Book Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The latest in digital technology and Big Data in particular are increasingly fodder for novelists. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer is a wry story of mostly earnest millennials who end up in “pitched battle with a fascist consortium of data miners”. The Google–esque bad guys are too nerdy and tone-deaf to achieve full-on Bond villain status, but Google is inexorably becoming the template for the next generation of thriller/movie villains (after The Interview, the only villains left seem to be evil corporations lest we offend even the most backward of movie-going audiences and/or their hereditary dictators, although they pale in comparison with classic villains in their menace, reach and ambition).

Shafer has some great turns of phrase in addition to exploring the dark side of Big Data:

They call it the cloud, but that’s wrong, isn’t it? Their cloud is heavy and metal and whirring.

But maybe that’s not how life works at all. Maybe you’re not supposed to put up so much resistance. Maybe a lot of that is pride and ego and pointless in the end. In which case she’d been misled by all that required reading and by the Die Hard movies.

Besides, there is the scrape of luck in everything, from the missed bus, to the dinged chromosome, to the hurtling asteroid.

“Why the hell would you be collecting shit like this?” Mark said, looking straight at Cole. “It’s public. It’s over our network. We call dibs on it.” Dibs? They were calling dibs? “But it’s illegal, to spy on people like this.” “Information is free. Storage is unlimited,” said Cole, totally unbothered. “Our privacy policy is reviewed regularly, and our mandate to collect is spelled out in the implied-consent decree of 2001. We’re just keeping this stuff safe, anyway. The other server giants have terrible vulnerabilities; they could be erased so easily.” Did he just smirk? “But that’s not really my department.”

“And what is the product, exactly?” asked Mark, a little desperately. “It’s a product and a service,” said Straw proudly. “It’s order. It’s the safeguarding of all of our clients’ personal information and assets. But it may be a while before our clients discover that they are our clients.”

“And yes, right now this part runs up against something called the ‘right to privacy’”—she made air quotes—“which is a notion that hasn’t really meant much in thirty years and means less every day. You may as well defend people’s right to own steamboats. Someone’s going to control access to all the data and all the knowledge. All of it. Everything that every government, every company, and every poor schmuck needs to get through the day. You want that to be the other guys? Once everyone’s on our network, the old, unwired world will be worthless.”