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Global Warning: Nick Harkaway on Gnomon

Posted on 10th July 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Set in a near-future Britain, in a state governed by ultimate surveillance, Gnomon imagines what might happen in a society that trades privacy for security.

Sounds familiar? This is just the beginning. As Britain reaches boiling point, author Nick Harkway rings a warning bell for what lies on the horizon.

I remember the days.

I remember the halcyon days of 2014, when I started writing Gnomon and I thought I was going to produce a short book (ha ha ha) in a kind of Umberto Eco-Winterson-Borges mode, maybe with a dash of Bradbury and PKD, and it would be about realities and unreliable narrators and criminal angels in prisons made of time, and bankers and alchemists, and it would also be a warning about the dangers of creeping authoritarianism. (And no, you’re right: creatively speaking I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into.)

I remember the luxury of saying "we must be precautionary about surveillance laws, about human rights violations, because one day the liberal democracies might start electing monsters and making bad pathways, and we’ll want solid protections from our governments’ over-reach."


I remember the halcyon days of April 2016 when I thought I’d missed the boat and I hadn’t written a warning at all, but a sort of melancholic state of the nation, and I really did think things might get better from there. Then Brexit came - I was half expecting that - and then Trump - which I was really not - and now here we are, with the UK boiling as May’s government and Corbyn’s Labour sit on their hands and clock ticks down and the negotiating table is blank except for a few sheets of crumpled scrap paper, and the only global certainty seems to be that this US administration will try to wreck every decent thing the international community has attempted in my lifetime, with the occasional connivance of our own leaders when they aren’t busy tearing one another to bits.

And now I’m pretty sure I did write a warning after all. 

Did you know that the East German Stasi - surely the most surveillance-happy society in modern European history - went so far as to keep an archive of body odours sealed in ceramic jars? I don’t know what they thought they’d do with it, but they did. Perhaps the point wasn’t to use it, but just to let people know that they had it. The Panopticon, in Jeremy Bentham’s own words, was "a mill for grinding rogues honest". Surveillance has first and always been about control.

The body odour jars are interestingly creepy, because the inner ring of surveillance has historically been the skin. Or the body, perhaps, as the barbican of the mind. A hypothetical police state might search your house, your pockets, your bank account, your library loan history, but you had the right to remain silent, to avoid self-incrimination - and no one could have your thoughts. Hell, they might even sample your blood or make you take a polygraph, but - even granting that truth drugs are more a movie convenience than an actual thing - they couldn’t see what was in your head.

They might even torture you, because they had to lever the body’s pain against the mind, which they could not touch.

Except that now, actually, they can. Or very nearly. Researchers in the US demonstrated that they can derive a passport photo quality image of what you’re looking at directly from your brain. There are machine learning systems which can with increasing accuracy depict what you’re thinking about through an EEG headset.

There’s even a project which uses an MRI to see your dreams.

And curiously there’s an outer ring of surveillance which has also emerged over the last few years, and which can do similar tricks: the ring of data. We leave a trail through the world, of Internet history and store cards and credit cards and Oyster cards. Your supermarket knows you’re worried about staying healthy because you buy vitamins; they know you’re trying to get pregnant because you’ve changed your purchase; that you’ve succeeded; that it’s a boy; that it’s a girl; that it’s twins. Or they know to a reasonable percentage of certainty, and their model of you changes with those assumptions so that you get offered different things. So that they can persuade you to buy things. So that they can, to some degree, control your choices.

So that you can be "ground honest" - or in this case, ground into buying a more expensive brand of formula milk. Or trainers. Or birth control. Whatever it is that you want, they know you want it - sometimes before you do.

The inner and outer layers of surveillance - the brain and the cloud - give away intimate secrets. They allow the state and the commercial sector to know things which, if someone were simply watching you with a long lens, you would consider grossly inappropriate and probably criminal.

And these things are in their infancy. They have barely begun to take hold. A decade ago we swam in a sea of chaotic data and our minds were opaque. The day after tomorrow we’ll be, effectively, in a transparent glass tank, and our minds will legible. Employers - already keen to watch workers in the workplace both physically and digitally - will begin to ask you to sit for direct assessments. Are you loyal, enthused, considering a move? Are you thinking of joining a union? Starting one? Are you a troublemaker? Are your values in line with the company’s? 

Before you say "that will never happen," stop and understand that to a great extent it already does in many industries, just without the new technology to make it more straightforward.

And of course, there’ll be compensations.

Reward points. (Notice how we get rewards for everything, like rats in mazes.)

Discounts. Fast track promotions schemes. Frequent flyer fast check-in systems. Curated calendars, pro-active digital personal assistants, tailored time-saving software. Even software to nudge you to do things that just make you happier, healthier, more yourself.

I know a guy whose toothbrush reports him to his dentist if he doesn’t brush. He says it helps him enormously with controlling his plaque.

I wrote this book because I wanted to. Because I wanted to play with those styles, with rich symbols and games and deceptions, with mysteries and unrealities. 

But I also wrote this book as a warning.

I should have written that part in capital letters.


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env: aptum