Odin the Allfather has a pair of ravens. At dawn he sends them into the world, where they cover every inch of the earth, seeing and hearing all that comes to pass. At dusk they return to their master and tell him what they have learned. Odin needs them more than any of his powers: despite being King of the Gods, he is often uninformed; drunk, forgetful and prone to war. But when the ravens furnish him with their knowledge, his flaws are compensated – his might is matched by his omniscience. At the setting of the sun they perch on his shoulders and whisper in his ears; suddenly, Odin sees and knows all. His power is complete.
In March 2014, Tony Abbott announced that the Federal Government of Australia would be spending $3 billion on Triton surveillance drones. The number of drones was not disclosed, though they were described as a ‘large fleet’ by the media at the time.
A Triton is 14.5 metres long, has a wingspan of 39.9 metres, a maximum speed of 575km/h and an operational endurance of 24 hours. Their purchase is part of the government’s plan to perform high-altitude surveillance missions, probably over the seas to the north of the country. Another model of drone is also on the government’s shopping list – the Poseidon – which will focus on anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, search-and-rescue operations and intelligence gathering.
Presumably the Tritons will be able to see everything that comes to pass in the waters that separate Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea from Australia. They’ll transmit footage of the rich fisheries of the Arafura Sea and the swells of the Timor Current back to a control centre somewhere in Australia. The military personnel there might be able to see schools of baitfish writhing on the surface of the water, or swarms of sea snakes flittering through the slowly-blanching coral.
They’ll definitely see the boats. The Thai trawlers raking the sea floor, decimating long-lived, slow-breeding fish species. The tourist charters targeting snapper, coral trout and mackerel. The retired, time-scarred fishing skiffs carrying refugees. The shark-grey Australian warships.
The resolution on their cameras might even be sharp enough to focus on the specifics of each boat, picking up things like the number of passengers, the percentage of children, and whether or not they’re sheltered. Maybe the cameras will be so good they’ll be able to see the amount of water pooled in the hull; whether the passengers are wearing lifejackets; how far each craft is from reefs or rocks. Maybe they’ll see the splash of sunburn on an exposed forearm, or the curl of hunger in a sunken ribcage.
The ravens are named Huginn and Muninn. It’s unclear if they’re autonomous creatures, or extensions of Odin himself. Either way, he fears for their safety; ‘I fear for Huginn, that he come not back, yet more anxious am I for Muninn,’ he says.
It makes sense for him to worry – without them, he can only see what’s before his single eye, or what other gods and people tell him. Nothing can compare to the knowledge gathered by the ravens. And how can Odin rule as King of Asgard and protector of Earth if he cannot see everything?
Imagining the high-definition, blur-free images of refugees that a Triton drone might capture prompts obvious questions: will they be used to help the people they’re documenting, or to harm them? Will they be tools of compassion? Or punishment?
Based on the current government’s track record with refugees and human rights, it seems easy to guess at how the Tritons will be used. But looking past this, it’s worth wondering what else they might be used for. If Abbott is successful in ‘stopping the boats’, will the drones be packed up and put in storage?
Once whoever controls them becomes accustomed to seeing all that comes to pass in the seas of the north, it’s had to imagine the drones not being put to use elsewhere. They will find plenty of opportunities: monitoring sex offenders who live near primary schools; tracking apparently corrupt politicians; scanning crowds at sports matches for potential terrorists; gliding over the homes of Muslim families, acting on the slightest hunch that they’re harbouring people with sympathies towards the Islamic State.
For the people flying the drones, the question will quickly morph from ‘what else can we watch with these things?’ to ‘what can’t we watch?’ And alongside it will come another question, one that will twist through their conflicted ideas of democracy and privacy and morality, even if they don’t say it out loud.
‘Who’s going to stop us?’
Nobody stops Odin. At least, not yet – but they will. As a result of his omniscience, Odin knows that Ragnarok is coming – the end of the world and the twilight of the gods. A series of cataclysmic disasters and battles will pit brother against brother, burn the sky, boil the seas and end all life. His greatest enemy, Fenrir the wolf-god, will break free from his bindings and swallow Odin whole. Huginn and Muninn will see Fenrir coming, as they see everything, but Odin’s ravens change nothing. The future is set. He cannot escape Fenrir’s wrath.
And it’s in the death of Odin that this allegory starts to split in two directions. Because while it’s clear to us – comfortable, first-world Australians – that the Triton drones represent the all-seeing omniscience of Odin’s ravens, for the subjects of their gaze, they’re something else entirely. Above the people on the boats, the glint of a drone in the hard blue Arafura skies signals their own personal Ragnarok, marking their entrance into the underworld of Manus Island. For a sunburned refugee, the drones aren’t a tool of knowledge. They’re the jaws of the wolf.