Books

In an Age of Increased Surveillance, Gnomon Could Be More Fact Than Fiction

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Back in 2010, Zadie Smith wrote “Generation Why” for the New York Review of Books. A review of the work of Jaron Lanier and of the recent film about the founding of Facebook, ‘The Social Network,’ Smith’s essay questioned whether the internet and social media was changing something fundamental in the ways we relate to one another. In early December, an account of a speech given by a former Facebook executive surfaced in which he said he felt “guilty” over how Facebook rips “society apart.” Jaron Lanier has been writing about the internet from the beginning. He eschews all social media, seeing all forms of it as “behavior modification programs.”

After September 11, 2001, many Americans decided that they would rather give up some of their rights to privacy and to free expression rather than risk another massive terrorist attack. The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act has had many of its provisions re-extended, provisions that include permission for warrantless wiretapping of suspected terrorists. After 16+ years, such monitoring of citizens is rarely remarked upon, and members of the government might be forgiven for thinking that Americans have adjusted to a new status quo in which their social media is monitored and their private conversations taped.

In Gnomon, British writer Nick Harkaway imagines a not-too-distant future in which a certain number of rights have been permanently ceded to the British government in exchange for citizens’ perfect safety. Computer technology has advanced to the point now where, under anesthesia, the insertion of a computer probe into a suspect’s brain can interpret the data there in order to read minds, thus making it impossible for a suspect to withhold information from their interrogators.

As Gnomon opens, however, the unthinkable has happened. A female suspect has died in custody, killed by the interrogation. Mielikki Neith is the state inspector who is asked to determine what happened, how a system designed to offer ultimate safety has turned deadly.

Harkaway takes readers on a series of adventures that slingshot the novel from fourth century North Africa to the current day in Great Britain. The suspect has filled her head with two millennia’s worth of stories, designed to keep the “mind-reading” computer busy chasing leads that may or may not reflect back on the plot that led to her arrest. And as we continue to wrestle with the impact of social media, the threat of terrorism, and the ubiquity of the internet on our ways of acting and relating, I found that the events in the novel did not feel outside the range of the “thinkable,” so that certain revelations made me uncomfortable.

But, as a writer, I was intrigued by questions of appropriation and imagination that are also central to the plot. In the world of Gnomon, a suspect is dead because she has filled her head with stories that are not her own. Is this an act of appropriation or an act of imagination? Has the suspect brought these stories to life as a consequence of her own imaginative work? Or were the stories not hers to tell in the first place? And if you fill your head with other people’s stories, are you responsible for the stories once they become one’s own? What are the consequences when we take from others in order to protect ourselves?

In a work that challenges what we are willing to give up in order to feel safe, I also found questions of the things we take away from others in order to feel safe. Echoes of the controversy over what the storyteller owes to those from whom they borrow nudged me while I read.

Gnomon combines great fictional story-telling with a host of deep questions about what we want for ourselves going forward, and is just the right book with which to begin 2018.