In New Book, Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Stops Short Of A Full Mea Culpa
Ever get mad online? Think about publicly dunking on someone's take on politics or race or some ongoing cultural conversation?
Turns out that while it may not be personally productive in the end, it could potentially lead to much bigger problems: a gap in democracy, say, thanks to hackers who might be watching, recording and taking notes — making it their mission to build millions of personality profiles.
Enter, Christopher Wylie.
The short version of Wylie's story goes like this: He's the whistle-blowing data scientist who worked for Cambridge Analytica — where he looked at all your Facebook posts and likes and rants, and distilled that information so people could figure out how to talk to you such that you'd be convinced to act in a certain way.
The longer version of Wylie's story is told in his new memoir, Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America. In it, he shows himself as a society outsider — queer, differently abled, not particularly interested in fitting in at school growing up. And yet, he's fascinated by identity — not just in the way we consider "identity," when talking about, say, voter demographics — but the enormity of your identity: where you shop for groceries; how you talk about your kids; what you decide to wear. Collecting these little bits of information and truly understanding someone through that lens is what drives him and his eventual work for Cambridge Analytica.
There are some perfunctory lines in his memoir that show regret and remorse for what his work would eventually lead to, but the real juice of the book comes whenever Wylie comes across a new toy to scrape data with.
For instance, there's a chapter in the book about meeting Aleksandr Kogan, a University of Cambridge professor who found a not-completely-ethical way to collect a massive amount of personal Facebook data without anyone's consent. There's a thrill to how much he realizes then and there, how much Facebook knows about you, and what one can do with that information. He writes:
"With access to enough Facebook data, it would finally be possible to take the first stab at simulating society in silico. The implications were astonishing: You could, in theory simulate a future society to create problems like ethnic tension or wealth disparity and watch how they play out. You could then backtrack and change inputs, to figure out how to mitigate those problems. In other words, you could actually start to model solutions to real-world issues, but inside a computer. For me, this whole idea of society as a game was super epic."
Not 10 pages later do the words "in silico" and "epic" come up again:
"We had done it. We had reconstructed tens of millions of Americans in silico, with potentially hundreds of millions more to come. This was an epic moment. I was proud that we had created something so powerful. I felt sure it was something that people would be talking about for decades."
You almost wish Wylie committed fully to the heel turn, and really opened up about the allure this very specific kind of power trip had on him. The mentions he makes here and there to earnestly believing that he was working on a tool for good are hard to take at face value considering: 1. he's a smart guy! and 2. even after leaving Cambridge Analytica, he was still helping a pro-Brexit campaign market itself. (Apparently, if you make pro-Brexit campaign flyers Serenity blue and Rose Quartz pink, "it looks so gay and millennial. Not fascist at all"). But he stops short of really coming clean with himself, and saves that vulnerability for the details he lets out about his relationship with his Cambridge Analytica Boss, Alexander Nix.
Nix — who shows up at the tail end of this Channel 4 sting operation promising someone he believes is a Sri Lankan power player that he will help fix an election — is portrayed as something of a father figure. Not a particularly nice one but instead a looming, abusive presence throughout Wylie's tenure at Cambridge Analytica. He yells, he denigrates, he throws furniture. Just an absolute nightmare to work for. But he presents a different side of himself to his clients. There's one absolutely wild anecdote Wylie tells about Nix getting former World of Warcraft gold-trader and eventual White House executive Steve Bannon on board as a client. This was in 2014, before Bannon was a household name. Nix figured Bannon saw himself as an old-school intellectual, unimpressed by the London wining and dining experience. So Nix decides to tell Bannon that they have an office in the more gothic, rustic city of Cambridge (they didn't) — and had his London staff move and work from there the day of the Bannon meeting. Wylie writes:
"[Bannon] was buying it and loving every moment of it. Fortunately, he never noticed that some of the computers weren't actually plugged in or that some of the hired girls didn't speak English. Nix set up the Potemkin Site every time Bannon came to town. Bannon never caught on that it was fake. Or if he did, he didn't mind. It fit the vision."
Yet, the second Bannon is out of sight, he returns to his abusive self to his subordinates. You wonder, would we be here if Nix were a better boss? If Nix were just three degrees nicer, kinder, smarter, even, when it came to his relationship with his employees — or even just to Wylie — it's possible that the world would still be the same, we'd know less about it.
So yeah, Mindf*ckis worth reading if you're interested in some of the bigger questions of the day: elections; data; Russia's involvement in all of this; Steve Bannon's power plays in global politics; the list of politicians who make an appearance at the Cambridge Analytica offices. Less so, if you're hoping to get a completely unsparing and honest mea culpa from a guy who seems to genuinely love people, albeit more as an abstract idea.
But the book does serve as a reminder that it might be time to check in with yourself and your relationship with the internet. Wylie talks about invading America by "purposefully activating the worst in people, from paranoia to racism." Especially in relation to a certain company that sees regulation of its industry as an "existential threat," it's a nice time to really wonder — sure, online feels good. But is it worth it?
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.