Monday, November 18, 2013

Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"

Max Barry's latest novel, Lexicon, is something of a mashup: a compelling shoot-em-up thriller with a secret, control-the-world-grade weapon; a deconstruction of modern marketing technique; an informed warning about 21st century ubiquitous surveillance; and a conspiracy theory about a secret society's attempt to control us from behind the curtain of corporations and government.

I couldn't put it down.

Barry's dramatization of today's massively networked webs of information and power mesmerized me. At the same time, the novel's dramatic conceits pissed me off. I strained against a rendering of corrosive, information-fueled manipulation steeped in verifiable reality ... but portrayed in exaggerated, conspiracy-theory trappings that are too easily dismissed as 'just fiction.'

Lexicon's setup, skirting spoilers, is that there's an organization of highly trained experts in what you might call applied neuro-linguistics. They call themselves "poets," and make a science of studying and using linguistic patterns (boiled down to sequences of nonsense syllables) that short-circuit the brain's neuro-linguistic filters and give a trained practitioner the ability to exercise command and control over others.

Abracadabra on steroids, sort of.

The world of Lexicon 

What does the novel's secret society of so-called poets call the ability to manipulate people through skilled use of language?

Persuasion, natch.

The science of this business, in Barry's telling, is identifying the "segment" to which a given individual belongs. Knowing the segment, a "poet" knows which words to employ to control a person.

Does that seem to bear a resemblance to real-world marketing? To rhetoric?

It should. That's a big part of the author's point. (Graham Sleight pegged Lexicon as a "moral novel" in his Washington Post review earlier this year; for a quick primer on real-world segmentation in a marketing context, check out the current Forbes article More Phones than Google or Facebook, about Flurry, one of the most intrusive consumer-data aggregators you never heard of.)

So how does a poet discover a target's segment in Lexicon? The novel gets a little two-faced on this point.

Poets are trained to deduce a person's segment from how s/he speaks, acts, and responds through subtle facial tics and body language to prompts that sound like innocuous survey questions ("Are you a cat person or a dog person?")

At the same time, people volunteer a wealth of segment-identifying information through ... wait for it ... the magic of social media, consumer tracking, and ubiquitous surveillance. This makes a poet's deductive task a great deal simpler, of course. S/he knows who you are because you revealed yourself. (Poets themselves work very hard not to give clues that reveal their own segment, because that would make them vulnerable to persuasion).

If this is sounding more and more like the world we live in and read about in ProPublica ... well ... yeah.

Here's how the business of giving up one's own segment is summarized in one of the interleaved social media posts that pepper Lexicon's artfully twisted plot lines (bold emphasis added):
In my city we spent $1.6 billion on a new ticketing system for the trains. We replaced paper tickets with smartcards and now they can tell where people get on and off. So, question: how is that worth $1.6 billion?

People say it's the government being incompetent, and ok. But this is happening all over. All the transit networks are getting smartcards, the grocery stores are taking your name, the airports are getting face recognition cameras. Those cameras, they don't work when people try to avoid them. Like, they can be fooled by glasses. We KNOW they're ineffective as anti-terrorism devices, but we still keep installing them.

All of this stuff -- the smartcards, the ID systems, the "anti-congestion" car-tracking tech -- all of it is terrible at what it's officially supposed to do. It's only good for tracking the rest of us, the 99.9% who just use the smartcard or whatever and let ourselves be tracked because it's easier.

I'm not a privacy nut, and I don't care that much if these organizations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they're all working for that data, how much money they're spending, and how they never admit that's what they want. It means that information must be really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why.
Lexicon's worldblurring

The excerpt quoted above is offered complete with a citation, a URL. Is the passage in Lexicon fiction? Is it 'real'? Is it really written by the novelist as part of a marketing strategy devised for his own product? The text can be found on the intertubes, at a URL to which the one given in the book (and this paragraph) redirects. And the URL to which a web browser is redirected is in the domain of a game built by Lexicon's author (

This appears to be one of the multiple techniques by which Max Barry effects not worldbuilding, as authors refer to construction of fictional environments in which plot and characters play out -- especially in speculative fiction -- but what I propose we call worldblurring: the deliberately arranged intersection of truth and fiction, aimed at grounding make-believe in the world actually inhabited by readers.

It works very nicely to ratchet up an aura of Grand Conspiracy in Lexicon.

And worldblurring doesn't detract from the book's compelling lure as a story, or as a drama-enhanced object lesson. It's not Max Barry's failure that his fiction doesn't precisely track reality. Mapping directly to the real world isn't the goal or the point, by definition. It's a novel.

Where Lexicon runs aground as explication of How Our World Actually Works does offer an opportunity to sort out reality from fiction.

In my reading, the aspect of its fiction by which Lexicon departs from the real world is portrayal of surveillance and control as the domain of a secret organization, peopled with individuals of almost superhuman ability and über-exceptional talent. The head of the poets' organization is out to leave a Pharaoh-scale mark on the world (though he's hobbled, as it were, by a sort of luxury shoe fetish). One of the novel's protagonists is preternaturally gifted at persuasion, standard deviations beyond her peers. Another is immune to the secret weapon at the heart of the novel's plot, a "bareword" whose use compels obedience from everyone, no matter what their segment or psychology.

This is the stuff dramatic action is made of: heroes and exceptional power and tragicomic flaws. But it's not a view of the world that anyone but a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist would buy.

How pervasive surveillance and control really happen

Anybody who's barely been paying attention over the past five or six months has learned more than they ever expected to about how much corporations and governments know and seek to know about regular people going about their regular lives. Not that a great deal of what we learned from the Snowden leaks wasn't available in hints and snippets before ... in some cases very big and coherent snippets ... but in 2013 our filter-and-forget mechanisms got great big holes poked through their middles, compromising, however briefly, the average citizen's ability to pretend reality isn't happening.

I'd say it's just those filter-and-forget mechanisms that we want to examine in order to understand how we got to this place, and what it would take to walk ourselves back down, if that's even possible.

One analysis in this vein that stuck with me over the intervening months was published on the NY Times site on 15 September, by Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. In The Banality of Systemic Evil, Ludlow was addressing the question whether a sharp uptick in "leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities" is grounds either for condemning or exalting those who have been identified as leakers and whistle-blowers and hactivists, e.g., Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Aaron Swartz.

Ludlow concludes that it's not the individuals who are the issue -- whether one considers them heroes or knaves. The issue is the organizations in which they act. Here from Ludlow's NY Times piece:
In "Eichmann in Jerusalem," one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called "the banality of evil." One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their "proper" roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing -- or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.
Prof. Ludlow is shining a light on intense pressure exerted on members of certain organizations (e.g., the U.S. military or a large NSA sub-contractor) to conform to the organization's internal norms even where they diverge sharply from the sound personal integrity by which those members live outside the organization.

As an illustrative modern example of this phenomenon, Ludlow summarizes some of the trajectory traced by U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning:
Chelsea Manning, the United States Army private incarcerated for leaking classified documents from the Departments of Defense and State, felt a similar pull to resist the internal rules of the bureaucracy. In a statement at her trial she described a case where she felt this was necessary. In February 2010, she received a report of an event in which the Iraqi Federal Police had detained 15 people for printing "anti-Iraqi" literature. Upon investigating the matter, Manning discovered that none of the 15 had previous ties to anti-Iraqi actions or suspected terrorist organizations. Manning had the allegedly anti-Iraqi literature translated and found that, contrary to what the federal police had said, the published literature in question "detailed corruption within the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government and the financial impact of his corruption on the Iraqi people."

When Manning reported this discrepancy to the officer in charge (OIC), she was told to "drop it," she recounted.

Manning could not play along. As she put it, she knew if she "continued to assist the Baghdad Federal Police in identifying the political opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki, those people would be arrested and in the custody of the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police and very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time — if ever." When her superiors would not address the problem, she was compelled to pass this information on to WikiLeaks.
Now let's switch foreground and background. Let's step back from the dramatic, individual-focused framing of these stories by news media, pundits, and agenda-laden politicians.

Ludlow is describing the world from which Manning, Swartz, and Ludlow emerged not as a top-down hierarchy of evil (even though the particular organizations in question are, in significant respects, run as top-down hierarchies). These organizations are held together by normative values and behaviors, and members are encouraged over weeks, months, and years to conform to those norms, to fit their roles and personalities to How Things Are Done Here. There's no single master-poet, Architect (a la The Matrix), Trilateral Commission, or string-pulling Halliburton-bot dictating and controlling every evil behavior of each and every participant in that world.

Because that would be make-believe; and Peter Ludlow is a philosopher, not a writer of speculative fiction.

Letting fictions teach us about the real world

Instead, Ludlow is describing an organizational universe in which well-intentioned people are conditioned within a specific context to ignore or accept things they would abhor outside that context.

Think of that old trope about frogs blithely swimming in a pot of water that only very slowly is brought to a lethal boil. It's sort of true, at least in the sense that it rings true, and therefore works well as allegory. And sort of not, according an emeritus professor from Oklahoma quoted in Snopes' deconstruction of the trope. (FWIW, Manning, Swartz, and Snowden jumped out of the pot ... which brings to mind other metaphors, like leaping from frying pans to fires.)

In any case the place most of us really live is inside one or several organizational or social contexts where powerful norms shape behavior.

We also really do live in a world in which we give up a great deal about who we are to organizations we may know about and may not. Those organizations may be capable of and interested in keeping the information we surrender private, and using it in ways we consider ethical ... or they may not.

This information-surrender happens on Facebook and Twitter and name-your-own-webmail-platform; on post-and-comment venues like Blogger or Tumblr or Daily Kos; by using smartphones, walking into airports, or registering cars that we drive on public roads equipped with surveillance cameras; by joining loyalty programs at local grocery stores, or paying with credit cards, or using transit passes.

We know that a great deal of this vacuumed-up information is used to select advertisements presented to influence consumer choices. We know that this data is used to customize search results presented to us by widely used tools for discovering information, like Google and Bing (cf. "filter bubble" on Wikipedia). How big a leap is it to imagine that a 'reputable' news source's online front page might be stitched together differently for each of us, tailored to conform to the news we want or expect to see, or to a view of the world that will facilitate that news source's business plan or political agenda?

While there may never be a single, reclusive, superhero-smart head of a secret organization hoarding and cross-tabulating and manipulating data streams generated by our diverse electronically-enhanced activities, I believe it's conceptually helpful to participate in a thought-experiment like Max Barry's Lexicon, in which just such a being heads just such an organization.

Because while there may not be one "bareword" to control all and sundry -- any more than there was really "one ring to rule them all" forged by Sauron and passed from Gollum to Bilbo to Frodo to fire -- reality bears a striking resemblance to the world of Barry's novel. I'd say it's worth stopping to take the temperature of the overheating stew of networked information in which we really do live. It's worth asking: what's the effect of all this? and is it what we really want? and if not, what are we prepared to do to try to change course?

Here's another one of Lexicon's sidebars, this one with fake URL citation, but, hey, that doesn't mean the fiction isn't true:
[...] the way to beat biased reporting isn't to find the least biased one and put all your trust in that. First of all, they're all biased, from the language they use and the framing down to the choices they make about which stories to report. [...]

But more importantly, relying on a single source of information means you can't critically evaluate it. It's like you're locked in a room and every day I come in and tell you what's happening outside. It's very easy for me to make you believe whatever I want. Even if I don't lie, I can just tell you the facts that support me and leave out the ones that don't.

That's what's happening if you're getting all your news from one place. If you stop listening to someone the second you hear a word or phrase you've been taught belongs to the enemy, like "environment" or "job creators," that's what you're doing. You might be an intelligent person, but once you let someone else filter the world for you, you have no way to critically analyze what you're hearing. At best, absolute best case scenario, if they blatantly contradict themselves, you can spot that. But if they take basic care to maintain an internal logical consistency, which they all do, you've got nothing. You've delegated the ability to make up your mind.

I suppose my bottom line is this: if Lexicon helps people connect the real-world conceptual dots it encompasses, more power to Max Barry.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
After iGoogle: all your friends are belong to us?
Pervasive NSA surveillance + civil forfeiture = U.S.-flavored totalitarianism?
Not your granddaddy's metadata: don't believe the PRISM anti-hype
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Thanks to Xander for an image of his original model of J.R.R. Tolkein's One Ring, via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to Wikipedia Commons also for the image of Adolf Eichmann at his sentencing in 1961.

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