p, li { white-space: pre-wrap; }

My fingernail is falling off. I hit it with a hammer, like a month ago, and it’s finally grown past the bruise. It’s strange, watching something that was part of me become not-me. I’m constantly shedding parts of myself into the environment, hair, skin cells, all the little evidence that tells the story of my (relatively non-nefarious) deeds.

If Sherlock Holmes were to find my fingernail, perhaps he could deduce my current circumstances: “You, sir, are a clumsy carpenter with no health insurance,” and so on. But these days, it’s not just physical traces that we scatter behind us – and Watson is taking notes on our digital tracks.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. “Computer Tracks Man” isn’t news. “Man Tracks Computer” can be interesting, as in the Snowden case, but at this point the real mystery is where isn’t there a computer. Little cameras and microphones and motion detectors have crept into our pockets, our cars, our bedrooms, our bodies. They collect data and whisper it to each other, never sleeping, never forgetting.

It’s the logic of capitalism squirming deeper into our lives, of course. The optimization of the workforce. A centuries-old machine, with one metric: how much will you do, for how little pay? The machine tracks us so that it can predict our behavior and control our choices. Same as it ever was – only now, the advertising-surveillance machine can shadow each of us personally, every minute of every day of our lives.

Of course, some intrepid Stockholm syndrome sufferers have found ways to give even more personal data to the almighty cloud. The “Quantified Self” movement, which I’m sure had a way cooler name when COINTELPRO invented it, is all about self-tracking minute patterns of daily life. They track their food, moods, sleep, exercise, and even fingernail growth – and all with modern big-data technology.

Just imagine the beauty of a longitudinal study of your bowel movements over ten years, graphed on the screen of your phone. That’s the promise of the Quantified Self.

Kevin Kelly, founder of the Quantified Self and valuable asset of the Californian Ideology, writes in his book The Inevitable :

“In formal studies, you need a control group to offset your bias toward positive results. So in lieu of a control group in an N=1 study, a quantified-self experimenter uses his or her own baseline. If you track yourself long enough, with a wide variety of metrics, then you can establish your behavior outside (or before) the experiment, which effectively functions as the control for comparison.”

I think it’s safe to say that this attitude prevails among the Quantified Others movement as well – that nebulous association of techies, marketers and spies whose job it is to know more about you than you know they know (you know?).

They want to establish a baseline, understand your behavior outside any given experiment, so that they can calibrate their tools of influence. It’s the only way they can charge a fair price, after all: their product is your behavior, so their sales depend on how precisely they can control you.

To do cogsec, we have to throw off the baseline. There are lots of little ways to do this, but it’s unclear yet how effective they are. We could measure, perhaps, in attention value: how much does the Goog charge for ads delivered to me personally? The less I cost, the better.

There’s only so much we can do, though. Kelly identifies twenty-four different ways that an average American is tracked on the regular. That’s not even counting FitBit and other Quantified gadgets. To truly combat ubiquitous surveillance, you’d have to develop some sort of nested-personalities gambit, layers and layers of personal narratives that mislead the metrics of the machine. Shed personas like fingernails, change your mind as often as your socks.

Not that I know anything about that.

Besides, I’m perfectly aware that computers are reading this. These letters don’t make it to your inbox without being carefully analyzed: AI is studying my word choice, connecting this letter with all the preceding issues, building a model of my connection to each of the intended recipients of these words. It’s not science fiction, it’s just spam filtering.

My words are inscribed forever into a database, mulled over by a brain-like architecture so complex that even its own creators don’t understand it, running on a warehouse-sized compute cluster with its own hydroelectric power plant. And it’s trying to figure out if I am a robot, or a real person sending you real mail.

It’s fine. It’s kind of sweet, actually, that someone out there is reading my every word, that it cares enough about me to see me when I’m sleeping and to know when I’m awake. Watson was always kind of in love with Holmes, after all.

SCIOPS, read all over by machines of loving grace.

Thanks,

Max


SCIOPS is a weekly newsletter about cognitive security. Feel free to forward it to anyone you think would like it, or share it on social whatevers. If you have thoughts, questions, or criticism, just respond to this email.

If you’re seeing this for the first time, make sure to sign up at tinyletter.com/sciops for more cyberpunk weirdness in your inbox every week.