of that cockpit is.

You’re no longer sitting at Creech Air Force Base. Get in that mind-set. When you step in the GCS, you are in the fight.

MAN: We have a single individual on the roof on the north corner of that four-sided building.

RACHEL DRETZIN: The planes’ cameras can surveil their targets from up to nine miles overhead.

MAN: And it looks like they may be employing weapons at this time.

CAPT. MIKE, 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, U.S. Air Force: One time, we had intel that there’s a bad guy riding around on a motorcycle, if you will. And he was just riding around. And he stopped at two or three different playgrounds, and he’s playing soccer with all these kids, you know, and he’s just — he’s living his life. And he’s doing his normal everyday life.

And then, you know, sure enough, at the end of that ride, though, we found him at a meeting of bad people. And it ended up resulting in a strike. So, you end up seeing what happens.

MAN: Copy that. We got eyes on them.

Three-zero-five rifle, time of flight 15 seconds. That’s 10 seconds. Five, four, three, two, one. Splash.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: They do take a lot of care about civilian casualties. It is very much on their mind. But there’s no way for them to really tell.

All they see is the bomb going into that building, and it blowing up. They don’t necessarily see what happens afterwards. A drone can’t dig through the rubble and see what the consequences of that Hellfire missile was. It can’t.

GWEN IFILL: “Frontline”‘s “Digital Nation” airs on most PBS stations tonight.