Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hidden messages

I was totally blown away by the book Looking for Jake and other stories by China Mieville. Sometimes an author formulates the ideas in your mind - but more clearly and convincingly. That makes me jealous but it also makes me very happy that someone exported "my" idea to public space - and in such a great manner.

Last week I was reminded of this book when I reached the end of my toilet paper and discovered a code.
My first impulse was to unroll all my rolls of toilet paper to see if they all had a code - and if they were numbered consecutively. But I know the rest of the household would not approve.

In China Mieville's story Go Between the main character receives containers that are hidden in random household objects that  he buys while shopping. The objects contain an instruction how to pass the object on to someone else. The recipient does not know for whom he works and what messages (or anything else) the objects contain. The one day he receives the message that he has fulfilled his task and that he is dismissed. He never discovers anything more.
Something was in the bread. Morley was cutting, and on the fourth strike of the knife, the metal braked. Behind him his friends talked over their food. Morley prised the dough apart and touched something smooth. He had marked it with a scratch. Morley could see the thing's colour, a drab charcoal. He frowned. It had been a long time since this had happened.

"What's up?" someone said to him, and when he turned his face was relaxed.
"It’s gone mouldy."
He put the bread in the rubbish, where he could reach it again. When the others were gone Morley took the bread out and pulled it apart. From its crumbs he drew a tube, a grey baton that fit thickly in his hand. The line of a seal was just visible at one end. Morley did not open it. He turned it over. There were instructions on it, in small type, embossed as if punched out from within.
The idea of an omnipresent and omnipotent - but invisible - organisation is a very powerful meme. The Rosecrucians, Opus Dei, the New World Order all have taken the roles of those mysterious "THEY" that turn the wheels of the world.

In practice it would be very expensive, error-prone and dangerous to use a "go between" like that. Much better methods have been developed in traditional spycraft like the "dead letter box" and the "brush pass". It's precisely the use of an "impossible" method that makes this story so haunting and the invisible organisation so mysterious and threatening.

But the toilet roll demonstrates that we are really enveloped by an invisible and all-pervasive organisation. It's called logistics. And its power and glory are described in Alain de Botton's The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. This is something for a future blog post.

Looking for Jake - China Miéville
Alain de Botton - The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Dead letter box
Spy tradecraft

1 comment:

  1. did you decode it? Maybe contact a manufacturer and ask. I am curious.