How 2015 Mass Surveillance Compares To Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother

NSA-style monitoring of our ever-more digital lives is beyond even George Orwell's disturbing vision. It's also less effective in tracking the true enemies of the state.

Watching you and your phone
Watching you and your phone
Jacques Henno


PARIS â€" George Orwell’s masterwork, 1984, depicts life in England 30 years after a nuclear war between the East and the West, under a totalitarian regime symbolized by posters reminding everyone that “Big Brother is watching you.” The powers-that-be keep a close eye on everybody’s comings and goings thanks to ubiquitous telescreens, a sort of television-and-camera that can both broadcast the state’s propaganda and spy on people in their homes.

Seventy years after it was published, this extraordinary futuristic novel has become the emblem of ever-widening surveillance measures, increasingly adopted by Western countries after each new Islamist terrorist attack: New York in September 2001, Madrid in March 2004, London in July 2005, Paris in January 2015 …

In June 2013, Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the excesses of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program operated by the United States. These included the bugging and recording of all telephone conversions in some countries, access to Internet users data (stored by Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and others), the tapping of transatlantic fiber-optic cables, email and forums monitoring, the installation of spyware on routers sold abroad, and so on.

Strangely enough, the revelation that these big ears were eavesdropping on Angela Merkel and François Hollande only prompted feeble reactions from the German and French leaders. This only makes you wonder if all democratic government don’t actually dream of having such tools at their own disposal â€" tools allegedly capable of targetting anybody on the planet in the name of the fight against terrorism. Or indeed, for industrial espionage purposes.

But the worst part of it all is that we, the everyday users, are almost passive accomplices in this, since we’re feeding part of these files ourselves with the way we rely daily on digital devices and services.

The symbolic force of 1984 remains unrivaled, but on a purely technical level, George Orwell’s novel has long been outdated. How did we get there? Perhaps, history will eventually look back at March 30, 1981, as the day when everything changed. That was when John Hinckley, a mentally disturbed man, tried to assassinate U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Oceans of noise

Admiral John Poindexter, then a top White House advisor and former expert in the hunt of Soviet submarines, started to reflect with other civil servants on the concept of “pre-crisis management,” and of the fight against terrorism. At that time already, the admiral’s team formulated the hypothesis that an ambitious project to analyze data could reveal the potential dangers to come.

After the 9/11 attacks, admiral Poindexter had no trouble convincing the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to place him at the helm of a crazy project, "Total Information Awareness." “If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures in this information space,” Poindexter wrote back in 2002 as he explained his wish to gather all the world’s databases. “It is somewhat analogous to the anti-submarine warfare problem of finding submarines in an ocean of noise â€" we must find the terrorists in a world of noise.”

Officially, the Total Information Awareness project was stopped after a year-and-a-half. But the Snowden revelations showed that the NSA has achieved far more than Poindexter could have imagined in his wildest dreams, at least as far as data collection is concerned. It is a feat that must be placed in the context of a much longer history.

From the second half of the 19th century, states have tried to collect as much information as possible on their populations,” says André Vitalis, who this year co-authored with Armand Mattelart Le Profilage des Populations ("Profiling Populations"). “After that, computers have made it possible to profile all citizens with the information they were themselves giving away. But at least they knew about it and were able to react. Now, in the digital world, data is collected automatically and secretly.”

Philosopher Eric Sadin, author of La Vie Algorithmique ("The Algorithmic Life"), says the other great difference with Orwell's vision is that the regime of 1984 was built of a binary state-citizen system. "(Now the surveillance is being done by a myriad of private companies,” notes Sadin. “And in the future, connected objects will make it even worse. Every little thing we do will be registered.”

If scaremongering and long lists of reasons to worry have been thriving since the appearance of computers and the Internet, another question is rarely asked: Are these systems of widespread surveillance efficient against terrorism? The answer is perhaps not.

“Ultimately, one single “conspiracy” has been foiled in more than ten years of massive data collection of U.S. telephone communications â€" and that was a San Diego inhabitant who was arrested for sending $8,500 to a Somalian militant group,” claims Grégoire Chamayou, a researcher at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, in an article published this year in La Revue du Crieur.

Orwell’s Thought Police were far more efficient.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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