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Review - Dangerous Data by Adam Lury and Simon Gibson

By Mark Leonard. Source: The New Statesman

Here Mark Leonard reviews a book which offers a novel concept in political writing


by lury.gibson (Adam Lury and Simon Gibson)

(Bantam Press, 2001, pb, £9.99, ISBN 0-593-04741-9)

Arthur C. Dogg is a new type of detective - a data detective. He doesn't

stake out motels, tap phones, or even leave his room. The disembodied

cyber-narrator of this gripping yarn relies on the information that he can

'mine' from the internet. Dangerous Data is a zeitgeist book that goes to

the heart of the dilemmas of life in an information society: where the

average person exists on 2000 databases, is filmed on 300 closed circuit TV

cameras a day, leaves a trail of data with every purchase she makes, and

risks being 'googled' by potential employers, partners or neighbours.

The book's innovative structure is a testimony to the end of privacy. The

left hand page just contains the raw data that Dogg accesses - legally and

illegally - from phone bills, credit card records, company databases and the

electoral roll, while the right hand page has Dogg's interpretation of the

facts. Through his analysis of this disjointed data, Dogg manages to piece

together an intrigue of drugs, sex and suspicious deaths.

Dogg is ready to deal with the age of DIY identity where people

self-consciously transcend the identity that comes with class, age or

gender, to create new personas. The apotheosis of this movement is the

"identity tourism" of the internet where people will assume different

personas behind the cloak of anonymity which the web provides. But although

we may not realise it, this construction of identity has become the primary

characteristic of our everyday lives. Today we literally are what we buy

or, as Dogg puts it, "every purchase is a confession". The brands we choose

are the building blocks of our new selves. This can have a profoundly

democratising effect: "You don't have to wait two generations to be accepted

anymore.. You can do it in an afternoon."

Dangerous Data is cleverly constructed and manages to get the reader to turn

the pages through a fast-paced thriller but it is far from a high-tech

detective story. It is splattered with big questions: "Who are we?", "How

much do we want to know?". Dogg dives fearlessly into the heart of some of

the most troubling philosophical questions and undermines many of our

cherished beliefs. 20 years after 1984, he blames Orwell for making us fear

the wrong enemy: " We could see who the bad guys were, we thought. And we

fought against them, hard and tough. Freedom of Speech. Free press. Open


But our defence against Big Brother has been so successful that we have

undermined our freedom by making privacy impossible: "the

future is worrying because everything can be known. Everyone's secrets".

Instead of fearing a predatory state we must fear our neighbours, colleagues

and friends who can track our every move: "It's fine to have stats on people

you never meet. But it's not fine to have facts on people you know

intimately. Not fine to have them on your husband or wife, your lover or

your sister. Because these facts may not match your internal version and

it's too hard to change that picture. Too painful". The information society

marks the end of the stranger. Instead of living in a mass society where we

can drown in the anonymity of the crowd, we returning to the claustrophobia

of a small village where everyone knows everything.

Dogg calls this "the new Fall". Just as Adam and Eve had to deal with

physical nakedness, so is our society peeling back layer after layer to

expose our innermost secrets. This leads Dogg to the surprising conclusion

that "a little censorship doesn't harm. It stabilises.".

Dangerous Data is an improbable achievement: a detailed explanation of

complex policy issues in the guise of a detective story. Its narrative

clearly and evocatively tackles issues that think tanks or universities -

too often trapped into linear thinking and formulaic investigation (moving

straight from challenges to the sign-posts for a New Jerusalem) - fail to

pin down. But by forcing the reader to live through these dilemmas Dangerous

Data spooks us into questioning some of our most basic assumptions.

Mark Leonard

A longer version of this review appeared in The New Statesman. The Foreign Policy Centre publish Fever by lury.gibson next year.