What makes this book engaging is the fact that Wylie has a gift for describing people in detail. Even if he finds them loathsome. They come across as individuals with distinct characteristics, behaviours and motives. You get to understand why the author was drawn to them, tried to suppress his own feelings of discomfort, and lacked the courage to call them out at several moments until his moral compass could not take it any longer. He takes responsibility for his actions, and admits that he will always live with the shame of having participated in building surveillance networks that sought to weaponise information. However, he wants to make things right and let the world know how data-gathering practices are used to design fake news and disinformation campaigns that sow the seeds of polarisation in society.
Mindf*ck is also about Wylie’s personal journey as a gay man who grew up with the experience of disability. He suffered from two rare conditions, the symptoms of which included severe neuropathic pain, muscle weakness and vision and hearing impairment. He began using a wheelchair at the age of 12, and used it for the rest of his school days. It was annoying to be treated differently, so he found refuge in the computer lab where he could be on his own without having to interact with people who felt sorry for him. In later years, he enjoyed spending time with techno-anarchists who cared more about the craft of hacking than the way he looked or walked.
Wylie writes about what it means to be a queer whistleblower, and this is a profoundly moving section of the book. A refusal to hide oneself is at the heart of coming out. It is often defined as an act of truth-telling, of defying social norms, of being brave even while one is afraid of the implications. Being a whistleblower
was like a second coming out. What Wylie wanted to speak about was not his sexual orientation but his intimate knowledge of the inner workings of Cambridge Analytica.
What he had to fight against was not a heteronormative universe but non-disclosure agreements and the threat of lawsuits by the rich and powerful. Wylie does an excellent job of showing how lawyers, journalists and former colleagues formed a supportive network around him.
Mindf*ck: Inside Cambridge Analytica’s Plot to Break the World; Author: Christopher Wylie; Publisher: Hachette; Price: Rs 599; Pages: 269
The book ends with an insightful epilogue titled “On Regulation: A Note to Legislators”. Wylie wants you to know that the dismal picture he has painted is not meant to create panic but to draw attention to the gaps that can be filled. He wants lawmakers to ensure that the law keeps up with technology so that Silicon Valley executives cannot get away with saying that they are not responsible for the mass shootings, ethnic cleansing and various other assaults on democracy being launched through the use of their digital platforms. If they want to profit from these systems, they must be willing to address the social costs.
Just as architects and engineers have to abide by building codes, Wylie advocates that people who create online platforms should be accountable to a digital building code. This should include “abusability” audits and safety testing before products or features are released. He also recommends developing a code of ethics for software engineers, requiring them to consider the impact of their work on vulnerable populations. If the engineer thinks that the employer’s request to build a feature is unethical, there should be a duty to refuse and a duty to report. The people who take these risks and come forward with the truth must be protected by law from retaliation from their employer.
The question that remains, however, is this: Is the state a trustworthy regulator?