Meet the “cybug”. In fact, you might already have encountered it, but you would never have known, though the consequences could have been significant, or even unpleasant. For the cybug is a species of large living beetle which has been fitted with a tiny radio control system, allowing it to be flown remotely by a human operator, just like a miniature radio controlled plane. This week’s Independent On Sunday (11 October 2009), reports that the bug’s development at the University of California was funded by the Pentagon. The modified insect could “access areas where people can’t go”, such as the aftermath of an earthquake. No prizes for guessing what other ideas the Pentagon might have for its use – though so far, the bug doesn’t carry a surveillance camera. Not yet.
Even futuristic surveillance of this kind, which sounds like science fiction, is less advanced than the surveillance techniques I envisaged in my novel, ” Tracks”. But this technology is not so far ahead of today’s leading edge that it couldn’t happen. On the contrary, chances are it will be with us sooner than we expect.
When I started to write Tracks, its key ideas did seem impossibly futuristic. At that time, there were no complex silicon chips, no mobile phones, PCs, or Internet, and the structure of DNA had only recently been discovered. Pandemics and dangerous new biological viruses were considered a distant threat – Aids seemed no more than a dark shadow on the horizon. But writing fragments of Tracks in my spare time and working out its complex plot took several years, and meanwhile technology moved with such breathtaking speed that I found myself peering in the rear-view mirror, thinking that the story would be overtaken, and I’d find myself writing a historical romance instead of a futuristic thriller.
The seed idea for Tracks came from a conference on medical uses of computers held at the Royal Society in London in the late 1960s. A questioner from the audience injected a humorous note. What was needed for effective medical IT, he said, was a computer so small it could be embedded in the human body, where it would look for early signs of disease, and raise an alert if it found them. The audience laughed heartily at this far-out suggestion. But the idea stuck in my mind, and I drew on it when I decided to write a novel.
By the time I retired from a career in medical IT, I had a number of chapters written (almost all useless, and later thrown away). But by then an incredible proliferation of technology was becoming increasingly powerful, increasingly miniaturised, and increasingly deployed for purposes never previously dreamed of – monitoring illness remotely, using electronic implants, surveillance of citizens’ everyday activities with closed circuit TV cameras, with radar, and with systems that can read car number plates, and more recently, recognize faces. Enormous databases of DNA profiles were being built up to catch criminals (and sometimes to give the innocent are a hard time). In short the surveillance society was well on its way, and ready to be stratospherically escalated for in response to terrorism: the nightmare of 9/11 and the London bombing. Meanwhile, pandemics, real and potential, were adding to the age of anxiety. Aids had become a global mega-killer, and the media were having field days with SARS, bird ‘flu, and most recently swine ‘flu. Today, no one doubts that a really serious pandemic will turn up sometime in the near future. I did not deliberately set out to write a book which would tie together all these different developments. But as I tried to find an integrating pattern for the fragments I had written, these ideas fell into place to form a complex plot. Recent developments in psychiatry and brain science also found their way into the story. I could say that the story grew organically, but the truth is it was a very difficult way to write a novel of this complexity. Only at the end did I realise that the pattern which had emerged was a clear warning about the misuse of technology, and about the fact that counter-terrorism could be a double-edged sword, threatening privacy and civil rights.. It was also about the motivations that drive the creators and exploiters of technology: the technologists, business people, medical researchers and counter-terrorism organisations.
Along the way, I also had to learn how to write a novel. It took me a considerable time to discover that the concise expression of ideas is ideal for the writing of scientific papers, but hopeless for constructing an entertaining story. Einstein’s E=mc2 is the perfect expression of a beautiful idea in physics, in just five letters, which probably accounts for a third or more of the structure of the universe. But it’s no good giving away the story of a thriller in the first page or two. if you want the readers to keep reading. A drip feed of information at just the right rate is essential, an insight which my youngest son, David, patiently explained to me when he read a very early draft. Those who’ve read the published version have found it a page-turner, so hopefully the effort was worthwhile, and Tracks will keep you entertained and reading.
For background material on pandemics, Laurie Garret’s 1995 book, The Coming Plague, spells out the future of pandemics in gory detail. The 1995 movie Outbreak dramatizes a pandemic, and so does Robin Cook’s book of the same name. There’s even an online computer game called Pandemic. Basic information about viruses is in Dorothy Crawford”s book Invisible Enemy.
An account of UK policy on care of the mental ill in recent years can be found in Jeremy Laurance’s book, Pure Madness
The idea that we may be sleepwalking into a surveillance society was coined by the UK Government’s Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. For more information, see the Report on the Surveillance Society (2006) prepared for the Information Commissioner by the Surveillance Studies network. For a fascinating explanation of the evolution of surveillance in the US, see the video on Youtube by James Bamford, author of the classic books The Puzzle Palace, Body of Secrets, and The Shadow Factory, which recount the detailed history of the US National Security Agency (aka “No Such Agency”). Bamford’s video talks on related topics are also on Youtube. Another recent book on the topic is Chatter, by Patrick Radden Keefe, about the Echelon mega-surveillance network.
A compelling thesis arguing that governments exploit counter-terrorism to oppress privacy and civil rights, and to control society, can be found in the controversial BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares