Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)
September 18, 2003, Thursday
By Brian Gilmore
As soon as possible, reread George Orwell's "1984." Then break your cellphone into small pieces, put the pieces in a paper bag, and burn it.Some of us might take such actions after reading Christian Parenti's thought-provoking book, "The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America - From Slave Passes to the War on Terror."
Parenti, a historian and author of the well- received, "Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis" (1999), has hit another sociopolitical nerve with this analysis of America's culture of surveillance. "Consider this," Parenti writes ominously at the beginning. "More than 111 million Americans carry mobile phones, each of which creates a rough electronic account of the user's location in time and space."A harmless little detail, right? Not exactly. During the first year of the second intifada, the government of Israel assassinated six Palestinian militants "by first locating the target's cell phone and then directing fire at the coordinates of the phone," Parenti writes.
Cellphones are just one example of how all of us are easily traced everyday through the convenience of modern technology. Credit cards, Internet accounts, gym memberships, library cards, health-insurance records, and workplace identification badges are some of the other routine technological conveniences that daily record our every move.
By closely examining chattel slavery in America, Parenti illustrates how this pattern began centuries ago. Using such measures as patrols and passes, America desperately tried to keep track of its many African slaves. The creation of full-time police departments, starting in New York City in 1845, marked a further broadening of America's surveillance system. These police departments used finger-printing and photography to track criminals and, Parenti says, in the process laid the groundwork for our current system of mass observation.
The individual chapters of "The Soft Cage" focus on particular topics that could be books themselves. One of the best, "The Camera Land: Security Aesthetics and Public Space," discusses the proliferation of cameras that seem to watch all public spaces. Parenti notes that such an arrangement has a "corrosive effect upon democracy." He also analyzes surveillance at work in the social-welfare system, and through the economy in which the proliferation of "digital cash" (debit and credit cards) has "caused an unplanned, unexamined extension of state power and social discipline."
"The Soft Cage" concludes with a discussion of Sept. 11 and the current battle in America over privacy, civil liberties, and security. "Sept. 11 did not create a technical or legal rupture in the developing infrastructure of everyday superintendence," Parenti stresses. "It did, however radically accelerate momentum towards the soft cage of a surveillance society." Though Parenti makes it clear that "even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the routine surveillance of everyday activity was expanding rapidly," he claims the horror of that day has been "seized, even hijacked, by the worse elements of the political class who seek to steer fear and anger towards the destruction of traditional American liberties." "The Soft Cage" concludes optimistically with musings on the future of resistance in a surveillance society. Parenti defines a concept he calls "the right to illegality." In the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, he asks, "Are the rules and laws of this society all rational, benevolent and just? If they are not, and if many of them serve to reproduce racism, stupidity, exploitation, environmental devastation, and general brutality, then should we not resist them?"
Soon, in light of the world Christian Parenti describes, we will all have to give an answer.
* Public interest attorney Brian Gilmore is a columnist with the Progressive Media Project.