“Once upon a very digital time …” – a story of a very personal neo-terrorism
This is a story, only a story. Its events, as described, bear no relation to anyone, living or dead. The places in which the story is located are used because – in the absence of the necessary time to carry out further research – the author has chosen to remember bricks and mortar, and concrete and glass, of his previous experience.
It adds to the feeling of veracity, and encourages more reliably the suspension of disbelief. Everything a good piece of fiction should do.
Back, way back, near the beginnings of total surveillance, a man fell in love with a woman, and a woman fell in love with a man. Let’s call the man W. Let’s call the woman J.
W stood for William, but he had always felt more a letter. J stood for Julia, because she had been born in a month of glorious summer.
So the two of them fell in love, and had a wonderful though all-too-brief encounter.
This is beginning to sound like a film.
For many important reasons, the relationship had to stop. Firstly, it was wrong. Secondly, whether wrong or not, it had the potential to damage the lives of so many people. Sometimes love overcomes everything, it is true. But sometimes love overcomes its own capacity to love. This, here, right then, the latter we mean, was the case to hand.
And so it ended. And W fell into a deep, deep depression of many years. And J remarried. And their lives apparently took separate courses. But the thirst for justice, or the desire to deliver injustice, or the need to hurt back when hurt, grappled with the better judgement of not only J and W, it also thrust its cruel hand in the direction of W’s brother, who we shall call C; of J’s daughter, who we shall call P, meaning Patricia; and of the boyfriend of the latter, called K, which stands for Kevin.
Four who would eventually understand what was going to happen: who would understand the crime they were going to commit.
One who was going to have absolutely no idea, no clear idea beyond that which the other four would let slip, about what the others would be doing to him.
For more than a decade.
For perhaps sixteen years, in one way or other.
For J’s daughter P, a clever person like her mother, discovered the tragedy of love’s breakage, and directly attributed it to her mother’s remarrying – kind of on a rebound – a man who, in himself, would only deliver misery and violence.
‘If only,’ thought P.
‘If only the relationship between J and W had prospered. And why did it not?’ P would ask herself. ‘Because W, not my beloved mother, chose for it not to.’
P decided, at that point, that something had to be done. Either recover a lost love for a beloved parent, giving W a chance to make real amends – or destroy the man who, alternatively, would continue to resist all attempts at making up.
Whilst P discovered this relationship, as well as the impact it had had, it has to be said, on both parties involved, she may not at this time have been fully aware of the participation of a third party: the above-mentioned C, or W’s brother.
For it only came to light a little later that whilst J had been traumatised by her stunted affair with W, this had not stopped her from having a similar relationship with C, both before and after the one conducted with W.
It had, however, come to W’s notice. Being the fairly affable sort he was, however, he felt it was a) none of his business to care, and b) none of his business to enquire after. To him it seriously mattered little. It may be the case that, to this day, P still is not aware of the detail, or does not believe it. Or maybe, doesn’t need to worry about it. For C continued the relationship he had in real privacy and behind doors of closed. W proceeded not to, on both counts.
It soon became clear to P that real damage could be done to her family by a man who chose neither to buckle under to a love he never was entirely comfortable with, nor buckle under to a belt of a past of silences and abuse, as violent – psychologically at least – as any mafia out there.
The closed nature of family clan mirrored in the village.
The global village of digital.
It is supposed that when push comes to shove, most people prefer the loyalty of kinship to the loyalty of truth.
W was not like this. That was why he became Enemy Nº 1 of the Group of Four. The Digital Group of Four, let it be said. W’s onetime lover, J; W’s brother, C; J’s daughter, P. And P’s boyfriend, K.
It soon became clear, after a couple of contacts with him, guarded as they had to be, that W was not for turning. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted; he did know, when he met it, what he didn’t.
Actually, he did know what he wanted. He was a real fan of “The X-Files”. He fairly considered himself a Fox Mulder. Not in aptitudes or skillsets or position, or even balls. But in the belief in a truth somewhere out there, for sure.
P’s boyfriend was as clever as she was. A cokehead and a grasper it had to be admitted, but neither condition presupposes an inability to progress in life to the satisfaction of most in polite society.
It soon became clear that W, his way of thinking, his public activity online (of which there was plenty), his instincts to egalitarianism, and his desire to make a better world for all rather than revert – so easily – to what most would see as his own quite understandable, quite acceptable, pecuniary self-interest, was one day going to need some kind of neutralisation: most importantly, he knew about his brother C’s affair with J, and if he could not be brought back into the family fold of hermetic – if one day, for example, he spilt the reams in one way or another – the consequences would be too dreadful: to have it publicly revealed that three members of the same family had had such complicated relationships was just … never to be contemplated. Especially when two of them would be high-profile individuals in their respective communities.
Something had to be done.
Then it became clear that something had to be done just a little bit sooner than everyone expected. W’s partner, S for Sandra, came into a huge amount of ready cash. No one knew how. Everyone knew how much.
C, W’s brother, was horrified when he discovered S was coming into this money. C refused his sister-in-law a month-long bridging loan, to deal with legal costs. This made receiving the monies a challenge in itself, as C had intended it become; though eventually, much to his chagrin, these monies did arrive to S.
J, meanwhile, was terribly interested in the property S had abroad, and asked W, once directly via a strange email, for details of this property.
It’s clear the Group of Four wanted to evaluate the dangers of possible legal or business developments they couldn’t so easily control.
This could change the playing-field, the ground rules, the whole sheer house of cards, its robustness, and their assumptions.
For they had assumed W would be hovering on the edge of poverty all his life.
The tech savvy three of the Group of Four actually were proactively ensuring, all this time, that W did remain poor: it is so easy, once you find where someone lives, to move their stuff so they don’t know why that router stops working, why that new router stops working, why the replacement for both previous routers stops working, why web-connected devices multiple stop working … oh, it’s so easy once you know how.
And useful, when someone needs the Internet connection to earn a video-conferenced living. In fact, C even had a conversation with W once: he did so insist that the latter accept the thesis of a book called “Who moved my cheese?” – i.e. when we think shit is happening, it’s just our imagination in overdrive. Perhaps innocuously meant, was this conversation. Or, perhaps, in order that W simply be freaked out, rather than begin to investigate seriously, the ever-lengthening string of coincidences making his Internet-dependent business difficult to drive.
Plausible deniability in the software and firmware industries, from EULAs that promise nothing more than a terrifying ride (alongside their corresponding bugs), to upgrades on hardware which don’t do much more than bork just before a university assignment has to be sent in … it’s always been a fabulous invisibility cloak.
It became an obsession of P’s, as she stalked the online activity of W over the next eleven years. Assiduously, stealthily, she began to pull together systems to assess and structure a psychological profile. Her boyfriend, K, a man of nascent tech if there ever was one, with a network of relevant and apposite connections only increasing as his own business grew and expanded, manifestly served to both technically and – most importantly – psychologically deepen and sophisticate the actions of the Group of Four.
As the tools became better, they realised the increasing opportunity, as well as the urgency given the unexpected and unpredicted money W would in theory now have access to, in order that W’s world be shaped in their benefit.
The Group of Four soon began to put a plan in place: destroy W by using AI to analyse his psychological weak-points from his prolific and ever-expanding online output. Then the idea was to leak limited events into his real world, in much the same way as a letter/phonecall scam: events which would serve to ‘creep him out’ in an unattributable way, as the popular parlance might have it. This ‘creeping out’ would serve to generate, at extremely low cost and risk to the actors responsible, a confirmation bias in W’s perceptions that would make him begin to see shadows in all shade, everywhere.
The possibilities of such direct engagement – and with the small chance still of a turning of the recalcitrant to the straight and narrow of the aforementioned hermetic – could only grow exponentially when, through K’s connections with the medium-sized tech industry in his country of residence and dealings, it became possible to invite W, to his real gratification it has to be said, especially considering his objective lack of business weight and presence, to a high-profile conference on the subject of Future, and its management.
The Group of Four laid out a gameplan to the Future team: engage W in a field experiment, with his explicit permission (or possibly without – there was always the chance that the Future team was equally unscrupulous, mates of mates you see, more than likely going to be fully approving of the goals being posited), in order that their AI tech might be tested to the max, using nudge theory to push and coax and influence W, over a period of two years, to either finally (in itself, possibly by now unpredictably) turn to the light they offered – or be pushed off the brink by his own desperate hand.
P then had an interview with W, where she let it be understood that if he stopped doing certain things and started doing others, in a period of around two years an unspecified opportunity would raise his lifestyle to the restaurant where she apparently had, out of the goodness of her heart, chosen to invite him that evening.
A strange offer.
Not to be rejected out of hand, of course.
To be considered, always.
Spanner in the works.
W fell in love again, this time disastrously with P.
For a long time, it became impossible to shrug the feeling off. He didn’t stalk back, but he did begin to codify his feelings.
C, W’s brother, J, W’s onetime lover, and P, the daughter of the latter, all discovered – indeed, it’s possible they had planned for and anticipated in the psychology of the overarching gameplan – the codification. They allowed it to continue for a while. When enough data was available, they sent threatening emails and texts saying that any references to any persons of the family should be removed from the web immediately.
W was terrified, and proceeded to remove the offending items immediately. Actually, he removed entire websites, whatever their content.
He couldn’t, however, avoid the feeling that maybe P had in some way been on his side, rather than against him: a double-agent of sorts, though not technically so.
Dynamically speaking, he understood.
He remained in love, and it was a challenging matter indeed. A challenging matter.
And a real error of judgement, in all respects.
The long-term gameplan to destroy W and his life was very subtle, very sly, and very … well, double-whammy.
The idea was to adjust his environment slightly, in multiple ways, over the years, so he would be driven mad again, as indeed similar acts by others had driven him mad during the initial times of total surveillance already referred to.
W wondered, in all his tremendous output, if the tool now to be used against him had once been a blogpost he had written. Had this been the case, they would surely have had reason to think: “How cool to use his idea against him.”
W remembered again the forceful coaxing in the direction of the text “Who moved my cheese?”, always at the hand of that Skype conversation with his brother, C; it seemed the latter so wanted his sibling to attribute the strange and minimal disjunctions in his life to a matter of life, never design.
In many ways, through such amends to the physical space he occupied, they also encouraged W to split off from his partner, for two main reasons:
- If W was eventually for turning, his partner would not – in their judgement, and for many practical reasons – be an adequate one in any respect for the roles they had in mind.
- If W was not for turning, the fact that his partner did provide a kind of emotional touchstone of curious certainty against the world they were trying to force him to enter, alongside her sum of still very ready cash, meant that unpredictable futures could still take place outside their long-calculated plans.
Their ingenuity knew no limits. They were well connected: we mean technologically, as well as in respect of wealth and those resources, always physical and intellectual, that the monied can borrow from.
It soon became apparent that something extremely curious was happening to W’s physical spaces. A particular type of woman’s handbag brand would repeat itself at what seemed key moments in his day, with some apparent significance, but not obvious in meaning.
Was it confirmation bias? Was it a paranoid pattern? Or was it something far more structured? W really had no sense of where the answer might properly lie.
At one point, W even was randomly engaged in conversation by a woman holding one of the bags in question. “I bet you wonder why you see so many of these bags,” she asserted, rather than asked. “Bet you’d like to know.”
He began to feel that something meant something, but wasn’t sure if he wasn’t going as mad as in total surveillance times.
The Group of Four’s plan was working.
In the event, it was all to lead up, one day, to a meeting with P’s boyfriend, though at the time of the meeting W was suddenly unaware of the immediate implications of his surroundings, and the nature of the event itself.
Firstly, he didn’t know K as P’s boyfriend. They had been on the point of meeting on one occasion, but for some reason this never materialised. Secondly, he didn’t connect, as fearfully as might have been predicted for his mental wellbeing, the fact that the K’s initials coincided with the handbag brand that had – to his mind – begun to so accost him over the previous two years.
It may have been a defence mechanism.
A defence mechanism to protect him from mentally falling apart during the meeting itself.
A priori, the meeting would have been intended to deliver the the goal of making W utterly crumble, as he would be immediately expected to suddenly look back over his recent life, connecting the dots a la Steve Jobs but in an entirely malicious manner.
And remember: alone, and ignored by everyone in the country he had found himself in (not his own, either of birth or residence), during a particularly, normally friendly, and generally partying time of the year.
The only meetup planned which materialised over that period was the one he now experienced with K.
Yes. When K told W he was obese, and needed to leave his previous acquaintances and friends behind, and carry out what he most feared, K was using his refined skillset of verbal manipulations to dip a dagger of privilege into the blood of a quite ordinary man.
It would be clear, if W was to go over the brink and not accept K’s offer during the meeting to “wash cars for a few years – nothing like starting from the bottom; oh, and send me that one-pager for your project, will you?”, that in the light of the former’s more recent online outpourings of a relatively paranoid edge, even if he did survive a suicide attempt there would be plenty of damning text for a professional psychiatrist to quite reasonably assume that this was a case of mental ill-health, located in the infirmity of an individual, and not mental distress, located in the environment around an individual.
What changed, then, between the early years of total surveillance when W did find his freedom removed by the state for a while – and now?
In the following years of life, age and experience, precisely the spycraft that had destroyed his sense of sanity – and made it easy for him and others to misinterpret the real reasons for his madness – had become a learning curve of intelligent soldiership: W had learnt, in an ad hoc way, but acquired quite profoundly all the same, to understand street spycraft for what it was – even though a spy he was not.
That’s what ended up protecting him from these neo-spies of digital figital, and their terribly convoluted long-term agendas. ‘In a digital world,’ so W said to himself, ‘one-bit idiots is what they are. That’s what’s protected me from the bad-tech guys this time round. The fact that through this process and horror I already had been, when murky interests had once so tragically driven me mad. No more. No more …’
Sometimes big corporations are bad, yes. But ambitions to become big, to have it within one’s coke-laced body, drives regional players to all kinds of turf violence of equal terrorism of new.
And that’s what they did to W. ‘Bad enough abroad,’ he mused to himself – even as their supposedly friendly security agencies cared not one little bit.
‘Criminal when performed in the UK, however: criminal against a sovereign subject like myself. Bloody goddamn criminal.’