Book Reviews: ‘The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance’, ‘In Praise of Slow’, ‘How to be Free’

Big Brother

The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance. By Robin Tudge. New Internationalist.

My first thoughts on finishing this book were: not for the paranoid.  Although this journal has covered the issue of global surveillance in the past, Trudge takes us deeper, and into a world in which our every movement is monitored, if not via CCTVs, then via our online activity, whether it be on Facebook or Google (where every word searched is stored and matched to the searcher’s ISP address), or our shopping, banking and travelling preferences and our activity in the workplace. Moreover, this information, whether in private hands, gleaned by the state, by social networks or by social welfare, is shared and converged between corporations and other states on a  scale that beggars belief, and all ostensibly rationalised on the grounds that it is in all our interests.

Our governments, corporations and even social network sites such as Facebook are unremittingly urging us to pass on to them ever more information about us. They simply can’t get enough on us. Tudge informs us that data about the average Briton, for example, is on about 700 databases – and asks “who can name even ten of those databases?”.

For some time, just to take one example of the problem,  there has existed ECHELON, a global communications network, spying on us from land, sea, air and space, “intercepting every phone call, email, fax, telex or message sent…and fed through computers for keywords, and supercomputers for converting speech into text…sifting text for keywords that are flagged up.”  

ECHELON, however, is not just about monitoring us, the potentially revolutionary masses. It is “also used for commercial interest, to earn its way in the world and to profit its backers.” Tudge reports how one Euro MP has claimed: “European businesses have lost over 20 billion Euros due to ECHELON’s interceptions being used to pip the competition – as when McDonnell-Douglas scooped a $6 billion deal with the Saudis over the French and Airbus, while Raytheon muscled in with a share of a £1.3 billion radar deal between Brazil and a French radar company.”

It is, however, in the post-9/11 era that we have seen a huge growth in surveillance. In a  world in which governments are wont to tell us they are fighting for our freedoms, the most effective means of winning consent for repressive laws, the suspension of human rights (eg, habeas corpus) and increased surveillance, is to scare us into acceptance, to create a global society in which we are all under suspicion from boyfriends, men in beards and absolutely anyone boarding an aeroplane.

Indeed, former MI5 chief, Stella Rimington, accused MPs of  “frightening people” so as to pass laws to interfere with their privacy and civil liberties, achieving “precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a  police state.”  An example of this was when the British government used its presidency of the EU to produce a report entitled Liberty and Security: Striking The Right Balance, effectively a manifesto demanding a range of new EU-wide surveillance measures.

There is a lot of ground covering the technology of control in this short book, from the first use of fingerprints in ancient Babylon and by Chinese bureaucrats to authenticate clay tablets and seals on documents, right up to the present and ongoing debate about the need for biometric ID cards. The author is not hesitant in pointing out just whose interests are really at stake. As he observes: “Progress in this field [biometrics] as in many others is not defined by proficiency, but by profit. Despite the economic downturn, the global biometric market is expected to grow at an annual rate of  18% between 2010 and 2012”. So, not only do our masters get to monitor us, but the very practice brings them profit.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has patented wireless sensors which, when linked to computers, monitor workers’ heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, facial movements and brain signals. “When conjoined with workers’ psychological profiles and data on their weight, age and health, managers could be remotely informed of levels of frustration or stress and help or dismiss accordingly.”

The desire of an elite to make a profit at the expense of the majority and the need to make sure the workers do not get in the way of those profits, is really at the heart of the global surveillance society,  and this the author continually draws our attention to. Our governments, and the corporations they serve as the executive for, are indeed very much concerned about security – but it’s theirs not ours, the continuing security of a elite whose power is derived from their class position. They do not see advances in technology as a means to benefit humanity, but as a means to tighten their control over us.

Taking it easy

In Praise of Slow. By Carl Honoré. Orion Books.
How To Be Free. By Tom Hodgkinson. Penguin Books.

Honoré’s book is hard to pigeon-hole. Part self-help manual, part commentary, part investigation and part a downshifting guide book, it looks into some fundamental questions about how we in the West particularly live our modern lives.

So much of today is rushed, pushed on by rabid consumerism and overbearing industrial culture that we are in danger of losing ourselves, our perspectives and our direction as individuals as well as a species. The pace of modern living continually re-enforces the ‘speed is good’ culture, the work harder, work longer, live faster ethic. In this book Honoré looks at what drives this insanity and the growing rejection of it by ever larger numbers of people. Although mainly anecdotal and sometimes trivial even, the light style is easy to read. He investigates various ways in which individuals and groups are rejecting the constant work-earn-spend cycle and taking time to live a little, before going on to suggest ways in which you can adopt a slower lifestyle.

Reading this as a socialist, I found some of the arguments obvious and some a little woolly, but to be fair to the author I don’t think he set out to tear into the cause behind what he refers to as the ‘cult of speed’. We know that capitalism is the driving force that creates many, if not all, the problems referred to in the book. The solutions proposed and, indeed, being implemented by some groups clearly have merit, but are not available to all and never will be without wholesale revolutionary change.

However, the reasoning behind acting, thinking and generally taking life a bit slower is something we can all aspire to and provides a topic to engage people in discussing the shortfalls of modern life and how things can be better under a different system.

Hodgkinson’s first book, How To Be Idle was reviewed here last month.  I read his How To Be Free on the recommendation of a friend. It had inspired him to leave behind London for Sussex and adopt a ‘good-life’ complete with chickens. Must be some book I thought!

Hodgkinson’s writing style is very readable. Each chapter is a short guide to breaking free from the chains modern society binds us with. Railing against supermarkets, the nine-to-five culture, careerism, mass-production, and pensions, amongst others, with humour, literary references, quotes from songs and poems, fascinating historical anecdotes and large slices of real life, he explains how each of us can be ‘free’.

Although the book is written with some tongue in cheek, it does make for a great read and emphasises some salient points about the way we live under capitalism and how and why it could and should be much better. The ideas are rooted in doing something with your own life now as individuals rather than through any collective action, although conversely much is made of the advantages of being in a group.

Whilst much of the book gives good ideas and can sow the seeds of rebellion, most assume a position of some luxury to start with (I don’t think Hodgkinson has come from a council estate in Manchester). I enjoyed reading it and have even gone so far as trying out some of the ideas, but kept coming back to the fact that for most people taking up some of the suggestions would be very impractical. However, as a book that questions the ethos behind consumerism and urges the reader to take personal action to stop buying ‘stuff’, it is a great read.

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