Christopher Wylie is this bratty young Canadian guy with the pink lid who had “blown the whistle” on the Vote Leave campaign. Mindf*ck is his memoir of his career in industrial mind control and more particularly at Cambridge Analytica, the I.T. firm that is alleged to have artificially engineered the changing of millions of minds over Brexit. You might not expect a Brexiteer such as myself to number amongst Wylie’s well-wishers but in truth I grow increasingly to like him. He can be a thoughtful and empathetic writer, especially when he moves away from harrying Cambridge Analytica to reflect upon broader political questions. It helps that he is also an entertaining storyteller.
For example, there is some good fun to be had when Steve Bannon visits the London headquarters of Cambridge Analytica. Here, he is given a demonstration of the database’s power:
‘Give me a name.’
Bannon looked bemused and gave a name.
‘Okay. Now give me a state.’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Nebraska.’
Jucikas typed in a query, and a list of links popped up. He clicked on one of the many people who went by that name in Nebraska – and there was everything about her, right up on the screen.
The irony will not escape you that this unsuspecting random citizen has been plucked out of the ether for Bannon to admire before passing on into Wylie’s book and, even worse, into this review. What a data violation!
You feel bad for Wylie that he had only passively experienced the events in Mindf*ck rather than having invented them outright. Were Mindf*ck a novel then there would be an air of genius to it. Admittedly, Wylie as a novelist would be viewed as too careful a student of John le Carré’s. Mindf*ck successfully replicates the trademark aesthetics of a le Carré thriller. There are luridly cynical characters and double-crossing everywhere and people who are trying hopelessly to conserve their dignity, or to at least keep spots of blood off their suits within an abattoir of ideals. The smarmy, soulless Etonian, Alexander Nix, Wylie’s boss at Cambridge Analytica, would have been one of the most splendid villains that le Carré had ever coined, had he coined him that is.
A lot of the thrill of this book comes from imagining Nix powerlessly reading its unrelenting bitchiness about him. When Wylie despairs that “so many of the people I met seemed almost cartoonish,” this will actually stand his narrative in good stead. One should note, however, that Mindf*ck does not configure le Carré’s aesthetics with the correct moral instincts. The protagonists within le Carré’s stories normally come to question the systems that they work under and their complacency gets a shake. Here is where Wylie isn’t a Smiley. He never embarks on enough of a journey to be much of an important character in le Carré’s scheme of things.
Wyle has devoted his life to the Mindf*ck, he is an expert in the Mindf*ck, he is haunted by the allure of the Mindf*ck, and yet it is still evidently unbearable for him to question whether it in fact exists. This develops into such a crisis because the Mindf*ck can only ever be an article of faith. Not only is there no evidence that Cambridge Analytica can take responsibility for a single vote that was cast in the Brexit referendum. It is impossible that such evidence can be ever apprehended.
The secret ballot is a vital component of our democracy, in safeguarding the voters from threats or bribes. The downside of the secret ballot is that one is left free to theorise about the susceptibility of the voters to imaginary influences. It is a little unfortunate in this respect that Wylie has become a trophy for the Observer newspaper and its investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr. In using Wylie as their source, these pompous “fact-checkers” have found themselves reliant upon insinuations about data manipulation that are not only speculative but forever unverifiable.
The science in this book sounds to me highly like hogwash. Alarm bells should be ringing strenuously when Wylie’s colleague Tadas Jucikas admits that he is modelling his human behaviour prediction technology on a system that was originally designed for roundworms. Later, Wylie dwells upon a cognitive bias that causes us to fail a particular test because “we are taught to organise (or alphabetise) words by their first letter.” It is unclear, though, how one could use this insight to meaningfully control human behaviour. The mere flexing of reflexes is surely irrelevant to a referendum in which voters are making conscious decisions and complicatedly ranking different priorities.
When we move on into the political field, most of the evidence remains unsatisfactory and sometimes this is because Wylie’s relaying of it can be unreliable. Take the case of the U.S. Republican politician Ken Cuccinelli, which Wylie claims had “later informed almost everything that Cambridge Analytica worked on.” Cuccinelli had supposedly tried to restore a venerable statute that prohibited anal and oral sex throughout Virginia. Wylie describes how Cambridge Analytica had road-tested a campaign slogan to render Cuccinelli acceptable to Republican voters. Wylie’s conclusion is that “Republicans can accept a batshit insane candidate, so long as it’s consistent insanity.”
Nonetheless, the Republicans in these focus groups had probably also warmed to Cuccinelli because he was not as “batshit insane” as Wylie depicts him. Far from trying to outlaw every sexual action aside from the missionary position, Cuccinelli had confirmed that his prize Virginian law “is not – and cannot be – used against consenting adults acting in private.” Wylie omits this crucial caveat from his story, hereby sexing up a merely very conservative politician into an outrageously illiberal one.
Wylie’s picture of the skulduggery that Nix is said to have got up to with Nigeria is similarly coloured by biases rather than just straightforwardly recounting the facts. In Nigeria’s 2015 general elections, one of the candidates, Muhammadu Buhari, had become the target of Islamophobic Facebook ads that were allegedly concocted in Cambridge Analytica’s laboratories. Although Wylie scoffs at the Western attitude that “foreign interference in elections does not matter if those elections are African,” he himself cares so little about the Nigerian election that he neglects to tell us who had won it. Problematically, for him, the answer was Buhari, which will naturally cause his readers to wonder whether Cambridge Analytica’s influence in these elections was really negligible. But here is where Wylie’s analysis suddenly stops. He patronisingly implies that Nigeria’s voters are somehow especially impressionable to Islamophobic adverts in a way that Western voters wouldn’t be. He also does not hold the Nigerian politicians who had purchased this technology to the same standards as he does Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage. Indeed, the former figures are not even identified.
It is almost as if Wylie does not anticipate that anybody will read his book in Nigeria, a nation with over a hundred million literate people. Still, this side of Wylie will become increasingly familiar to us. With Nigeria, he thinks that he is challenging neo-imperialist assumptions when he is actually reflecting them. It is the same with the whole of his stance towards democracy. Surveying the “growing team of mostly gay and mostly liberal data scientists and social researchers” that he had worked with, Wylie asks “why had we started working with this eclectic mix of hedge-fund managers, computer scientists and a guy who ran a niche right-wing website?” The solution is possibly that Wylie and his chums were never at heart liberals to begin with. Or else they had assumed that they were liberals because they were gay.
It is interesting that when first in the UK, Wylie had gravitated towards the Liberal Democrats, a party that would later degenerate into a wildly illiberal, anti-democratic bubble-bath. The Lib-Dem conspiracy against the people to revoke Article 50 and cancel democracy was merely another expression of the illiberalism that had already run rampant at Cambridge Analytica. All of these activists and consultants were part of the same phenomenon: an emerging post-democratic culture of decadence, in which amazing myths, superstitions and conspiracy theories about the credulity of the voters could proliferate unchallenged.
Wylie’s own language grows almost hysterical as he describes how Cambridge Analytica was “creating a machine to contaminate America with hate and cultish paranoia.” If you think that populations can be genuinely controlled and manipulated in this way – if you hold this as an article of faith – then you are not so much standing up to the fascists as reiterating their worldview. In this, he is in good company though. He later quotes Hillary Clinton’s fear that Cambridge Analytica had “affected the thought processes of voters.”
When trying to start a deeper conversation about the place of human agency in a digital age, he quickly runs into the problem that any questioning of this agency could lead to the collapse of democracy itself. The belief that some people are vulnerable enough to have their minds poisoned by their Facebook feeds is irreconcilable with a system that is predicated on the equality and the independent-mindedness of all of its participants.
The book ends with Wylie washed-up and paranoid in Shoreditch. He is now far from the thick of it and you worry that he will spend the rest of his life coming down from Cambridge Analytica. Nix maintains that Wylie is a fantasist – a disaffected “intern” who had tried to steal Cambridge Analytica’s intellectual property and who had then gone on a bender of spiteful accusations when this hadn’t worked out for him.
Mindf*ck still has a happy ending, even if Wylie is not necessarily included in it. And this happy ending is just how strangely retro his book currently feels, only months after it was first published. Wylie’s picture of a thoughtless public that is incontinently drenching Facebook in personal information sounds dated even in the throes of his sci-fi enthusiasm for “simulating society in silico.” Whilst the figures about Facebook’s scope remain very impressive, with 2.1 billion people continuing to frequent it every day, a 2018 poll from the Pew Research Center had found 74% of users becoming more “cautious and critical” in their interactions with the platform. If we treat Facebook as a magic mirror that will produce the clearest conceivable picture of our society, we will be tormented with a caricature of a society that is filtered exclusively from its own trivia.
Marie Antoinette’s famous – and inevitably misattributed – suggestion to “let them eat cake” is usually seen as exposing the decadence of a politician who was completely out of touch with the reality of people’s lives. To think that voters are motivated by Facebook, rather than by the weak purchasing power of their wages, is just as silly. No amount of cleaning up Facebook can make the EU look like it has a future.
And Wylie’s writing appears even more steeply retro following the UK election this December, when the people had only gone and voted down “a People’s Vote.” Carole Cadwalladr and Gina Millar and Jolyon Maugham and all of these obviously villainous characters, with their patronising theories about how to ethnically curate a referendum in which the delicate sensibilities of the voters are protected, have fairly and squarely received their just desserts. Wylie’s role in the Brexit referendum looks destined to be a historical footnote and in Mindf*ck he has written up this footnote as an entire book.