On the first Friday night of the coronavirus outbreak in Philadelphia the looming violence could not yet be seen or heard firsthand—an unfamiliar, primal menace, vaporous and chemical, it simply lurked in the plane of the abstract. We were obliged to take on good faith the facts of our probable exposure from our septic authorities and the endless supply of online posters, talking like us, who trawled the internet with ravening appetites for breaking information. Fragments of truth and rumor were consumed and impulsively regurgitated back into the online system. Texts and emails of lightly annotated links accumulated, the images and language streams making sly threats against our own collective future, but we wanted to see it all. Bleak possibility of harm now emanated from the routine gestures of office work and shopping for groceries. One became defensively self-conscious of the need to breathe and unusually protective of vital organs. It was still too early for jokes. Humor suggested poor judgment and dubious self-preservation instincts. The trickle-up pandemonium coalesced rapidly into a crude consensus—now, and indefinitely, life outside was untenable, survival required the maniacal aversion of one’s neighbors.
Crowded into small homes and narrow apartments our existence relied upon a new kind of alliance with the internet. Museum tours, music performances, political rallies, visits with the ill, work meetings, children’s art classes, college education, medical consultation, and religious services took place through grainy videos and speakerphones which we huddled close to like primitives around a fire in the wilderness. Whatever we missed from our former public lives we’d replace with the approximate online reconstruction. There was something significant lost in the exchange of actual experience for the currency of digital safety, but complaints spoiled the mood like bad sportsmanship.
From the news we learned of the digital techniques being deployed worldwide to combat the spread of the pandemic by state governments. Ghost Data and other private technology companies would aid the US, Italy, and at least a dozen other countries to scrape cell phone locations and social media data of hundreds of thousands of users in cities with rising virus death tolls, pulling Instagram stories, social media posts, and online traffic histories to geotag friends and known associates gathering too closely in a park, backyard, or building rooftop, pinpointing the behavior of unlawful social interactions that local police could soon disperse under threat of fine or imprisonment. Ezekiel Emmanuel, the chair of the bioethics department at the University of Pennsylvania, and brother of the former Chicago mayor and Obama’s chief-of-staff, has proposed just this solution in order to get America “open” again by June 1.
In Israel the public health office disclosed the capacity of the Shin Bet to track each citizen’s entire daily movement. They sent text messages urging self-quarantine to those potentially exposed to infection. For anyone concerned by the spy agency’s amassed location data, the alerts delivered to each person’s phone assured that “this information will be used only for this purpose and will be erased when no longer needed.”
I felt obliged to remain informed and connected. The more I knew about the disease and the more the authorities knew about my behavior the less likely I would become a victim of the virus. “There are circumstances, such as tracking down infected individuals, that do override individual privacy rights, for the common good,” one scraping agency spokesperson said. The trace and track of new cases was a necessary step to uphold the health of the republic, the modern person’s deterrent against the global spread of contagion. I ensured my personal safety by maintaining a constant online presence. Network connectivity and high frequency web browsing were civic duties, almost acts of patriotism. Only then would my potential crossing of the path with a known vector be simultaneously logged across interlinked corporate and government databases.
With every minute that passed online the dysphoric undercurrent of the virus strengthened. Solitude took on novel meaning. There was no refuge, only work, to maintain the animation of my online presence. I lived offline and online as two distinct but simultaneous people. My online self excelled in impulsively collecting warnings of what to avoid, where not to go, when it will all be over. But I could not live online any more than I could go to sleep to wake up inside some distant past, a nostalgic, off-kilter rendering of America. An active fantasy, ever evolving, a religious belief that there was a time when this was all better.
Even though the virus operated according to its own lunatic’s logic, prowling for new hosts within breathing distance, I still felt an urge to go where I could not be seen, away from the roving optic and the roar of terrible information. My offline self had to go where I could occupy a solitude of my own making. I wanted to deter the various entities, state and private, which would soon insist the constant tracing of my presence served the good of some abstruse commons. This was not some irresponsible desire for safety predicated on ignorance but rather a deeply felt understanding of how to assure my own wellbeing that swelled into an irresistible urge: I must leave my house.
The modest odor of early cherry blossoms hung in the light breeze of an atypically warm Friday night in north Philadelphia, a scent I could no longer track once I felt the ocular presence of the camera lenses looking down at me from the homes of my neighbors—one to my left, one to my right, and three directly ahead—a collective wide-angle gaze which captured my physical presence. Did the servers logging my real-world movement already know of which path I was predisposed to follow? Was there an analysis that already concluded the percentages for my encounter with a viral host and chances for contagion? Perhaps I’d already been touched by the hand of the disease. There was a blurry line separating the finer qualities of fever and paranoia. Regardless, I was sure there would be safety once I could not be seen, and I headed north towards the wide open space of the city’s large stretch of parks which ran parallel to the Schuylkill River, a long undulating edge where the artificial light is sparse and even the leafless trees provide overlapped canopies of shadow along the water.
I walked blocks and did not meet any pedestrians, odd for a spring night in the city. Cars drove by, but not many, and bicyclists indulged the rare freedom by driving down the center of the road with foam boxes of ethnic foods strapped over their shoulders. Every several yards computer printouts were taped on telephone poles at average adult eye level. “Social distancing is our best shot at reducing coronavirus spread,” the page said.
“If you need help that a neighbor can provide, email firstname.lastname@example.org and someone from the block will try to help you.”
Old homes like the one I live in have been felled and replaced by tall, sleek houses. They’re not exactly identical but they all share certain qualities, like extended familial relations. If they could speak they would talk in the same uptalk-y accents. If they could laugh the sound would be a muddled ooze of cheer. The cameras mounted on their door frames are the size of a narrow tin of mints, with raised camera lenses that sit in glowing rings of neon green and blue, which reflect the illumination in their dark glinting opal. Some homes mount up-market cameras that lack the tacky consumer-model neon but still participate in the continuous supervision.
There’s no one outside these homes on the sidewalk; only people hustling up stairs or bodies holding groceries that disappear behind doors hastily shut. I suspect them as much as they suspect me. I quicken my pace to avoid interaction, a futile effort; their cameras leave me marked, my gait captured, a visual record of how I move, the shape of my intention.
Many of these cameras, I notice, watching my watchers, are labeled Ring: a subsidiary of Amazon that interfaces with city police departments to bulk up the Ring Network. An interconnected matrix of consumer home cameras from which the police can request homeowner’s footage, the Amazon Ring system is activated at street level by elevated measurements of body heat, the presence of other humans triggering a real-time alert to residents that possible invaders are roaming about their threshold. To encourage participation, some sheriffs raffle off cameras to constituents who comply with the terms and conditions for the Ring Neighbor’s program. In Los Angeles, city officials recently budgeted $50,000 to subsidize residential camera installations.
In the parlance of corporate security theater, to embed high-resolution cameras into a public space is to harden the target, make it more robust, decrease opportunities for crimes to occur without witness. Public surveillance, and the business of providing it, became one of the western world’s boom industries from the 1980s onwards, only to accelerate swiftly in the name of combating terrorism after 9/11. Including the demand for hardware and software, by 2025 the total worldwide video surveillance business is expected to hit $87 billion. Once the social unrest of our current financial crisis begins to manifest in earnest, the growth of the seemingly recession-proof surveillance economy might be even greater than previously predicted.
At the major intersection of my block and a four-way thoroughfare, there are no people, only empty taxis seeking fares, and pairs of motorbikes, disgruntled exhaust pipe exhalations, flying along, boys at the front, their girls’ arms wrapped about their torsos. Through dark windows I see the shelves of the corner florist are empty, the handwritten note on the door says unfortunately we are closed until further notice. I head west two blocks past shut-down bars and a vacant set of bus benches. A hub of otherwise constant evening activity, this sidewalk stretch in front of a donut shop and laundromat is desolate, the pale blue and white lights of DAILY LAUNDRY shining down on the steel gates pulled over plate glass windows where—on any Friday night—a dozen bodies would sit on hard plastic chairs with their heads framed in the circular liquid panels of stacked industrial appliances.
Atop the street pole an orb camera hovers awkwardly in the negative space between the arm of the traffic signal and the reflective street sign that designates North Seventh. The camera and an identical apparatus on the north side of the block are both the property of the city police, the first capture devices installed as part of Operation Safer Streets, Philadelphia’s surveillance program that debuted citywide in 2006, after residents voted 4 to 1 to approve its funding to the tune of 8.9 million dollars. Across from the shuttered laundry a double-long city bus comes to the intersection and its lone passenger exits. I watch the older man shuffle with the aid of a foam-handled cane until I lose his shape to the shadow of the street. I give up on going forward under the cameras towards the water, turning back away from the pair of elevated city lenses.
Passing a sign that says This Area Is Being Monitored By Closed Circuit Cameras I head east towards the city’s other river, the Delaware. The usually crowded streets of Girard Avenue are empty of any other foot traffic. I don’t find more city-owned cameras but there’s no confidence in the belief that they’re not watching. Cameras of all designs can point down from perches several stories high, to examine dark narrow alleys or sections of public space as wide as a quarter mile. Enduring winds up to 155 mph, exposure to the rain and wind, and mild to medium electric shock, the finer camera bodies and lenses are bulletproof, fire resistant, and because of solid reinforced aluminum able to withstand high-force sustained blunt trauma.
More unoccupied taxis crawl in the opposite direction down Girard seeking fare. At the red light I see a driver stare vacantly out his window, eye pouches drooping to his cheeks like runny eggs, his face is not that of a man down at his heels but rather it is the face of a life dictated by rules of an incoherent mathematics. Though seemingly abandoned by civic life, the street is nonetheless charged with an electric anxiety, as palpable as sea salt in the air of a fishing village. At Reggae Vibes, a Caribbean fast food stand a few doors down, a delivery driver wears a N95 mask while scrolling Instagram in the open door. He notices me watching him consume the platform’s images and his eyes crease to a lacquered animosity. Inside, the wood chairs are stacked on tables, no one is allowed to sit.
A few blocks along Girard, the severity of the silence begins to settle in my ears, the lack of human voices or car music. C1 Nails writes on their window in awkward pen Dear Customer, we are taking precaution to assure we all remain healthy so we are closing from 3/16/2020 to __/__/2020, the return date left blank. City Chopperz Barber tells patrons, Due to Coronavirus SHOP will be closed from Tuesday, March 17. Re-open within 2 weeks. Be patient, best of luck to all. Riderless buses slink along to their own hydraulic hiss, no one to drop off, no one to pick up.
Due to Covid-19. Sorry for your inconvenience.
We intend to reopen when there is better clarity.
No Dine In, Take Out Only.
This is a fluid situation so please be kind and respectful to one another.
A black piece of foam cut into the shape of a coffin is stapled to a telephone pole outside the Giant grocery store, white block letters say I WAS FCKING BORN HERE TOO.
ATTENTION CORONAVIRUS WE DO NOT TEST FOR THE VIRUS, says Urgent Family Care. DO NOT ENTER OUR FACILITY. Please GO HOME and contact the Department of Health.
I walk along towards the north entrance to my neighborhood’s business district. An undulating wave of weed smoke wafts down from open windows of apartments that shed a desolate glow over all the closed shops. It’s been 90 minutes since I last went online, my phone and network devices all at home. What do they know, who do they talk to when I’ve made no purchases at point of sale terminals and have spoken only to myself? I turn the corner towards my block. At the Jewish diner where my daughter orders French toast, the posted door sign says they’re shut down in an effort to help flatten the curve. A slop bucket hangs from the door with nylon ties, a jagged hole cut into the lid above which a piece of butcher tape reads MAIL. I’m tired now, skeptical of my once certain need for solitude. In its place there’s a void, a quiet emptiness. I don’t think I can live inside it. It’s possible the brief time away was the satisfaction; my exhaustion evidence of gratification. Perhaps, soon I’ll again need to seek out the numb hush of a dead city. Perhaps, the next time, they’ll be waiting for me.