The Way We Live Now

On January 16, 2007—the morning I planned to start reading Jonathan Raban’s new novel, Surveillance—The Washington Post carried a front-page article under the series headline “A Day in Our Digital Lives.” The reporter, Ellen Nakashima, opened her innocent-seeming story this way: “The tracking of Kitty Bernard begins shortly after she wakes up.” Bernard, it turns out, isn’t a suspected member of any criminal or terrorist organization; she’s a fifty-six-year-old real estate agent in Reston, Virginia. Over the next dozen or so hours she exercises in her condo building’s gym, fills her car with gas, makes a call on her cell phone, stops at a house she’s trying to sell. She also drives through a toll booth using her EZ pass, searches for some information on her laptop, and arranges to meet her husband for dinner at a restaurant in a local mall. An ordinary day.

But during that day, this American citizen was photographed by security cameras at least fifty times. The toll booths she passed through, the calls she made, the e-mails she answered, the places she visited—all this data has been recorded and saved. Almost any of it, including the content of her messages, is accessible to the government. If the Department of Homeland Security wishes to examine her e-mails (or yours or mine), it can issue a subpoena to the appropriate Internet provider, which is enjoined to keep the government’s investigation confidential. No need to alarm anyone, is there?

In the last days of Germany’s Weimar Republic, just before the rise of Hitler, Bertolt Brecht brought out a series of poems called “For Those Who Live in Cities.” In one of them he offers some instructions in urban street-smarts, building to this penultimate stanza:

Whatever you say, don’t say it twice

If you find your ideas in anyone else, disown them.

The man who hasn’t signed anything, who has left no picture

Who was not there, who said nothing:

How can they catch him?

Cover your tracks.

That last phrase “cover your tracks” echoes throughout the poem, which ends:

See when you come to think of dying

That no gravestone stands and betrays where you lie

With a clear inscription to denounce you

And the year of your death to give you away.

Once again:

Cover your tracks.

(Translated by Ralph Manheim)

In contemporary America, as Jonathan Raban reminds us in Surveillance, any quest for anonymity—“to live obscurely” according to the Greek ideal for happiness—has grown increasingly difficult, if not impossible. And it’s not only an Orwellian Big Brother who is watching. We track each other. We check out the backgrounds of friends, Saturday-night dates, and business associates; we data-mine and Google-search; when on line we worry about hackers, viruses, and identity theft. Schools and playgrounds are patrolled by guards, while spy cameras observe our children in the hallways and bathrooms. Only those who know the code can unlock the steel gates to our “planned communities.” Amazon monitors our taste…

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