Metaphorically spooking

“The US intelligence establishment doesn’t do jokes, on account of it comprising lots of smart folks whose sense of humour was surgically removed at birth.”

So writes John Naughton in a June 5th Observer  article highlighting a proposal by the U. S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence to tender a “metaphor project,” which will sift through internet traffic, looking for language use that signals undesirable core values.

In other words: this is a joke, but it’s no joke.

Well, if lit profs can use computers to crunch Shakespeare and the 19th century English novel, as we saw last time (here), why can’t American spies do the same with unwelcome figures of speech? After all, if some researchers are right, everyone thinks primarily in metaphors already (here), so why shouldn’t email and blog traffic dig up our most secret terror plots?

Among other things, the project adds significance to the Conservative Canadian government’s new crime legislation, which includes a provision making it illegal to use a pseudonym online. And here we thought they were after paedophiles, when all along it was really part of the continental security plan. We don’t want people with dubious metaphors lurking unidentified in our home and native cyberspace, now, do we?

It’s hard not to make fun of a story like this one, but there are serious issues to consider. Since this program is funded by a super-secret government agency, there’s more to it than the typical linguistics or AI project. (You can find a detailed account of the project in The Atlantic, here.) It’s certain that the government is not funding a standard research paper. They want to get somewhere specific, and where that is should be important to us.

Given the obscenely exponential growth of the covert intelligence community in “free and democratic” countries since 2001, it is certain that one of the primary goals of the project is to try to identify potential terrorists and anti-government agitators before they can do anything the spies and their bosses consider dangerous to peace and prosperity.

Internet snoops already target email and website “flags,” words that signal an open opposition to establishment figures and the institutions they head. Just as making a bomb joke in an airport lineup will get you all kinds of extra attention, not to mention a fine or jail time, violent threats or calls for system overthrow on the internet attract the counterspies. Reportedly, there are large rooms filled with Homeland Security clerks wearing headphone sets, monitoring traffic in the Thought Police version of a radar sweep.

As well, many employers, large and small, use monitoring software that searches through the files and histories of employees’ computers, looking for words and phrases like “resign,” “resumé,” and “stupid $@&%-ing boss.” There are picture analyzers that flag any web image or email attachment with too much beige (or brown, or tan, or whatever) tint, hoping to catch the Junior Accountant Executive Assistant’s Clerk looking at illicit patches of bare skin.

So if you’re one of those people whose emails contain sentiments like “Kill [name of your least favourite politician here]!” you’re probably already being watched. Think of it as a kind of phone sex in reverse. You talk, they listen. Creepy.

You have to wonder just what kinds of metaphors the new project will examine. It seems that the stated goal is to gather a database of metaphors and to develop a means of categorizing them. The categories will allow investigators to assess the likely core values of someone using one or another kind of metaphor. At  least, that’s the idea. If you consistently talk about government as “preying on taxpayers,” your core values are likely to differ from those of someone whose emails associate government with “amber waves of grain.”

Leaving aside the civil liberties issues involved in involuntary submission to government surveillance of private communications, there is a less obvious, and therefore more sinister, potential use for the data the project will gather.

We already know, from Lakoff and others, but most recently from the wordspinners of the Bush II administration, that framing a topic is crucial to how it’s perceived. If persistent child poverty is portrayed as a “threatening social reality,” that is, as a source of future predators against civil order, those who have been exposed to this conflict metaphor will be more receptive to measures designed to protect, control, and punish. In contrast, if that same poverty is portrayed as a “cancer eating away at equality,” those who have been exposed to this disease metaphor will be more receptive to measures designed to prevent, cure, and eradicate.

Just reverse the process, and by analyzing which metaphors people use when they speak or write — conflict or disease, in this case — you can predict their core values with some accuracy.

So far, not very threatening. But what if the secondary motive of a government program like the metaphor project is more sinister? If you can amass a large enough database of typical metaphors, and you have effective tools for classifying and interpreting them, it’s a short step to the Orwellian.

Propaganda has always targeted emotions and fostered certain values. But a truly sophisticated understanding of the metaphorical underpinnings of social values can as easily accommodate an active program of creating support for those values as it can supply data for independent scientific investigation.

Is it merely paranoia that makes me fearful of the real goal of the metaphor project? Or, if I compare a government surveillance program to the Thought Police or suggest that it’s Newspeak 2011, am I making myself a target of the very system against which I’m warning?

Could it even be that the real goal of the metaphor project is to compile a list of those who are uncomfortable with it, and who are stupid enough to voice their discomfort publicly?

If I’m not careful, I could end up on a government list somewhere, with a data file with my name on it on some dark hard drive in some even darker counterintel warehouse.

Oh, right. Not to worry. They started their file on me a long, long time ago!

2 thoughts on “Metaphorically spooking

  1. One Orwellian idea we now appear to harbour is that complete security of the individulal is possible. This leads to the demand for the complete suppression of opposition to power and conformity to the status quo. Acceptance that we must tolerate some risk is needed.

    • Indeed. The “if you have nothing to hide …” idea presupposes the absence of a right to privacy. As many others have said over the last ten years, if rights are those things which can be protected only when they’re not inconvenient, then they’re not rights to begin with.

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