Of all the tributary footage screened in the days following the death of Bob Hawke, one short sequence jarred. In it, Hawke conducts the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and orchestra in the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah, jerking and twitching in response to the well-drilled ensemble, showing admirable bravura in the face of such a magnificent disconnect between cause and effect.

‘Confidence gets you a long way in conducting,’ Mark Wigglesworth writes in this new manual on the art form he has spent his life practising and perfecting. ‘Even some prime ministers have thought they could have a go.’ Wigglesworth is here disparaging Edward Heath, a former British prime minister, who at least had some form as a pianist and organist. Yet his point remains: why do people think conducting is something almost anyone can do?

The dust jacket is more circumspect. The book is ‘for all who wonder what conductors actually do, and why they matter’. And so Wigglesworth sets off on his picaresque journey through this most singular practice, his own career hovering over the narrative, drawn on whenever a point needs making or a plane needs landing. He is far more than an amiable guide, for Wigglesworth is a smart, serious musician who brings curiosity and courtesy to everything he does, which has included some turbulent tenures, boards, and management sabotaging the role he carefully delineates in this book.


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    Of all the tributary footage screened in the days following the death of Bob Hawke, one short sequence jarred. In it, Hawke conducts the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and orchestra in the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah, jerking and twitching in response to ...

  • Grid Image (300px * 250px) Grid Image (300px * 250px)
  • Alt Tag (Grid Image) The Silent Musician
  • Book Title The Silent Musician
  • Book Author Mark Wigglesworth
  • Book Subtitle Why Conducting Matters
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  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $26 pb, 259 pp, 9780571337903
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Thursday, 06 June 2019 09:16

Get Adam and Eve out of Paradise

Few people escape from publishing. Most people, once they get a foot in the door, stay put. Mary-Kay Wilmers has been working in the industry for more than fifty years. She began at Faber & Faber when the company was still dominated by ‘GLP’ (the ‘Greatest Living Poet’ himself, T.S. Eliot, much mentioned in Toby Faber’s epistolary history of Faber). Wilmers, co-founder of the London Review of Books in 1979 and sole editor since 1992, occasionally writes ‘pieces’ for ‘the paper’ (LRB-speak). Now, two admiring colleagues of hers, John Lanchester and Andrew O’Hagan, have collected some of her occasional writings in a volume called Human Relations and Other Difficulties (Profile Books, $27.99 pb).

We meet the warring Connollys: literary critic Cyril Connolly, who ‘famously marked his place in a book he had borrowed with a rasher of bacon’, and his second wife, Barbara Skelton, who bedded many but doesn’t seem to have liked anyone (‘What a terrible waste of time people are,’ she wrote in her diary). Coolly, Wilmers is often deadly: in her essay on Patty Hearst she mentions a pre-kidnap beau called Steven Weed – ‘not a name that would necessarily wish fame upon itself’.

Wilmers is generally suspicious of aphorisms, but ABR liked this one in her article on seduction: ‘One way or another, a plot had to be devised to get Adam and Eve out of paradise.’ This piece, in true LRB fashion, occasioned a lethal exchange of letters. Christopher Ricks, in acidulous form, rebuked Wilmers for misremembering one of his pronouncements: ‘I hope that Ms Wilmers the editor of the LRB is more scrupulous than Ms Wilmers the insufficiently edited contributor to her pages.’ (Wilmers, adverbially deft, was sorry that Ricks had ‘taken the lapse so darkly to heart’.)

Hacks shouldn’t miss Wilmers’s article ‘The Language of Novel Reviewing’ – that toughest of assignments. Wilmers notes some of the pitfalls, the minor misprisions. Here, on her own turf, she is decidedly epigrammatic: ‘Every liberal and illiberal orthodoxy has its champions’; ‘Sometimes it seems as if novel reviewing were a branch of the welfare state’; and ‘Just as some novels supply their own reviews, so many reviews supply their own novels.’

Wilmers is funny about the triads of adjectives flung at novels: ‘exact, piquant and comical’, ‘rich, mysterious and energetic’, etc. etc.. She might have been thinking of those triadic puffs beloved of trade publishers – usually written, at any one time, by a cohort of six reliable encomiasts.

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  • Custom Article Title Get Adam and Eve out of Paradise
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    Few people escape from publishing. Most people, once they get a foot in the door, stay put. Mary-Kay Wilmers has been working in the industry for more than fifty years. She began at Faber & Faber when the company was still dominated by ‘GLP’ (the ‘Greatest Living Poet’ himself, T.S. Eliot, much mentioned in ...

The ‘untold history’ of Faber & Faber should be a cause for celebration. For so many of us, possessing the unadorned, severe paperbacks with the lower-case ‘ff’ on the spine meant graduation to serious reading: coming of literary age by absorbing the words and thoughts of Beckett, Eliot, Larkin, Stoppard, Hughes, Plath, Miłosz, Golding, Ishiguro, Heaney, Carey, Golding, Barnes – Djuna, not Julian – and dozens of others. (Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, too, even for those of us who didn’t get past the middle of Justine.)

Toby Faber, grandson of the founder, Geoffrey Faber, tells the story of his family firm from its beginnings in the 1920s to 1990, encompassing what he evidently considers Faber’s glory years. He has put together his history more or less chronologically from correspondence, memos, and diary entries, interleaved with shortish paragraphs of commentary and background. At first glance this seems promising, especially for readers who – like me – enjoy reading other people’s mail in print. But it doesn’t take long to realise that this approach has significant and rather puzzling problems. The most obvious of these is the lack of a strong narrative line; there is no clear indication of the company’s development, no tracing of the means by which Faber became the multifaceted publisher it now is. Who, for instance, decided that Faber should publish musical texts as well as words? How well did that work? Toby Faber’s commentaries are neither pungent nor particularly informative. And the lack of an index doesn’t help either.

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  • Custom Article Title Jacqueline Kent reviews Faber & Faber: The untold history of a great publishing house by Toby Faber
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    The ‘untold history’ of Faber & Faber should be a cause for celebration. For so many of us, possessing the unadorned, severe paperbacks with the lower-case ‘ff’ on the spine meant graduation to serious reading: coming of literary age by absorbing the words and thoughts of Beckett, Eliot, Larkin, Stoppard, Hughes, Plath ...

  • Book Title Faber & Faber
  • Book Author Toby Faber
  • Book Subtitle The untold history of a great publishing house
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $28 pb, 422 pp, 9780571339044

Beejay Silcox Trump image

When truth is stranger than fiction, fiction is a potent source of truth. In the first week of the Trump administration, sales of 1984 increased by 9,500 per cent, catapulting George Orwell’s sexagenarian novel to the top of global bestseller charts. As Kellyanne Conway recast White House lies as ‘alternative facts’, Orwell’s tale of doublespeak read like a manual. Welcome to the land of the free and the home of the brave new world.

The lure of dystopian novels has always been dissonant; they soothe as much as they disquiet – that feverish relief of surfacing from a nightmare to find your world intact, values affirmed. The rise of white nationalism, the preposterous uncertainty of Brexit, climate change – in the face of these waking terrors, there is a perverse comfort in darker dreams.

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    When truth is stranger than fiction, fiction is a potent source of truth. In the first week of the Trump administration, sales of 1984 increased by 9,500 per cent, catapulting George Orwell’s sexagenarian novel to the top of global bestseller charts. As Kellyanne Conway recast White House lies as ‘alternative facts’ ...

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The author and critic Richard Ellmann died in May 1987, a handful of months before the publication of his biography of Oscar Wilde. Twenty years in the making, the book instantly established a benchmark in literary biography. Psychologically astute and critically nuanced, Oscar Wilde invites the reader into a world of bourgeois values – moral and artistic – that leads so tragically to the grim poverty and degradation of Wilde’s final years.

Ellmann had cut his teeth over three decades earlier with a biography of James Joyce (1959), written when many of those who had known him were still alive. Yet it took his study of Joyce’s fellow countryman to demonstrate the virtuosity and sheer nerve necessary to recreate a life in print so many years after the subject’s death. He takes the reader by the hand and never lets go, no matter how rough the terrain.

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  • Custom Article Title Paul Kildea reviews Fryderyk Chopin: A life and times by Alan Walker
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    The author and critic Richard Ellmann died in May 1987, a handful of months before the publication of his biography of Oscar Wilde. Twenty years in the making, the book instantly established a benchmark in literary biography. Psychologically astute and critically nuanced, Oscar Wilde invites ...

  • Book Title Fryderyk Chopin: A life and times
  • Book Author Alan Walker
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  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $59.99 hb, 756 pp, 9780571348558

Sylvia Plath wrote her last letter to the American psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher a week prior to her suicide on 11 February 1963. In it, Plath castigates herself for being guilty of ‘Idolatrous love’, a concept she drew from psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. ‘I lost myself in Ted instead of finding myself,’ Plath writes, identifying the subsumption of her ego into her failed marriage at the heart of her unhappiness. The letter’s tone is self-lacerating – Plath diagnoses herself as ‘very narcissistic’, lacking ‘a mature identity’, and in the grip of a ‘ghastly defeatist cycle’ – and distraught, citing a ‘fear & vision of the worst’. It closes with a portentous image of her domestic life, made terrible with hindsight: ‘Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea,’ Plath wrote. A week later, she killed herself.

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  • Custom Article Title Sarah Holland-Batt reviews 'The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2: 1956–1963' edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
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    Sylvia Plath wrote her last letter to the American psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher a week prior to her suicide on 11 February 1963. In it, Plath castigates herself for being guilty of ‘Idolatrous love’, a concept she drew from psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. ‘I lost myself in Ted instead of finding myself ...

  • Book Title The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2: 1956–1963
  • Book Author Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
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  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $69.99 hb, 1025 pp, 9780571339204

Michael Hofmann’s home territory is language, while his life is extraterritorial. He was born in Germany, went to school in England, now lives in Germany, but teaches in North America. He has also made a living out of working between languages, translating scores of texts from German into English. He is as well-known as a translator as he is as a poet. He has said some interesting things about his linguistic domicility. In one interview, he speaks of his problems with English: for him it’s a ‘class trap, a dialect trap, a feeling trap’. German doesn’t have such heffalump traps, he feels; it offers greater scope for frankness (get it?), despite its wounds. Nevertheless, he continues to write poems in English.

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  • Custom Article Title Philip Mead reviews 'One Lark, One Horse' by Michael Hofmann
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    Michael Hofmann’s home territory is language, while his life is extraterritorial. He was born in Germany, went to school in England, now lives in Germany, but teaches in North America. He has also made a living out of working between languages, translating scores of texts from German into English ...

  • Book Title One Lark, One Horse
  • Book Author Michael Hofmann
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  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $29.99 hb, 104 pp, 9780571342297

American novelist Barbara Kingsolver is renowned for her ability to infuse her fiction with her politics, in particular a passionate concern for nature and the environment. Prodigal Summer, published in 2000, is a celebration of the relationship between humans and nature; Flight Behaviour, published in 2012, is about climate change. No surprise then that her latest novel, Unsheltered, is set during two periods of scientific upheaval – the 1870s and the present – in which humans are confronted by the undeniable evidence of their own limitations. ‘I wanted,’ Kingsolver said, ‘to look at a paradigm shift, at how people behave at these moments of history when all the rules they trusted to hold true suddenly don’t apply anymore.’

There are parallel narratives in Unsheltered, told in alternating chapters. Both are set in the same house in Vineland, New Jersey, which is in a state of total disrepair. In the story set in the present, Willa and Iano, in their mid-fifties, live there with both Iano’s sick, irascible father, Nick, and their rebellious twenty-something daughter Tig. Iano, an academic, has recently lost his tenured position and is now a poorly paid junior lecturer. Willa, a journalist, has also recently lost her job. When their son Zeke’s partner dies, his newborn baby, Dusty, comes to live with them too.

In the story set in the 1870s, the house is occupied by Thatcher Greenwood, a new science teacher at the local school, his beautiful, petulant wife, Rose, his mother-in-law, Aurelia, and Rose’s younger sister, Polly. Rose refuses to leave the house, which was built by her father, despite its condition. Meanwhile, Thatcher’s attempt to teach his students about Darwin’s theory of evolution is stymied by the headmaster, Cutler, who (like most people in the provincial town, including its founder, Landis) regards Darwin’s views as heretical. Thatcher’s only comfort lies in his friendship with his neighbour, Mary Treat, a scientist and writer with whom he has a strong rapport. Treat is a real historical figure, as are many other characters who interact with the (fictional) Greenwood family.

The concept of shelter is central to the book. In the most literal sense, Willa’s and Thatcher’s families are both at risk of becoming unsheltered as their houses collapse around them. Neither family has the shelter of job security – Iano is on a yearly contract, as is Thatcher, whose adherence to Darwin’s ideas puts the renewal of his teaching contract in doubt. Kingsolver is concerned also with the shelter that love – romantic, familial, or platonic – can provide. Willa and Iano’s love gives them strength; the troubled Tig finally finds peace in her love for her boyfriend, Jorges, and for Dusty; and Thatcher, whose wife is no comfort to him, finds solace in ‘the shelter of [Mary’s] human arms’.

Equally significant is the metaphorical shelter of long-held beliefs. Both stories are set in a time of historical flux, when people need to adapt, and abandon old ideas, to survive. In the 1870s, Darwin’s theories challenged traditional beliefs in the supremacy of humans over animals. Vineland’s citizens are ‘terrified witless at the prospect of shedding comfortable beliefs and accepting new ones’. Today, as Tig (whose views, like Mary Treat’s, reflect Kingsolver’s) reminds Willa, people refuse to accept climate change or the fact that the earth’s resources are finite. In response to Willa’s bewilderment that, despite having done ‘everything right in life’, she and Iano are almost destitute, she explains that, ‘The rules have changed’, and the secret to happiness (and survival) is to lower your expectations and consume less.

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Kingsolver draws other parallels between the United States in the late nineteenth century and today. The country then, emerging from the Civil War, was deeply divided. Cutler’s call for ‘a return to fundamentals’ to heal the country’s wounds sounds familiar, as does Mary’s warning that, ‘When people fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order’. Effigies of Darwin swing from the trees as the crowd yells, ‘Lock him up’. The megalomaniacal Landis, with his ‘ruddy cheeks and an odd flop of hair’ bears an uncanny resemblance to the current US president.

Barbara Kingsolver (photo via Depauw University)Barbara Kingsolver (photo via Depauw University)Unsheltered is also about what Kingsolver describes as ‘the heart-enlargening earthquake of family life’; her portrayal, largely through Willa, of the ups and downs of family life is highly convincing. Willa must contend with the inevitable tensions when different generations live under the same (leaking) roof, with the corrosive impact of sibling rivalry (Zeke and Tig are in constant conflict) and with the impact of a newborn on a family. Despite those challenges, it is clear that Willa derives great satisfaction from her love for her family, and her efforts to protect them.

In Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver has once again created a memorable and deeply moving narrative, at the same time exploring enduring themes as well as topical issues such as climate change. The concept of shelter, and what it means to lose it, is critical. Just as those in the nineteenth century were compelled to abandon the false shelter of old ideas in order to see the truth, so, she argues, must we.

‘Without shelter,’ Mary tells Thatcher, ‘we stand in daylight.’

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  • Custom Article Title Nicole Abadee reviews 'Unsheltered' by Barbara Kingsolver
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    American novelist Barbara Kingsolver is renowned for her ability to infuse her fiction with her politics, in particular a passionate concern for nature and the environment. Prodigal Summer, published in 2000, is a celebration of the relationship between humans and nature; Flight Behaviour, published in 2012, is about climate change. No surprise then that her latest novel, Unsheltered, is set during two periods of scientific upheaval – the 1870s and the present – in which humans are confronted by the undeniable evidence of their own limitations. ‘I wanted,’ Kingsolver said, ‘to look at a paradigm shift, at how people behave at these moments of history when all the rules they trusted to hold true suddenly don’t apply anymore.’

  • Book Title Unsheltered
  • Book Author Barbara Kingsolver
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $32.99 pb, 480 pp, 9780571347018

Chopin is the greatest of them all,’ Claude Debussy told his pupil Marguerite Long, ‘for through the piano alone he discovered everything.’ This ‘everything’ had a long shadow, for Long described Debussy as ‘impregnated, almost inhabited, by [Chopin’s] pianism’. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the young Debussy composed a Mazurka and some Nocturnes, and then later, between 1909 and 1913, twenty-four Preludes, scribbling an epigraph under each to acknowledge inspiration or program, a nod to the epigraphs that clung with grim persistence to Chopin’s Preludes in the late nineteenth century. At the Exposition Universelle in 1889, Debussy encountered the scales and modes and gongs and bells of Javanese gamelan, and his music thereafter occupied a new landscape. Yet even then, as pianist and scholar Roy Howat has written, with his own voice secure and the sound world he evoked so foreign to French audiences, Debussy still managed to tip his cap in Chopin’s direction.

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  • Custom Article Title Paul Kildea reviews 'Debussy: A painter in sound' by Stephen Walsh
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    Chopin is the greatest of them all,’ Claude Debussy told his pupil Marguerite Long, ‘for through the piano alone he discovered everything.’ This ‘everything’ had a long shadow, for Long described Debussy as ‘impregnated, almost inhabited, by [Chopin’s] pianism’. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the young Debussy ...

  • Book Title Debussy: A painter in sound
  • Book Author Stephen Walsh
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  • Biblio Faber & Faber, $39.99 hb, 358 pp, 9780571330164

1984 is back. George Orwell’s nightmare vision of governmental surveillance, secrecy, and deception clearly resonates with the revelations first leaked to the Guardian by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Indeed, it is practically impossible to find an account of the Snowden affair without at least one ‘Orwellian’ adjective dropped into the mix. Sometimes it comes qualified: Justice Richard J. Leon, District Court Judge for the District of Columbia ruling in December 2013 that the bulk collection of US mobile phone records was probably unconstitutional, called the NSA program ‘almost Orwellian’. This decision is currently under appeal.

Orwell’s shadow falls darkly over the two best books on the topic: The Snowden Files by Luke Harding; and No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald. Harding aptly captures this Orwellian world with two word-pictures drawn from 1984. In the first a familiar Big Brother spouts Newspeak on a two-way telescreen in front of rows of grey automatons. An athletic woman, chased by riot police through the uniformed ranks, stops and hurls an Olympic-sized hammer at the screen of Big Brother, shattering it.

This all happens not in real life but in its next highest expression: on the televisions of more than 100 million watchers during the 1984 American Super Bowl. One does not have to read too deeply into the famous Apple advertisement to figure out the message: Big Brother=Big Blue (IBM); Riot Police=Reagan-era repression; Rebellious Female (in white tank top)=Free expression (and sex). And just in case you missed it, the voice-over delivers the punchline: ‘On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.’

Maybe not. One of the most telling NSA PowerPoint slides leaked by Snowden (to documentary film-maker Laura Poitras, who deserves far more credit than she has received in press accounts) and published in Der Spiegel also invokes the famous 1984 Super Bowl advertisement. The first slide is titled ‘iPhone Location Services’; the second one begins, ‘Who knew in 1984 …’; the third continues, with a picture of Steve Jobs holding the new iPhone aloft like a gift of fire from the gods, ‘… that this would be Big Brother ...’ The last slide provides the kicker, photographs of joyous iPhone users and the caption: ‘… and the zombies would be paying customers?’

Setting a new standard in the banality of official turpitude, the primary evidence of corporate compliance came in the form of forty-one NSA PowerPoint slides on the PRISM program, first leaked to Greenwald and published in part in the Guardian. The slides reveal a remarkable level of complicity among the NSA, the top US technology companies, and the judicial oversight body, the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court. Greenwald is superb in walking the reader through the complex material and political context of the PRISM program. Only a shorthand version of the rationale and process recounted by Greenwald for setting up the biggest electronic hoover in the free world can be provided here.

snowden image 1Edward Snowden looking relaxed and cheerful at his hotel room in Hong Kong. He had just brokered the most significant leak of intelligence in US (and UK) history, revealing previously unknown programs of mass government surveillance. (Ewan MacAskill, Guardian)

Based on a ‘reasonable belief’ of a foreign connection and a ‘suspicion’ of terrorist activities, the NSA seeks the FISA Court’s approval for the collection and analysis of metadata (location, time, and address as opposed to the messages’ actual content) directly from the leading service providers and tech companies. A ‘reasonable belief’ of a foreign connection is defined as ‘51 percent confidence’ by an NSA supervisor, and, crucially, Justice Leon could not find a single case in which the NSA’s bulk metadata collection stopped an imminent terrorist attack. The FISA Court approval process can also be seen as a proverbial rubber stamp, with the FISA Court rejecting only eleven applications out of more than 20,000 requests between 2002 and 2012.

Tech companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple complied with these requests with varying degrees of opposition (Yahoo most persistently) and during a five-year timeline (Microsoft the first to join in September 2007, Apple the last in October 2012).

The NSA, following the ‘Five Eyes’ agreement, then shares information with the alphabet-soup of other Anglo signal intelligence agencies: GCHQ (UK), GCSB (New Zealand), CSEC (Canada), and ASD (Australia). It turns out that Israel’s SIGINT National Unit has practically equal standing with Five Eyes, even receiving raw data that has not been ‘minimised’ to exclude materials possibly prohibited by the US Constitution and domestic laws.

Based on other leaked files, it would seem that for intelligence organisations the only contraband more addictive than crack cocaine is metadata. SIGINT agencies can never get enough of the stuff, offering up their own intercepts for one more taste. For instance, under the TEMPORA program, the UK’s GCHQ intercepted, stored, and provided other security agencies with both data and metadata transmitted by billions of people over underwater fibre-optic cables that start, terminate, or transit through UK territories. TEMPORA collected not only metadata, but also recorded the content of phone calls, email messages, Facebook entries, Internet browser histories and other data transmitted via trans-Atlantic cables throughout and between Europe, Africa, and North America. Canada’s CSEC shared intelligence on the Brazilian mining industry. Closer to home, it was recently revealed from leaks that the Australian ASD, under the STATEROOM program, intercepted (with help from the US Embassy) messages from the mobile phones of the Indonesian president, his wife, and the Indonesian foreign affairs spokesman and security minister. Most recently, under codename MYSTIC, metadata from mobile phones in the Philippines was collected by ASD and shared with the NSA.

Based on other leaked files, it would seem that for intelligence organisations the only contraband more addictive than crack cocaine is metadata.

The cornucopia overflows, which is why Australia might be high on the NSA’s watchlist for the next generation of signals intelligence. Collecting metadata is one thing: assessing, analysing, storing, and distributing it is another. An increase in the sophistication of algorithms, decrease in storage costs, and boost to computer processing has enabled many of the current NSA surveillance programs to thrive. Back in the day when Admiral Poindexter created the Total Information Awareness program in the 9/11 era (and before it was suspended by Congress in 2003 after a public outcry), data mining was a fairly primitive sector of the computer industry.

That has radically changed, and is likely to exponentially improve in the future, judging from the files that Snowden leaked on 2 January 2014. These PowerPoint slides are strangely recursive, revealing a $79 million dollar program to develop a quantum computer (not to be confused with an earlier 2004 NSA malware program called QUANTUM- SKY) by arguing for its classification as top secret:

(S//SI//REL) Much of the research in quantum computing is still very basic and is most effectively pursued in NSA-funded open research programs. These programs play a critical role as the major source of new ideas and for training future researchers in the field. However, NSA is pursuing more than just basic, unclassified research. NSA is also attempting to preserve the SIGINT potential of quantum computing (i.e., the cryptanalytic applications of QC) while simultaneously attempting to protect the information security of both the Government and private sectors against hostile QC attacks (i.e., the cryptographic, mission assurance applications of QC of interest to the Information Assurance community). These goals must be pursued at the classified level.

The media coverage of these leaks was minimal, and pretty dismal on spelling out the advantages of quantum over binary computers. In the former, calculations are based on quantum bits, or qubits, that can be both on and off simultaneously, exponentially increasing computational speeds over binary computers. The NSA program called ‘Penetrating Hard Targets’ sought to decrypt conventional codes but also to encrypt unbreakable ones. Using photons for quantum key distribution would also offer a level of transmission security unavailable to others, since any effort to intercept the message would disturb the polarisation of the qubit and, with it, one of the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics.

Australia might be high on the NSA’s watchlist for the next generation of signals intelligence.

As it happens, the event horizon of quantum computing is not far off in some distant galaxy or imagined apocalypse. Australia, with universities in Sydney leading the way, has become ground zero for research in this new field. Quantum is no longer confined to the experimental, microphysical, or metaphorical: it will be actual in our lifetime. The world could well be in a situation similar to 1939, when physicists first realised that nuclear fission could be weaponised. By dropping the ‘Q bomb’, Snowden may have alerted us to a danger that goes well beyond the ‘Orwellian’.

Orwell wrote at a time when Colossus, the first programmable electronic computer designed to break German ciphers during World War II, contained more than 1,500 vacuum tubes and filled an entire room in Bletchley Park. He could not possibly have imagined the technological innovations, perhaps not even the level of political acquiescence, that would allow future governments to enlist the services of the major Internet companies and other corporations to eavesdrop on such a global scale. How was, or rather, how is – given that the post-Snowden ‘reforms’ have been minimal – that possible?

To answer that question, it is useful to pair the books on Snowden with Ronald Deibert’s Black Code and P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman’s Cybersecurity and Cyberwar. Unlike Harding and Greenwald, who as journalists provide a vital first-cut of history, Deibert, Singer, and Friedman have been in the cyber-trenches almost as long there has been a cyberspace. Deibert, a scholar–activist who directs the redoubtable Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, follows on the heels of fellow-Canadian scholars Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan as one of the most perspicacious analysts of the perils and promise of the Internet. Singer and Friedman direct programs on security and technology at the Brookings Institution, and although they can get pretty wonky with policy minutiae, they have a flair for the telling anecdote and irreverent story. Their account of an early act of hacktivism (nota bene OUP: not ‘hactivism’) against the US Department of Energy in 1989, which left the message ‘You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war’, signed by WANK (‘Worms Against Nuclear Killers’), is better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick for Australian fans of Julian Assange and Midnight Oil.

Snowden threeIn October 2013, four US whistleblowers visited Snowden in Moscow. They found Snowden in good spirits and at peace with his decision to leak tens of thousands of Anglo-American secrets. (L-R) Coleen Rowley, Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack, Sarah Harrison and Ray McGovern. (photograph by Getty)

Taking the long view, these authors provide a deeper history, a clearer account of the technology, and a less polarised view of the politics that ‘enabled’ the Snowden affair. The trauma and fear of another 9/11 (US) or 7/7 (UK) or 12/10 (Bali) terrorist attack certainly played a key role as catalyst and justification for the NSA’s pervasive surveillance régime. But to fully comprehend how surveillance programs like PRISM, UPSTREAM, TEMPORA, and STORMBREW were considered necessary and made possible, we need to understand the origins, spread, and security dimensions of cyberspace itself.

Fittingly, this story also starts with 1984, the year William Gibson coined the concept of ‘cyberspace’ in his novel Neuromancer to describe ‘a consensual hallucination, experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators ... of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system’. Digitised networks now make it possible for a neural superstructure of billions of users to connect through a critical infrastructure of cable, fibre-optic, Wi-Fi, and micro-wave, creating levels of ubiquity, proximity, and simultaneity once imaginable only in science fiction. Although one might quibble with Gibson’s tag of ‘legitimate’, his originary vision of cyberspace flashes forwards, backwards, and sideways throughout the Snowden story.

This difference is reflected in the contrast between the responses to Snowden’s leaks by traditional media and the blogosphere. Outlets as diverse as online news magazines like the Huffington Post and technology commentators like Mashable and Wired have emphasised the importance of exposing the activities of ‘No Such Agency’ to the widest possible audience. This approach has not been restricted to so-called radical ‘fringe elements’ of WikiLeaks or Internet libertarians, but has been the stance of mainstream web-based security, privacy, and technology commentators. The divergent responses of traditional and next-generation media are highlighted by the willingness of online sites to publish the full tranche of NSA slides that Snowden’s traditional media partners such as the Washington Post and even the Guardian have refused to print. In many instances online outlets have asked the difficult questions about the security, privacy, and surveillance implications of the NSA’s monitoring régime that traditional media outlets have shied away from. 

This quartet of books reveals a much more disturbing picture of a late, a very late modernity, in which the dystopic visions of Orwell and Gibson are converging in a world of über-surveillance, diminished privacy, and minimal dissent, in which governments are only one of a rogues gallery of actors seeking power, security, and profits in cyberspace. Deibert, Singer, and Friedman draw such a detailed picture of cyberspace that at times the map seems more real than the landscape. Indeed, cyberspace appears as a simulacrum that precedes and is beginning to engender a densely networked and heteropolar world, increasingly beyond control by any state, institution, or individual. The Matrix (and Skynet) come to mind more than once in these books.

Snowden image 2After more than a month stuck at Moscow's Sherematyevo airport, Russia let Snowden out and gave him one year's asylum. The photo shows him on a boat cruise on the Moscow River, with the golden domes of Christ the Saviour cathedral in the background. (Associated Press / Rossia 24)

How does the story of Snowden and cyberspace end? The happy-hippy version of cyberspace, emerging from a combination of acid, flower power, and creative soldering in northern California, viewed the marriage of the personal computer and Internet as a liberating and creative force for good. Post-Snowden, that dream has become a nightmare from which we seem unable to awaken. Perhaps for good reason: one of the most disturbing PowerPoint slides leaked by Snowden to Greenwald instructs intelligence agencies operating in cyberspace on how to engage in ‘Dissimulation – Hide the Real’ while propagating ‘Simulation – Show the False’. Just how far from Gibson’s SimStim is the NSA’s DissSim?


After reading how cyberspace has been hijacked by signal intelligence agencies, big-data corporations, cyber-criminals, and other unsavory, anti-democratic, and illegitimate operators, one wonders whether 2014 is indeed the new 1984. But which one? Orwell’s or Gibson’s? Big Brother is Watching? Or Zombies are Us?

Books reviewed here:

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man
by Luke Harding
Guardian Books/Faber
$29.99pb, 346 pp, 9781783350353

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State
by Glenn Greenwald
Hamish Hamilton
$29.99 pb, 259 pp, 9780241146705

Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace
by Ronald Deibert
Signal
$32.99hb, 312 pp, 9780771025334

Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know
by P.W. Singer and Allan Friedman
Oxford University Press
$20.95 pb, 346 pp, 97880199918119

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title James Der Derian reviews 'The Snowden Files' by Luke Harding and 'No Place to Hide' by Glenn Greenwald
  • Contents Category International Studies
  • Custom Highlight Text 1984 is back. George Orwell’s nightmare vision of governmental surveillance, secrecy, and deception clearly resonates with the revelations first leaked to the Guardian by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Indeed, it is practically impossible to find an account of the Snowden affair without at least one ‘Orwellian’ adjective ...
  • Grid Image (300px * 250px) Grid Image (300px * 250px)
  • Book Title The Snowden Files
  • Book Author Luke Harding
  • Book Subtitle The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man
  • Biblio Guardian Books/Faber, $29.99 pb, 346 pp, 9781783350353
  • Book Subtitle 2 Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State
  • Book Title 2 No Place to Hide
  • Book Author 2 Glenn Greenwald
  • Biblio 2 Hamish Hamilton, $29.99 pb, 259 pp, 9780241146705
  • Book Cover 2 Small Book Cover 2 Small
  • Author Type 2 Author
  • Book Cover 2 Book Cover 2
  • Book Cover 2 Path /images/NoPlaceToHide%20large.jpg
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