Privacy Advisor

PRIVACY IN POP CULTURE: Lexicon Makes Magic of Privacy

September 23, 2013

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

We’ve all heard the clichés: Knowledge is power; knowing is half the battle. Lexicon, the new novel from Australian Max Barry, takes this to its most personal, and literal, end. The more that “poets” know about you, the more they can influence, control and eventually “compromise” you by making you do whatever it is they want.

In some ways, the book is a lit major’s dream come true. The main characters take their names from famous English-language poets—T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf—and these poets manage to use their extensive knowledge of linguistics and the way the brain processes language to secretly rule the world.

Pretty sweet. Sign me up. Maybe that B.A. from UVM wasn’t a total waste!

I mean, no way am I this nefarious! “Persuasion stems from understanding,” Yeats says at one point. “We compel others by learning who they are and turning it against them.”

And such is how the data brokerage industry becomes part and parcel of the poets’ vast underground operation. Seriously, have you ever seen a privacy policy as a plot device? There it is on page 198. It’s TruCorp’s. You can rest assured, “TruCorp takes customer privacy seriously. Your personal data is stored securely and will not be released without your permission.”

For those in the privacy biz, the caveats in the footnote included with the policy should be pretty funny. Or embarrassing. Or poignant. Depending on your point of view.

What’s truly wonderful about this novel is its extrapolation of privacy and personal information all the way to the roots of ideas about magic and sorcery and the idea that to know a person’s “true name” is to control them.

“Once upon a time, there were sorcerers,” says Emily, who would become Woolf. “Who were really just guys who knew a little about persuasion … but they also occasionally got burned to death by angry mobs, or beheaded, or drowned while being tested for witches.”

When people feel powerless, when they feel that their inner sanctums have been too onerously invaded, they lash out. Remind you of a guy whose name rhymes with Medward Slowden? Know any folks who are gathering their pitchforks and piling up branches at the bottom of big wooden stakes?

While I don’t really think data-gatherers and brokers are as insidious as the poets in Lexicon—really, it’s incredibly artful the way Barry connects data-gathering with mind control—I do think the book gets right to the very core of why privacy matters. Deep down, there is a part of ourselves that only we know. We hold onto it dearly because we think whatever else we may lose—our loved ones, worldly possessions, etc.—we at least have that. And if we don’t have that? If we don’t have that unknowable essence of ourselves? Then we’ve got nothing at all.

At the very least, we want to be able to dole out that special knowledge of ourselves willingly and knowingly. The character Yeats is especially insightful here: “We attempt to conceal ourselves, but the truth is we do not entirely want to be concealed … Within walls, there is nothing worth protecting. There is, in fact, nothing. And so we exchange privacy for intimacy. We gamble with it, hoping that by exposing ourselves, someone will find a way in.”

Yeats uses that insight to control and manipulate. But there is another option. We can use that insight to be responsible and understanding of the people with which we interact and do business. We can make sure the exchange is a fair one and that people always feel the gamble is worth it.

Read More By Sam Pfeifle:
What NIST Is Hoping To Get Out Of Its Privacy Grant Program?
The End for DNT? Not So Fast
Is This the End for DNT? DAA Pulls Out of W3C Process
A Look at the Future of Privacy Notices (If They Have a Future)