By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

We’ve all heard the clichés: Knowledge is power; knowing is half the battle. Lexicon, the new novel from Australian Max Barry, takes this to its most personal, and literal, end. The more that “poets” know about you, the more they can influence, control and eventually “compromise” you by making you do whatever it is they want.

In some ways, the book is a lit major’s dream come true. The main characters take their names from famous English-language poets—T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf—and these poets manage to use their extensive knowledge of linguistics and the way the brain processes language to secretly rule the world.

Pretty sweet. Sign me up. Maybe that B.A. from UVM wasn’t a total waste!

I mean, no way am I this nefarious! “Persuasion stems from understanding,” Yeats says at one point. “We compel others by learning who they are and turning it against them.”

And such is how the data brokerage industry becomes part and parcel of the poets’ vast underground operation. Seriously, have you ever seen a privacy policy as a plot device? There it is on page 198. It’s TruCorp’s. You can rest assured, “TruCorp takes customer privacy seriously. Your personal data is stored securely and will not be released without your permission.”

For those in the privacy biz, the caveats in the footnote included with the policy should be pretty funny. Or embarrassing. Or poignant. Depending on your point of view.

What’s truly wonderful about this novel is its extrapolation of privacy and personal information all the way to the roots of ideas about magic and sorcery and the idea that to know a person’s “true name” is to control them.

“Once upon a time, there were sorcerers,” says Emily, who would become Woolf. “Who were really just guys who knew a little about persuasion … but they also occasionally got burned to death by angry mobs, or beheaded, or drowned while being tested for witches.”

When people feel powerless, when they feel that their inner sanctums have been too onerously invaded, they lash out. Remind you of a guy whose name rhymes with Medward Slowden? Know any folks who are gathering their pitchforks and piling up branches at the bottom of big wooden stakes?

While I don’t really think data-gatherers and brokers are as insidious as the poets in Lexicon—really, it’s incredibly artful the way Barry connects data-gathering with mind control—I do think the book gets right to the very core of why privacy matters. Deep down, there is a part of ourselves that only we know. We hold onto it dearly because we think whatever else we may lose—our loved ones, worldly possessions, etc.—we at least have that. And if we don’t have that? If we don’t have that unknowable essence of ourselves? Then we’ve got nothing at all.

At the very least, we want to be able to dole out that special knowledge of ourselves willingly and knowingly. The character Yeats is especially insightful here: “We attempt to conceal ourselves, but the truth is we do not entirely want to be concealed … Within walls, there is nothing worth protecting. There is, in fact, nothing. And so we exchange privacy for intimacy. We gamble with it, hoping that by exposing ourselves, someone will find a way in.”

Yeats uses that insight to control and manipulate. But there is another option. We can use that insight to be responsible and understanding of the people with which we interact and do business. We can make sure the exchange is a fair one and that people always feel the gamble is worth it.

Read More By Sam Pfeifle:
What NIST Is Hoping To Get Out Of Its Privacy Grant Program?
The End for DNT? Not So Fast
Is This the End for DNT? DAA Pulls Out of W3C Process
A Look at the Future of Privacy Notices (If They Have a Future)


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Advertise in IAPP Publications

Find out how to get your message in front the people you want to reach. Download a media kit now.

Get more News »

Find a KnowledgeNet Chapter Near You

Network and talk privacy at IAPP KnowledgeNet meetings, taking place worldwide.

Women Leading Privacy

Events, volunteer opportunities and more designed to help you give and get career support and expand your network.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The Training Post—Can’t-Miss Training Updates

Subscribe now to get the latest alerts on training opportunities around the world.

New Web Conferences Added!

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Staff

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Get Close-up

Looking for tools and info on a hot topic? Our close-up pages organize it for you in one easy-to-find place.

Where's Your DPA?

Our interactive DPA locator helps you find data protection authorities and summary of law by country.

IAPP Westin Research Center

See the latest original research from the IAPP Westin fellows.

Looking for Certification Study Resources?

Find out what you need to prepare for your exams

More Resources »

GDPR Comprehensive: Registration Open

New! Intensive two-day GDPR training led by the sharpest minds in the field. It's a can't-miss event.

The Congress Is Cancelled

The IAPP Europe Data Protection Congress 2015 is cancelled. Click through to learn more.

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

Exhibit at an Event

Put your brand in front of the largest gatherings of privacy pros in the world. Learn more.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»