One of the key focusses of Better Biz Me Ltd’s intuitive and symbolic thought capture-app is that of neo-terrorism. I initially defined this as a terrorism which has yet to be predicted. Lately, I have wondered if it could also be a terrorism which is yet to be uncovered.
In the past, even to date, terrorism has been seen as a dynamic aimed at inducing mass fear in a broad populace. 9/11 is one of the most horrific examples of all; but every freethinking country will – sadly – have its own story.
However, neo-terrorism inevitably means, semantically at least, a terrorism different from previous.
One example of such a terrorism I judge to have experienced, judge still to be experiencing, myself. It involves both discreet and discrete actions brought to bear by knowledgeable authors and actors on specific individuals. Sometimes the latter are not even aware they are being or have been targeted.
One real-life case would be the very common HMRC scam, where a fake letter from the tax authorities hits your doormat two days before a convincing phonecall follows up, demanding monies and their immediate payment with implied menaces. An example of a terror which leaks from the virtual world and its tools into the real world and its very different rules.
Just over a year ago I suggested something more sophisticated. Now, as those of you who know me will already appreciate, it is my firm belief that if someone can imagine something, it is possible to do. And if it is possible to do, it is already being done.
In this case, I suggested that for many years mafias of all kinds – government, corporate, overtly and traditionally criminal – had been using symbolic communication, as per a lot of existing and historic spycraft and criminality of course, but in a far more aggressive, individualised, and technology-supported way than we had ever realised.
Below, my edited thought experiment from that original blogpost. In this version, I am dealing mostly with the linguistic innovations of the experiment, as this method of communication is what interests me from a business perspective.
Upfront, I need to say that the British state still believes I am a paranoid schizophrenic, although much evidence has been presented to the contrary:
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed everyone was being followed. Prior to that moment, we had been told only suspicious characters, those already outside the law, those with prior form, and the generally anti-social, would ever be deserving of such surveillance.
Inclusion lists were the order of the day: most were supposedly not on them; only the infamous few would be.
For many years, Google has been recording every single feature of every single urban and natural environment on the planet. The task was astonishingly ambitious to simply propose, and admirable to my mind too. Street View is a fabulous achievement. It brings so much visual information, with all the obvious caveats about privacy, to the billions of people on this rock with Internet access.
But it also allows for many developments on the back of it: some surely intentioned, others quite collateral.
Let’s take what I thought was happening to me, way back when I went to Croatia in 2002 to try and set up a cross-national software business. I quickly sensed an interest from many parties: some highly suspicious of me and my motives; some wanting a finger in the pie they maybe perceived much better than I did. I was not, never have been, a good businessperson. But I have always been good at seeing the shape of things, when very little shape is visible to many others.
Croatia in 2002 had me being supposedly followed by local mafias, by field agents of different countries, by all sorts of madnesses only a dysfunctional person could perceive.
Yet even then, I felt I perceived a means for communication which, whilst kind of beyond my grasp, was all the same being used, despite my inability to capture properly its functioning.
It involved, primarily, the usage of a full and local knowledge of street names, shop signs, carrier bags of boutiques, and so forth. As well as, one presumes, a pretty good idea of how the mark / contact / individual being pursued (tick your preferred option, OK?) thought and saw the world.
This latter point is very important: the subtlety of the communication process, its undiscoverability, necessary in the sector of surveillance (and counter-surveillance, it has to be said!), would – in this thought experiment, and if indeed it were more than that – be far greater and easier to sustain if it were possible to know how the individual at the centre of the activities and communication events thought, saw the world, and sensed their rights and wrongs.
Of course, much as the command and control economy of the Soviets failed in the 20th century due to a lack of number-crunching power, and succeeded in the guise of transnational technology corporations in the 21st because the necessary IT now exists, so what was possible in 2002 – tell someone what to do by guiding them through a pre-existing environment in a carefully sequenced order – is nowhere near what might be possible today:
- Street View has brought a global control of the local to any long-distance operator of drones, mobile-phone location devices, or other tracking systems, so allowing anyone to communicate with a subject by flashing externally-unfathomable patterns which guide, inform and instruct this individual what to do next. The meat of this language – visual in the main, but particularly applicable to a younger generation (not me!) super-versed in this visual, practically from birth – are the words to be found on street and shop signs, billboards, carrier bags of all kinds, as well as in the content of mobile phones. This thought-experiment process requires no special material to be delivered or posted or made or highlighted. As such, its origin is not attributable, for its meaning lies more in its ordering than its existence. All it requires to function is the intelligence and ingenuity of traditional, historical spycraft, and the background knowledge of how someone thinks in their deepest recesses, to adjust and make bespoke the best and most efficient sequences of ideas – trails of thought, if you like, as per Vannevar Bush’s venerable Memex machine – to suggest, where not explicitly demonstrate, what a person should do and think.
- The 21st-century ability to number-crunch huge amounts of physical, geographical and sentiment-based data in real-time processes – where in 2002 this was not really efficient nor, actually, the case in any useful way – allows for decisions and revisions of instantaneous communication needs, which have to be made continuously, to become amazingly efficient.
Two examples of how this might work. The first example would be to take a city space. We have a Well Lane, a Paradise Street, and a School Alley. If I were led down School Alley first, then Well Lane and finally to Paradise Street, we could argue the following message had been transmitted: learn, feel better, achieve a state of grace. If it was known from my online communication prior to or around the communication event that I was at a professional crossroads in my life, then the message would work even more effectively.
That’s an example of a trail of thought to nudge one into a certain response, behaviour or act. Here we are using a well-photographed and recorded urban environment to write a narrative for discrete individuals.
But in order to develop a trail of thought, in order to string together a sentence, there have to be punctuation marks too. This is where the artefacts of consumer society come in.
Let’s take the River Island bag. On the one side, it says River. On the other side, it says Island. Let’s say in the case of the subject under discussion, again from their prolific history of posts, comments, likes and photographs, we know they struggle between communication and keeping things to themselves. They have a psychological tendency to close down in times of stress: moments when surely we can all agree it is best to confide in someone.
If the subject is seen to be exhibiting Island behaviours – choosing to be Batman rather than Superman, one might argue! – in clear detriment to their wider mental wellbeing, we might move them towards a flurry of such bags being carried with Island visible. If, on the other hand, the subject is communicating socially and in what is judged a well-adapted way, the flurry of words becomes River. Of course, there could be a third interpretation: River means one is communicating too copiously, but in all language systems words have a baggage of meanings, and here it is obvious that context – the fuzzy aspect to human discourse we shall never quite rid ourselves of – has to play a grand part in interpretation.
For language always will involve interpretation. And this is precisely where it, and our, grandeur lies. As in love’s vicissitudes and uncertainties, where aspiration and reality sometimes overlap but often fail to coincide, so in human communication of all sorts.
A way, then, of communicating not only with spies, criminal elements, agents in the field various, in the context of spycraft, but of provoking concrete individuals into a mental state which allows them to be imprisoned without trial.
As with everything, of course, and as my evermore beloved Foucault has said, none of this is necessarily good nor bad – it is all just inevitably dangerous. And precisely for this reason, and precisely for this reality, these are things we should not shy away from: quite the contrary. Precisely because we fear their reach is precisely why we should get even closer.
The above is just one example of how power could continue to cement and nudge its abuses, but in this case not at the traditional level of terrorism’s mass theatre: rather, at a pointedly individualised and seamlessly unshareable experience of coercive actions that destroy specific people invisibly.
For history and its turning-points are not just fulcrums of the masses. What individuals of considerable bravery do one day or one minute, if society, if mafias, ever allowed, can change the very course of humanity.
Also published on Medium.