Abracadabra or How We Built Cambridge Analytica
Two years after the outbreak the media are still interested in the Cambridge Analytica story. I was part of that story. It brought on an onslaught of journalist interest into my previously mundane life. Since then, once every couple of months I would get a request to comment on Cambridge Analytica. On top of that I would get a monthly request to comment on a new Palantir development: work for ICE, Trump relationship, failed ventures and more recently — means of coronavirus control in exchange for civil liberties. I had been with Palantir for more than 5 years but I have never replied. Well, that’s not completely true. I have teased the journalists, but I have never told them anything of substance about either Palantir or Cambridge Analytica. In order to close this chapter and move on I have decided to tell everything as it happened¹.
History of Abracadabra: from the Beginning of Time to Silicon Valley
According to the Hebrew Bible — God made the world with words². Bezalel, the carpenter who was tasked to built the Ark of the Covenant — the chest that contained the Ten Commandments — knew how to combine the letters through which heaven and earth were created and used that knowledge to create works of art and function as requested by God himself. Centuries later, according to the Christian Bible, word again became flesh. Ancient Aramaic “avra k’davara” can be roughly translated as “I create as I speak”. Abracadabra is the broken Aramaic version that made it to our times. These days you might only hear “Abracadabra!” if you watch a magician performing for children. Years ago that word had a more gravitas. It had the power to solve the world’s largest problems.
In ancient China they already knew that malaria was related to mosquitoes. Documents written as early as 770 BC explain cases of malaria caused by mosquito bites³. However, in Christian Italy it was a popular belief that fevers were of divine or rather demonic origin. The Palatine hill, the place of the original settlement of Rome by Romulus, was also a site for the temple of Dea Febris — the goddess of fevers. St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in its Sacristy hosts a 14th century fresco depicting the Virgin of Fevers. Demons could be defeated with prayers. Magical papyri or amulets with spells inscribed on them were a popular remedy against malaria. Abracadabra was one of such spell words typically inscribed in a special triangular fashion.
How important was abracadabra in Italy? This would have been a typical question I would have asked while interviewing people for a job at Palantir. Or rather we would have role played a scenario where I was a Venetian venture capitalist and the applicant wass asking to fund his business idea of using abracadabra to treat the Italian population from malaria. Such an interview could have gone as follows.
— “How many Italians could be cured using abracadabra?”
A clever, Stanford educated engineer would have argued:
— “7% of population infected annually of time-weighted average medieval population of 15 million equals a million people. Roughly a million people would be afflicted with malaria in Italy every year.”
— “How many of them do you think would wear an amulet with your abracadabra on it?”
— “Lets conservatively say that 20% would, if we had any evidence to prove its effectiveness. Around 200'000 Italians.”
— “What time frame are we looking at? How long could you keep monopoly on this magic cure?”
— “It’s the middle ages, things are changing fast. But I would say we could secure our position for, say, 200 years.”
— “So that’s 200 years, 200'000 Italians annually… 40 million people in total.”
— “Yes, 40 million people and 40 million amulets. And that just the base line. With a more aggressive marketing strategy and product differentiation, the abracadabra could penetrate a much larger share of the malarial fever market than just 20%. And we’re not even considering similar markets, like Spain. What about branching out to managing other types of fevers: quartan, tertian or quotidian!”
— “How much would you value this opportunity?”
— “Using conservative historical valuations I would say 23 times annual sales revenue.”
My next question to the potential recruit would have been:
— “Would you foresee any hurdles to such a seemingly potent business?”
That would have been a bonus question for anyone applying for a business development position. Again, a bright applicant could have reasoned:
— “In the long term — regulation. The government would likely become wary of such power being misused, especially against the government itself.”
— “Right! What if, heavens forbid, abracadabra, instead of curing diseases brought on by daemons, were to be used to change peoples minds, to pull wool over their eyes, control their behavior, get them to support the wrong kind of leadership. That would be a disaster. This powerful technology would have to be heavily regulated, kept in check.”
That would have been the end of the interview. I would have thanked the Stanford graduate, shook her hand and put a thumbs up in her job application form. She would have been correct — that was exactly what happened to abracadabra on multiple occasions.
“In the reigns of the paranoid emperors Caracalla (198–217), Constantius (337–361) and Valentinian (364–375) individuals were punished for wearing amulets to ward off quartan and tertian fevers, since it was reckoned that any magic might be turned against the emperor.”³
We were lucky to live in the age of reason, where science has replaced superstition. We trusted fact, not fiction and used smartphones in place of lucky amulets. The smartphone technology was produced in the Silicon Valley — the world’s cultural center of gravity. Italy had become a museum reminding of the days of wrathful gods and lucky amulets.
But just as back in the days of abracadabra in Italy, the powerful tools and technologies of today were in danger of being misused. What if the smartphones ended up being used to to befuddle the population, undermine the current order or even sabotage the democratic processes? What if the technological infrastructure that we rely on today in order to fight the modern demons of boredom, laziness, loneliness and apathy were to be pivoted to be used against the modern deities: democracy, free will and rational individuality?
History was bound to repeat itself, Silicon Valley was in danger.
Cambridge Analytica: Mad Men With a Plan
Cambridge Analytica was created by a mix of exceptional madmen: extravagant sociopaths with pedigree and lineage going back to the kings and queens of the old continent, educated savants supplied by elite scientific institutions, moneyed misanthropes with aspirations of eternal life. They were in awe of the Silicon Valley and its power to treat apathy and boredom. They were also sure this power could be used to change the world, beyond the naive ambitions of the Valley. Cambridge Analytica set out to create and execute a perfect plan to subvert the current order leveraging state of the art technology.
The incongruous group of madmen of Cambridge had a vision but they were missing the main ingredients: technology and data. They decided to liberate the secrets of the Valley, come hell or high water. The secrets that would allow them to control chaos and bend people’s minds, not just to predict the future which was the mundane goal of every data scientist, no — to make the future, using the code, the right combination of letters and words.
The Cantabrigian mad men were modern day Knights Templar in their search for the holy grail. Despite their money, talent and will they could not find their way into Silicon Valley without a map or a guide. That was when they found me.
Silicon Valley: Where Is It?
By the end of the 2nd millennium Silicon Valley had become Jerusalem 2.0 — even more desired, even more elusive. I had made it there through an eye of a needle. Quite a few of my friends have since come to the coast looking for the Valley. None of them made it. Frankly, most of them were unable to find it. Having come to the area, after a week of wondering up and down the highway 101, congested with thousands sharing their fate, they would seek me out with one question that they were too embarrassed to ask: “Where is Silicon Valley?”
We, the insiders, knew that to find Silicon Valley — you had to find it within yourself first. I am not going to bore you with the details how I did it. Lets just say, I was introduced to Qigong at the age of 6 and Unix at the age of 10. Or vice versa, I could not remember. When I got to Silicon Valley they gave me a smart key and a map of the doors that it opened. I kept the key but threw away the map. By then I knew the map by heart.
Silicon Valley had been the birthplace of technology that was behind zeitgeist of the 3rd millennium. The largest problem to be solved, after malaria had been eliminated, was the problem of apathy. The world was in desperate need of a new amulet. One of the magic words chosen this time to dispel the daemons of boredom was Facebook. It would be difficult for me to provide proper etymology of this spell, but I would not be surprised if the meaning were hiding in a plain sight (another gifted Palantir interviewee would reason: “face” from Latin “facere”, to make; and “book”, well, words). Just another incarnation of creating with words, or abracadabra. Facebook and its followers were bound by a covenant by which the power of the spell was bestowed upon them in exchange for their innermost thoughts and feelings. Facebook had promised to keep those secret from the rest of the world and never use them for evil.
Nobody knew what Facebook really did with it’s treasure. For all people knew, those perpetual streams of emotions and thoughts were dammed to form lakes and then stored deep underground. As aquifers of Silicon Valley were being drained of water by the peach farmers, the void left was filled by streams of data. By the time I got to there the Valley was submerged — data was everywhere. Part of the reason it was being stored and guarded was that no one really knew what could be done with it, what its potential really was. The trick was to capture it and distill it into a potion. Few knew how to do it.
Palantir: the Absence of a Secret
While Facebook owned the data, Palantir — another Silicon Valley stronghold — were the keepers of the recipe of how to distill ephemeral into solid, random into a pattern, noise into music and chaos into galaxies of dancing stars. Palantir were the Freemasons, who knew how to wield data apparatus in ways inaccessible to common data scientists. Of course! The majority of data scientists were just scientists, blindly following the doctrine. Where for extraordinary results one needed to command a certain type of faith and discipline to bridge the infinite gap between nothing and something⁴, between 0 and 1. Being indoctrinated in their discipline by Palantir I was sought by many rivals, on both sides of good-to-evil spectrum.
At the time, working for Palantir, I was in the grips of my own battle with apathy and boredom. Sifting through people’s personal data, navigating the maze of their virtual emotions and digital relationships, being privy to their innermost thoughts and secrets was exciting at first, excruciating later.
On the job I learned that most secrets were secrets because they were too banal to be public. Our most secret thoughts were our most boring.
Still most days I was neck deep in the data aquifers looking for something original. Being bored out of my mind, I decided to take upon the exercise to create a new world order — just as an exercise, to keep the Alzheimer’s away.
The madmen wanted the technology from the Valley. Therein lied a problem. Though I had been indoctrinated in the ways of Palantir, I failed to encounter any useful secret technology. I did encounter a lot of secret technology. But just as with secret thoughts, that technology was secret not because it worked miracles. It was secret because it was too trivial or backward to be made public. Palantir indoctrination and business model were based on mastering a few centuries old paradoxes, not technology. I could still remember some of them, for example:
- “thousand nothings become something; meaningless data acquires meaning as it builds up”
- “things that don’t work, don’t work yet — because they are growing; thus — broken things are a sign of growth and working things are a sign of decay”
- “things big enough are beyond human capacity to evaluate; thus — go big: data, projects, clients and bills”
and the cornerstone inversion:
“the world is made better if engineers solve management problems and managers write software; you end up with less management problems and less software”.
The philosophers who built Palantir were obviously very clever and knew which way was up. It was a typical manifestation of the ethereal nature of the Valley and its technology. The technology was not written in codes, it was written in koans. Business secrets without content were much more practical than the ones with content as they were much harder to steal.
My Big Con: Secrets Are Easy to Manufacture When the Audience Is Willing to Suspend Disbelief
Somehow I knew that a few koans, no matter how clever, were not going to impress the Cantabrigian characters who had relied on me. Unfortunately, they were not looking for wisdom — they were looking for technology that will refine data into gold. I was in trouble, I had to come up with something myself. In a bout of tertian fever I recalled the days before Palantir and Facebook, when the software world was mostly pagan, before the churches were built on top of all the burnt temples. There were still some pagans left out there. Some of them were hiding in plain sight next to the Valley, in a place called Berkeley. Their hiding place was named after a bishop, which was a clever tactic — to conceal a pagan enclave at the doorstep of Jerusalem 2.0. Bishop Berkeley in his sweeping master argument denied the existence of matter altogether⁵. He insisted that everything in the material world started as an idea and did not exist without being a mind’s thought first. Matter was a just a reflection of words in our consciousness. It is obvious that Bishop Berkeley was wise in the ways of abracadabra, or word-to-matter chemistry. I took that as a road post, a sign to be followed.
As a youth I trained myself in pagan ways. We listened to music that came from the North and wrote software together with the Visigoths and the Vandals. But my longest affiliation had been with the Apaches, the true pagans of north America. I had been learning how to tame daemons from them for a better part of a decade. Of course, I kept my knowledge and affiliation secret when being indoctrinated into the ways of Silicon Valley. These were conflicting world views, just like a church and a bazaar. Self-interested, rational and well-funded tribes around Stanford would assimilate, intermarry and eventually exterminate the pagans, it was just a matter of time. But that time had not come yet and the pagans were a source of idiosyncratic but powerful technology. In fact most of the Internet infrastructure had been build according to the ancient plans of stonehenges. That’s where I turned for secrets when my luck had run out in the Valley.
It was easy to contact the shamans in Berkeley through my Apache connections. There were no koans and no paradoxes. The pagan technology was in the open, one could bring pickup truck, load it up and drive away, no questions asked. That was what I did. Only later I packaged it with fancy vials, locks, incantations aspiring to productive, lean, agile, super-human-to-machine-converging ethos which would make it seem that it came from Silicon Valley.
Greed And Fear: Cambridge Analytica Splinters
I imparted the technology to the Cantabrigian junta, who now believed that it came straight from the vaults of the Valley. They distributed it to a platoon of data scientists to dissect and learn every trick that could be performed with it. As I left I saw the scientists inspecting, probing, deconstructing, carving, dismembering it. Most things taken apart cannot be put together, especially not by scientists.
After some time of deliberation (the Quran recommends three days and three nights before making an important decision) I decided to confess my ruse to the gang: the technology did not exist and the data was useless — the effort was futile. They were trying to loot charlatans, whose biggest secret was the absence of secret. Not only the effort was a dead end, but now they were exposed to the biggest charade of our times. We were in trouble: what if they found out that we knew? But I did not know what was to happen next.
As I met the group again — they were worshiping the technology. Having disassembled it, the platoon of scientists found nothing to indicate it’s magical nature: just a bunch of everyday categories containing mundane objects strung together by unremarkable functions. But to protect their reputation and their jobs they pretended to be in awe of the promise of it. Were they to report that there was nothing to be found, it would have cast a doubt on their method. The scientists reported their mock excitement to their masters, who in turn were quick to report to their ultimate owners and clients that they were in possession of a power to bend the path of the world to their desires. I was too late. Nobody wanted to hear my reservations, and voicing them got me cast as humble (the rarest of virtues in engineers) elevating my Promethean status even further, making things even worse.
The technology had cast a spell on the gang and the excitement was promptly followed by greed and fear. The gang splintered into fractions, all with the same goal: to be the first to employ the technology for their benefit. Using this moment of confusion and chaos, I retreated into the shadows. I was sure that divided the flame of the group would die out. I was wrong.
Crime and Punishment: the Public Execution of Cambridge Analytica to Prove They Were Real
Years went by and the exuberance over mind bending technology and potent data, supposedly liberated from the vaults of Silicon Valley spread, in concentric circles from data scientists to managers to CEOs. It was appearing on magical papyri, amulets, powerpoint presentations, business pitches to investors and marketing decks printed on glossy paper. The words were taking a material shape. Until it finally reached the ultimate two layers in the pecking order of memetic contagion: the media and the government. The latter two only started believing in something when everyone else had been already convinced.
Just like the anti-fever spells of ancient Italy banned by the paranoid monarchs, the modern technological abracadabra was bound to scare the no less anxious democratic leaders. Inevitably, someone had to be punished publicly to sow fear into the hearts of others, who might be inclined to follow in their footsteps. Somebody did get punished. Punishment was the ultimate instrument and proof of incarnation — nobody got ever punished for merely imagining things, right?
The founders of Cambridge Analytica believed in the power of Silicon Valley’s potent mix of technology and data, despite it all being an illusion. The biggest secret of the Valley was the absence of any secret.
Cambridge Analytica attempted to build a parody of the Valley, just as the Valley itself had been a parody of the medieval abracadabra, which came from times before our era. But some parodies were better than others. One of the Valley’s operating principles was the paradox of complexity that said:
This principle was key to success of a good parody. Cambridge Analytica’s parody of Silicon Valley was not complex enough to survive. It was disassembled by the media during a few interviews with the former employees.
But all is well that ends well. The governments and world’s media once again helped solidify the belief that the Valley did possess powerful technology and valuable data that had to be protected and regulated — made secretive more than ever.
Most people already had the suspicion that there was a Cosmic Plan, that their fate was sealed, determined by horoscope algorithm that knew them better than they know themselves. The Cambridge Analytica story helped confirm their suspicions. With increased fervor they flocked to yoga studios to perfect their asanas — breath control being the final bastion of self-determination left to them; their thoughts and decisions surrendered to a techno-political machine. Having abandoned God they were bound to keep asking: who was in his place? They would find his place occupied by powerful groups of sinister madmen, who were to be blamed for having had planned Trump, Brexit and all the evils from which we suffer.⁷
I would not overstate my own, or anyone’s role in the story of Cambridge Analytica. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and play a few chords on a guitar that end up capturing the spirit of the times. With a few chords, a few lines of code or prose you stumble upon a zeitgeist, after having just the right amount of chemicals in your blood mixed with the perfect amount of anxiety-induced insomnia. The price to pay is that the melody and the lyrics of such a song start a life of their own, beyond what you prescribed for them. They become infused with meanings relevant to its listeners. I would not overstate the role of anyone in Cambridge Analytica story, but the role of everyone: helpless, paranoid, submissive but hoping to rise against our technocratic conditioning and addiction, to wake up from our wanton slumber.
Footnotes and References:
- If you are a journalist interested in either the Cambridge Analytica or Palantir — I will not be able to tell you anything of substance about either. Not just because of my loyalty to the ruling class. No — because there is nothing to tell. This text is my testimony about nothing.
- Kushner, L. (1993). The Book of Words: Talking Spiritual Life, Living Spiritual Talk. Jewish Lights Publishing.
- Sallares, R., 2009. Malaria And Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Thiel, P., 2014. Zero To One. New York, N.Y.: Currency.
- Berkeley, G. K., 2008. Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Forgotten Books
- Gall, J., 1986. Systemantics. Ann Arbor (Mich.): General Systemantics Press.
- Popper, K. https://www3.canyons.edu/faculty/marianaj/Popper.pdf