Pandemic Reading, Writing and Technology
“Once I am at leisure, said Salvatore, I take refuge in prose as one might in a boat … It is thanks to my evening reading alone I am still more or less sane.”
— W.G. Sebald, Vertigo
Late last year, I read a 30,000-word blogpost published on an ethical hacking blog. The piece discusses the discovery and exploitation of a since-patched zero click vulnerability in Apple’s iOS. In layman’s terms, it means there was a way your iPhone could be hacked, remotely controlled and the user data stolen from it without you even touching the thing.
The post’s author, Ian Beer, is a member of Project Zero, one of Google’s security research teams. He is considered one of the best iOS hackers in the world and finding, unpacking and reporting vulnerabilities in Apple’s software is his speciality. In the post, he writes in full technical detail about the way he found and then systematically attacked the zero click vulnerability (or, more precisely, vulnerabilities), mapping out his logic and sharing code, diagrams and screenshots, all from his own home while isolating during the pandemic. “This has been the longest solo exploitation project I’ve ever worked on, taking around half a year,” he says, framing the effort that went into the work. The post itself is an epic, highly technical, laborious and humourless read with some compelling implications.
Apple fixed the vulnerability in the middle of the year, months before Beer’s post was published. While the news was met with significant attention initially — the hack was labelled in various media outlets as breathtaking, shocking and incredible — my guess is it’s been almost totally forgotten. But as I was working my way through the post, two things occurred to me which have stayed in my thoughts since. The two things are, in turn, related to the dual themes which run through the narrative behind the hack — the first theme is magic, the second is paranoia.
The post’s epigraph states a belief in the notion that exploiting technology is the closest thing to magic we can experience in reality. Beer re-asserts this, explicitly and implicitly, in his post. The funny and pathetic thing about this is that the source of this magic, so-called, is flaws in the very, very complex systems of code running our phones. And the logical extension of this is seen in theme number two: paranoia. What if the wrong people get hold of this information? Beer makes it clear he did this work himself, with tools and information he had handy, in his own house. He suggests that coordinated teams with the right hardware, know-how and desire to do harm could be a serious problem for us.
One of the things that occurred to me is how feeble and sensitive we are: we have reached a point where an exploitation of the technology we own could be an exploitation of us. The second thing that occurred to me seemed to confirm what I have been thinking for some time: our relation to literature has fundamentally changed.
In an essay originally published in a 1963 edition of the Yiddish-language newspaper Forverts, Isaac Bashevis Singer asked: “Who needs literary fiction?” It is a question which even the most pretentious and deluded writer must have asked themselves at least once, even if only while awake and staring at the ceiling in the loneliest hours of the night. Singer’s piece is preoccupied with the hyperconnectivity that television and radio creates; of the regular reader in the 1960s he wrote: “They’re connected to all the corners of the world — and nothing invented by the mind can compare with what takes place in reality.” Connectivity, he believed, creates a stimulated and informed public, which means they’re also increasingly wary, so the writer’s meagre tricks might lose their pizzazz, his or her efforts to convince the reader at risk of falling short. It’s important to keep in mind that Singer’s readership was yet to witness a moon landing — how could words on a page compete with the multilayered magic trick that is images beamed through the air on radiowaves and onto a television screen in one’s home, possibly even live footage of a man stepping foot onto a celestial body? “Put this way, literature would still seem to survive as an intellectual sport. But it would be a sport in which only people playing the sport, as well as a few amateurs, would be interested.”
Singer concludes a deeply pessimistic essay by asking writers and artists to lift their game. Incidentally, fiction bloomed in the period after the piece’s publication — if we use the Nobel Prize for Literature as a vague and imprecise yardstick, in the preceding years Morrison and Naipul and Coetzee and Alexievich and Paz and Gordimer and Walcott were all winners, and Singer himself won in 1978. I am skipping entire nebulae of literary greatness here, but it’s clear that when Singer writes, “Anyone who understands how rarely a true talent is born and how extremely difficult it is to be original — to discover something of one’s own in the art of writing — can clearly see that we are not dealing with progress but regress,” he is not wrong, but he is also not completely right.
Skip to 2020. Like many, I spent half the year adjusting to life in a pandemic and the second half of the year in a daze of repetition and acceptance. For the first time in a long while, I didn’t write a single critical piece, and the fiction I tried to write was almost uniformly woeful. While literature was not a primary concern for me, I did read a lot — aimlessly and, so, often, joyously. It’s been some time since I read books with as much fervour, even if there were times where I had the likely misguided but distinct feeling I was the only person on the planet reading a certain book.
But, especially at the start of the pandemic, I felt compelled to pay close attention to the news. I read about the Mafia providing food to families ignored by the Italian government during their first lockdown. A mortuary was erected on the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art to mind the anticipated dead. An ATM dispensing free rice for the poor appeared in Vietnam. I watched videos of apartment doors in China being welded shut, of cruise ships unable to dock in the nation that was a football field away. I read of the musicians continuing to play on these ships, the poker machines still spinning. And I regularly checked Flightradar24.com to monitor the traffic in the sky, as if there was something I could do about it.
Literature has been my comfort zone for close to my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are of trying to decipher the books on my shelf, and of my mother reading me 1001 Nights before bed. When I finished school, I enrolled in a specific course at university because it would also allow me to hide in fiction. Later, I used to hide, literally, in a city bookshop when I needed a breather from corporate work. I befriended writers. When travelling, books have been a little fragment of home I could bring with me. I took Bolaño to New York, Sebald to Ho Chi Minh City — the money transfer receipts from the hotel are still wedged between the pages. On a trip around East Asia I found The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht in a Seoul airport — a new book to read was like a chance encounter with an old friend. I read Inger Christensen’s essays on the floor of a villa in Bali and I bought Kim by Rudyard Kipling from a bookshop in Delhi’s Khan Market. On the flight back to Sydney, Kim and Teshoo Lama and I searched for the place where everything began.
The pandemic has changed all of this. International travel is a mere dream and I no longer have a reason to seek out a comfort zone — I’m already at home. This is the most time I’ve spent at home since I was a small child. In the meanwhile, the human condition, purportedly unchanging, perpetually waiting for its depths to be plumbed by the thoughtful and curious or merely fearful, has migrated to the cloud. It has mated with technology and become data. We live in a time where technology interfaces with politics, identity, privacy, security and the essence of who we are in a way it never has before, a phenomenon which is only going to accelerate as our lives become more tightly entwined with and reliant on technology. Through this, out of this, rise narratives which defy belief and imagination — like the idea that who you are could be stolen because you passed through a malicious WiFi zone.
So, who needs literature? Me — sort of. And where do you go in a world which has simply turned its attention from the thing you love? The answer which returns to me again and again, which I need to remind myself that it has to be, is community. Find the spiritually like-minded and hide with them, add to their number, wherever you, and they, are.
But how, in a pandemic, do you do that? Technology.
Singer writes in his essay: “We have not expanded the concept of artistic prose, only stretched and crippled it.” Though there are similarities, I am determined to stop short of proposing that Beer’s 30,000 words on six months spent hacking a smart phone is a form of obscure literature. The performative nature of the undertaking brings it closer to conceptual art, but in the way that 4k Ultra HD YouTube videos of protests in Hong Kong shot from a drone are art, or in the way that nomads who chase bargains from Kmart to Kmart across the United States to flip on Amazon is art. No, it is not literature, but we — forgive me for speaking for all of us — are in a weird place. Having been stretched and crippled, boundaries are hazy. Like Singer, maybe what I am trying to come to terms with is the notion it is less about literature being superseded than it is about the difficulty it has in keeping up in a world where our magic is in hacks and not books.
When I am done writing for the night, I close the laptop and get ready for bed. Before I sleep, I visit Flightradar24 on my phone, to check the traffic in the sky. In the middle of the North Sea there is a meeting of helicopters, clustered around oil rigs. The map I examine does not feel like the Planet Earth I know, but I also can’t believe it is merely a simulation — possibly, it is another planet entirely. I centre the map back over my home in Sydney; the only object in the sky above the entire state is a rescue helicopter which departed from Orange. Before I can even begin to conjure a story for it — a farmer has had a heart attack, or no, two freight trucks have collided — it disappears altogether and the map is free of aircraft, of joy riders and even of cargo planes. My neighbourhood is silent, the street empty. The only noises are a faraway car horn, the breeze knocking around the blinds in my bedroom, the rhythm of my partner’s breathing as she sleeps, and the click sound effect as I lock my iPhone.