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Review – Dangerous Data by Adam Lury and Simon Gibson

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

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.

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