“I was writing a chapter on the NSA’s close, and largely hidden, relationship with Silicon Valley. I wrote that Snowden’s revelations had damaged US tech companies and their bottom line. Something odd happened. The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish.
- Luke Harding
It’s a wonderful image, that of a paragraph deleting itself in the act of being written. That it belonged to a book about spies and surveillance only adds to the frisson, like when Amazon deleted copies of a book from thousands of its customers’ Kindles without so much as a warning or an explanation, and the book in question turned out to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I believe that’s where the phrase ‘you couldn’t make this shit up’ originally comes from.
It’s ironic. Of course it is. The problem is what to do with all this irony. Luke Harding did his best to appear unfazed by it, and started leaving messages in the text which made him sound like a passive-aggressive flatmate whose food keeps disappearing.
Good morning. I don’t mind you reading my manuscript – you’re doing so already – but I’d be grateful if you don’t delete it. Thank you.
What is so disarming about this story and others like it is the absurdly quotidian nature of these encounters. The spy nowadays sits at a desk, petulantly deleting paragraphs in which you talk about them directly (such was the case with Harding’s book). The spied-upon in turn has nowhere to run – there is nowhere to run – and starts leaving his own bitter little messages, like post-it notes on a fridge. Yet I confess that conversation interests me more than the urgent and topical content of Harding’s book. The spy who deletes. The writer who writes back.
What is also tritely, exhaustingly ironic, in the context of the NSA revelations and every political thriller since Enemy of the State, is that users of social media effectively write their own surveillance reports. ‘Subject got up and consumed hearty organic breakfast.’ ‘Subject expressed unsavoury political views after reading article in the morning’s paper.’ Tweet-length entries in a drab chronicle of life beyond the cyber-curtain. And on top of that, we secret-police one another. ‘I remember that thing you said two years ago, in fact, I have kept a record of it.’ It’s all filed in a myriad archives, and yours and mine can be just as sinister as those that belong to the NSA, Google or Facebook.”
“In the distant past, in what might be described as the Golden Days of War, the business of wreaking havoc on your neighbours (these being the only people you could logistically expect to wreak havoc upon) was uncomplicated . You – the King – pointed at the next-door country and said, ‘I want me one of those!’ Your vassals – stalwart fellows selected for heft and musculature rather than brain – said, ‘Yes, my liege,’ or sometimes, ‘What’s in it for me?’ but broadly speaking they rode off and burned, pillaged, slaughtered and hacked until either you were richer by a few hundred square miles of forest and farmland, or you were rudely arrested by heathens from the other side who wanted a word in your shell-like ear about cross-border aggression. It was a personal thing, and there was little doubt about who was responsible for kicking it off, because that person was to be found in the nicest room of a big stone house wearing a very expensive hat.
Modern war is distinguished by the fact that all the participants are ostensibly unwilling. We are swept towards one another like colonies of heavily armed penguins on an ice floe. Every speech on the subject given by any involved party begins by deploring even the idea of war. A war here would not be legal or useful. It is not necessary or appropriate. It must be avoided. Immediately following this proud declamation comes a series of circumlocutions, circumventions and rhetorico-circumambulations which make it clear that we will go to war, but not really, because we don’t want to and aren’t allowed to, so what we’re doing is in fact some kind of hyper-violent peace in which people will die. We are going to un-war.”