Grab your iPod, we're going to war

  • 1 November 2006
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'Seventy-two years of Communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman," wrote PJ O'Rourke at the end of the Cold War. It was O'Rourke's contention that a whole totalitarian system was brought tumbling down because nobody wanted to wear Bulgarian shoes. O'Rourke said that Levi's 501 jeans, video players and a million other objects of consumer desire had helped to bring down the Stalinist statues. Desire won out and the hammer was sickled.

The fall and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union is infinitely more complicated than that, of course – who would have expected the vulgarity, greed, and vapidity that has come in the ensuing years? – but the idea that economic freedom precedes political freedom is surely worth measuring in the current world climate.

A quick suggestion. What might happen if the US decided to jettison, say, just one day of war, which is now running at a staggering cost of $256m a day? First of all, it could pay for an increase of $3.50 per hour in the wages of every minimum wage worker in the US. Or it could shore up its collapsing health system for a few days. Or, a little more magnanimously, it could feed all of the starving children in the world for a full week. (That's based on food at 29 cents per meal at three meals per day for 50 million acutely malnourished children.) Or it could provide almost 750,000 women in Africa living with HIV/AIDS with anti-retroviral treatment for one year to extend their lives and improve the lives of their children.

Naïve? Of course. Facts are only good for sending kids to war. But, be that as it may, imagine if the US took just four days out of the war and decided to plough a billion dollars into the old notion of the O'Rourke economics. Crank it up a few years and allow the iPod generation to take over from the Walkmans. Let's say the US military decided to purchase 10 million iPods to be given out at various safe centres in parts of the country. (Even better, they could trade iPods for Kalashnikovs, or even just boxes of bullets).

On these iPods, you'd probably be well-advised to steer around the notion of propaganda, at least for a while, so, let's say, you put some traditional Iraqi music on there, or some verses from the Koran. The iPods could be distributed by a neutral organisation with little chest-thumping or flag-waving. The trick would be that each iPod would have to have a self-expiring hard-drive that ran out every three months. Then the owner would have to go into the distribution centre and reboot the machine.

At that stage he or she could be given the choice – and the word "choice" is vital – to pick from an array of music or audio books or videos. Dizzie Gillespie, Kazem Al-Sahir, the Koran, the Bible, the Pogues, you name it.

After each visit – as time unfolds – the iPod owner would have a chance to load new texts onto his or her machine, or to buy new songs, or simply to leave it as it is.

It's called greed, sure, but it's also called democracy.

Certainly there would be massive problems in the administration of a project like this. Imagine the industrial waste. Imagine the spying capability that would follow (who'd put it beyond the American military to fill iPods with global tracking devices?) Imagine the cultural custodians up in arms about national identities under threat.

Sure. Fair enough. But I'd rather fling iPods around a marketplace than watch a thousand pieces of shrapnel coming for my eyeball.

And it's not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Big philanthropic ideas, working on national scales, are shaping up these days. The Nobel Peace Prize was won by Muhammad Yunas and the Grameen Bank from Bangladesh for a project which pioneered micro-credit for the poor.

In another venture, the US-based nonprofit group, One Laptop Per Child, promised to deliver more than a million units of its $100 portable computers to developing countries by the end of 2007. The thrust behind the initiative (which came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) seems to want to create a technology that is more inclusive and less brutal for those who traditionally can't keep up.

There will always be questions and difficulties with ventures like these but, then again, who's to say that 10 million iPods mightn't help swing a little part of the war, or at least turn a few bitter heads in a different direction?

We give our approval so willingly to that which we don't understand -- perhaps it's time to venture to win a battle with some simplicity. Imagine turning the dial to Elvis Costello and his old anthem: 'What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?' And, yes, what, in the end, is so funny about it anyway?