As we obsess over Brexit, bombast and trumpetry, Big Tech is expanding its reach into our lives, writes Laura Waddell.
John Le Carre’s most recent novel Agent Running in the Field is, admirably, his 25th novel. That’s a lot of espionage hi-jinks already under his belt. But one gets the sense that the senselessness of Brexit is one of the most confounding national threats to feature in his books yet, particularly to a government service with the word intelligence in its name.
We meet main character Nat as he semi-reluctantly returns to the helm of a run-down, underperforming surveillance substation, while his wife Prue, senior lawyer on course for landmark wins against Big Pharma and engaged in flurry of pro-bono activity, has an eye on settling down for semi-retirement and leaving the secret service and diplomatic worlds behind for good.
One of the themes, naturally, is aging. We see it in Nat’s pride in reigning as club champion of the badminton courts, tempered by the mild, lingering anxiety that his game might not be quite what it used to be. He scrutinises his daughter, a headstrong millennial with sharp opinions, their differences sketched with humour but not bitterness, to understand younger colleagues who are making their way up the ladder as he makes his way out the door, equipped not only with different field skills but ideas and expectations about the work they carry out.
We see it most of all in how Nat humours abrupt young badminton player Ed (who I couldn’t help but picturing as an Andy-Murray-a-like) who plays a fine, challenging game on the courts then bends his ear in the club bar after each match, ranting with a zeal about Brexit and state of the world that Nat is cautiously sympathetic to, privately thinking the young man a little too personally animated by his political obsessions but patient enough to provide the ear he seems to need.
Nat has been around the block; much about the world is familiar. And yet, very subtly, things have tilted on an unexpected axis.
Surveillance is everywhere, not only in this book with its thrilling bugged restaurant booths and intercepted Russian correspondence but our own everyday, consumerist, data-driven lives.
As it becomes monetised in new, dystopian ways ever emerging from Silicon Valley boardrooms, privacy and surveillance will soon become a more pressing political issue.
Some NHS trusts in England have been signing contracts to allow the sharing of patient data with Google’s disconcertingly named subsidiary company DeepMind, despite data watchdogs previously ruling a similar NHS-DeepMind trial failed to comply with the law.
Between that, the prospect of home listening device Amazon Alexa offering NHS medical advice – “a health and care system that is fit for the future” according to Matt Hancock – and the scandal earlier this year when it was revealed thousands of recordings from iPhone voice assistant Siri were being stored and transcribed by shift workers, and we’re completely and utterly waving away our privacy while the NHS is chipped away at, so distracted are we by all else.
Zuckerberg backs Trump?
More serious conversations about data can’t come soon enough, and it’s remarkably brave that across the ocean, Democrat presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has recently played Facebook at their own game of allowing political ads containing misinformation, a policy recently confirmed.
Warren’s campaign paid for ads falsely claiming Mark Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump to draw attention to the irresponsibility of such a move by the digital publishing and tech giant which has so significantly impacted recent US elections, and which Brits should be paying attention to too.
Such a move shows principle and nerves of steel, as well as taking her campaign in the radical direction of tackling what is as yet under-recognised as the single biggest threat to personal privacy and the marching advancement of our individual commercial exploitation that other candidates have so far slept on, while rival Pete Buttiegieg is taking campaign hiring suggestions from Zuckerberg.
We’re lightyears behind here too when it comes to parties forming reactive policy. Facebook’s ‘free speech’ justifications come across worryingly as both faux naive and waving a runaway train on its way screeching down the tracks.
But of course, surveillance is also the very bread and butter of any spy, and it’s an essential for a good yarn. Returning to Le Carre, his protagonist Nat has an impressive array of practical and psychological tricks that have served him well for many years, even if a couple lean more to professional pride and habit oiled over decades than strict necessity.
But perhaps by listening to the young man rail against the damage Brexit is wreaking and the lack of ethics he sees all around and which turn his stomach, there’s a glimmer of recognition. Not necessarily of himself as a young man, or anything as cliched as that, and not particularly to the ranting itself, which we’re now accustomed to tuning out to varying degrees as a coping strategy for getting through the average day.
What really keeps him listening is the younger man’s underlying hope and belief in changing things, naive certainly, but raw and determined. And perhaps amidst the numbing familiarity of rolling constitutional turmoil, craven and underhand colleagues and others who carry on with droid-like automation, his instinctual response to another’s hope is what draws him in deeper.
I shall say no more on the details, lest I spoil the ending, but I’m led to wonder amidst all the noise and chaos how deeply we are actually listening. Whether we are, as individuals, moving towards anything that matters to us, rather than set in rigid avoidance of that we don’t want. I don’t mean Brexit deal versions 1, 2, 3 til eternity, which should hereafter be preserved as the dictionary definition of ‘avoidance’, but the actual stuff of fraternity so many of us claim to value in European partnership, but perhaps miss when it’s on our doorstep, like social and local policies drowned out by bombast and trumpetry, or even grand old dreams like democracy, kicked like a can underfoot while we barely notice.