Some of my readers have asked me for a
Cogsec 101
a quick, practical introduction to cognitive security. This newsletter is an exploration into the implications and context of cogsec, and a journal of the times that birthed it, but in the spirit of disaster mitigation I’d like to share a basic theory-and-praxis.

What can we do, as individuals, as users, to protect our minds?

Well, to understand what to do, it’s important to understand what we’re up against. Cogsec is not a specific set of tools – like other types of security, it’s a constant cat-and-mouse game, an arms race. Cogsec has to be a mindset, a lifestyle, a walking meditation. Secure your own cognition before helping others.

"keep calm and constant vigilance"

So, the threat model: dark wizards are fucking with your mind to make you a different person.

No joke. Those are technical terms.

I use dark wizards to refer to the shadow side of cogsec, the unethical cognitive hackers who sell their skills to the highest bidder, the cult leaders and demagogues who will step on anyone to climb to the top. Dark wizards do dark arts. Cognitive security defends against dark arts.

Mindfucking is distinguished from truth, lies, and bullshit by its motivation: where the honest, the liars and the bullshitters persuade with words, mindfuckers manipulate the unconscious aspects of the mind. Emotions and cognitive biases are the security holes that mindfuckers penetrate. (For more terrible puns, see Colin McGinn’s Mindfucking: a critique of mental manipulation, 02014.)

Make you a different person is a vaguery, I know. For the most part, especially in 21C America, this translates directly into “buy things”. But dark arts predate capitalism, their prodigal child. Dark wizards might also want you to believe in an invisible entity, or swear fealty to an inbred stranger, or die for a stripey flag. Whatever it is, it’s not something you would naturally do. They want to change your choices. They want to make you someone else.

All of cogsec flows from this threat model. The  goal is to remain yourself, even as you change . Of course it’s impossible to avoid all influence, and undesireable to stagnate. We don’t want to stop growing. But we want to notice, deflect, and defuse the dark arts and the worlds they would have us choose. We want to be ourselves. We want to choose who we become.

This is applicable in so many domains that I can’t possibly list them all. Every mindfuck has its antidote:

Grocery store wants you to buy junk food? Skirt the perimeter for staples, avoid the aisles.

Pharmacy wants you addicted to pills? Make an herbal salve or a tincture (or smoke a joint, tbh).

Retailers want you depressed, impulsive and self-loathing? Ride your bike when you go to the mall. Better yet, ride your bike right past the mall. Learn to cut your own hair and repair your own clothing. Abstain from mirrors. Grow fur and write a manifesto in dried blood on a mountainside.

Surveillance industry wants you constantly face-welded to your smartphone? Well, that’s tough.

The smartphone isn’t some evil alien parasite. It’s a tool, really the coolest thing humans have ever created. It’s a magic mirror that shows marvels. It’s an oracle that answers questions. It’s a new layer of the brain, an exo-cortex. It’s a mental prosthesis, a cyborg upgrade. There’s a reason that two billion people have smartphones. We’re not going to give them up.

Phones don’t mindfuck people. People mindfuck people. All the hand-wringing thinkpieces focus on whether the Internet or the phones or the apps are ruining our kids or our brains or our society. But people are behind these technologies, and they’re deliberately engineering them to fuck with our heads.

Thanks to Zuckerbot’s palm-sweaty, mom-spaghetti performance in front of Congress, and the showboating ex-googlemen at Time Well Spent, we’ve finally gotten some decent reporting on the “behavoral design community” – the dark wizards of the tech world. The mindfuckers.

The WIRED Guide to Internet Addiction is long and thoughtful and has a nice sidebar on dark patterns. Push notifications, autoplay, bright colors, exciting sounds, turn them all off. Pretty basic, but it’s the foundation of a good cognitive security practice. Are you in charge of your phone, or it you? offers guides on clearing out your social profiles, and simple explanations of encrypted messaging, private email, and focused browsing.

TIME has a profile on Boundless Minds , a firm from SoCal who claim to be doing dark arts for good reasons. I’m skeptical. “Boundless” are neuroscientists who design habit-forming apps and literally wrote a book on engineering habits. It’s free on their website, but if for some reason you don’t want to give these characters your email address, I uploaded a copy over here . It’s a marvelous edifice of doublespeak, and a good introduction to the way that Skinnerist techbros think.

And if you’re using Android, check out Siempo , a launcher designed to strip a lot of the dark patterns out of the OS. It defaults to a creamy white blankness with monochromatic, unbranded icons, and it can bundle notifications on a schedule so your train of thought isn’t derailed by constant blips and bloops. All of this can be done better manually, but Siempo is an easy starter package for cogsec, and they’ll have an iOS version soon.

siempo homescreen

Cognitive security™: because “Defense Against the Dark Arts” was taken.

Do you want more theory and praxis like this? Would you read a whole book of it? Respond to this email if you’d like to beta-test a cogsec book later this year…

Thanks for reading!


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

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