Tag: espionage


Identity games

May 14th, 2012 — 10:53pm

I’ve recently seen the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on John le Carré’s novel with the same name. In the 1970’s a TV series based on the same novel, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, was very popular in Britain. This film, with Gary Oldman as the protagonist, is supposed to be something like an update for the new generation.

It is a very good film indeed. (I cannot remember the last time I was so gripped by a film shortly after its release.) I was also inspired to read several of le Carré’s novels, including but not limited to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. What they have in common is a subtle, rich portrayal of the spy trade from the viewpoint of Britain during the cold war; a world that seems to be, increasingly, a thing of the past. Voice recognition, social profiling and data mining seems to be taking the place of a good chunk of what le Carré calls tradecraft – the concrete skills that spies with 1970’s technology need in order to perform their work on the ground in enemy territory – and computer scientists like myself are to blame.

While being hailed as the anti-Ian Fleming due to his relatively gritty realism, Le Carré is not without his own spy romanticism. But the bleakness inherent in the work comes through on every page.

In his commentary on the film, le Carré states that

[The world of spies is] not so far from corporate life, from the ordinary world. At the time of writing the novel, I thought that there was a universality that I could exploit. The book definitely resonated with the public; people wanted to reference their lives in terms of conspiracy, and that remains central to the relationship between man and the institutions he creates.

There is something profound in this. Spies are merely concentrated versions of something that we all are ourselves, something that we must be every day. Spies project false personalities in order to gain access and information, either about enemy assets or about other spies. They hide to survive, and they hide so that they may uncover a kind of truth. With a view to the spy as the most concentrated form of a certain kind of existence, let us take a look at some other forms that this existence may take.

The modern professional. To be professional means to effectively project a professional identity in the workplace. To be unprofessional almost always means that too much of another, possibly more genuine personality shines through – one has become too unrestrained. The professional needs to always be projecting, to a degree, in order to remain compatible with the workplace and retain his income and career prospects. Young people are socialised into this condition very early – at career workshops, students learn how to polish their CVs, how to embellish their record, and to hide their flaws. This is essentially a partial course in spycraft. But all this is only at the entry level. When any kind of sophisticated politics enters the organisation – as it does – the professional may be pushed ever closer to the spy. A recruiter: “Too bad that we couldn’t hire him, he seemed genuine.”

The academic. The academic can be thought of as a special version of the professional with some essential differences. First, professionals do not yet have universal records that follow them around for their entire lifetime – much of the “record” that they create, which is associated with the persona they are supposed to project, exists only in the memory of people and of one organisation. Academics build their records with units such as publications and conference attendance. Publications in particular form an atomic record that does not go away. On the other hand, the everyday life of the academic may – possibly – be less artificial than that of the professional, since focus is on the production of publishable units, not on pleasing people in one’s surroundings as much as possible.

The philosopher.  Philosophers seek to uncover some hidden truth about the world. In this sense, they are spies without enemies. The philosopher lives among people with a view to analysing them and understanding their behaviour, so that he can explain it to them. But most of the time the philosopher is likely to be a flaneur or a quiet observer, like the spy often is: someone who seeks to learn something hidden from situations that other participants may regard as being routine and their everyday existence. In this sense spies may have something in common with philosophers.

Here I have highlighted a phenomenon but not made any recommendations. Maybe it’s for the better that we are all a little bit like spies. Masks of some kind are worn in most social interactions, not just the ones above, and they are not a recent phenomenon. Exposing something like a true inner self requires that the inner self remains static long enough for it to be possible to expose. But the difference between most social relationships and the relationships we have with institutions today is that the former can change or dissolve naturally to fit spontaneous changes in people’s characters or needs. Relationships between people and modern institutions do not seem to be capable of this dynamic as of yet.

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