Q&A with Shumeet Baluja, author of The Silicon Jungle

We live in a society in which information is only a simple keystroke or click of the mouse away. Online chat rooms have become a virtual bridge for those who wish to meet with people across the world and websites have become the forum for online advertisements, but what could happen if all of the seemingly innocuous information we typed into our computers every day fell into the wrong hands?

Next month, Princeton University Press is proud to publish Shumeet Baluja’s The Silicon Jungle: A Novel of Deception, Power, and Internet Intrigue, a captivating thriller about the promise and perils of data mining, so we sat down with the author to learn more about the story–and the technology–behind his timely novel.

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Q: Why did you choose an epigraph from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to preface your novel?

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it.”–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Shumeet Baluja: The internet is, in every aspect, about connections – the connections between people and websites, products, programs, raw information, and more than ever, simply other people. Increasingly, we find the internet becoming the de facto medium for most of the connections we deem meaningful. The quote by Goethe beautifully captures the notion that we are defined in relation to our connections. Today this is truer than ever – it’s just that our latest connections are online ones. Perhaps most pertinent to this novel, for better or worse, is that these connections are becoming measurable, predictable, and steadily more
exploitable.

Q: In your letter to the reader you go on to write, “It’s not technology or a newfound ability that should be labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it’s what we choose to do with that ability.” How would you suggest we find an ideal balance between innovation and responsibility in cyberspace?

SB: Early in many scientists’ careers, it is common to be enamored with the lofty goal of finding scientific truths and making discoveries that advance human knowledge. Only later in one’s career does reality set in – that scientists have a responsibility when deciding what to explore and what to create.   There are real ramifications tied to the discoveries they make – history has proven time and again that some will be amazing, while others horrific. In the novel, for example, an internet behemoth routinely surveils, analyzes, dissects, and predicts the actions and interests of internet users.   While doing this, though, they offer us an amazing set of benefits – in the form of convenience, access to information and resources that were unimaginable even just a few years ago, and a way to reach and stay in touch with our friends and families.  But all of this comes at a price – the absolute and utter destruction of our privacy.

It’s not hard to imagine that a large proportion, if not all, of a person’s thoughts are represented online – through searches, emails, chats, status updates, etc. We willingly give all of this away. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe convenience is more valuable than privacy? But maybe it isn’t. The point is that a conversation about what we lose, and at what price, is worth having; it is not a conversation that should quietly be swept under the rug in the face of the latest bright-and-shiny service disguised as the next must-have technological convenience.

Q: The novel begins as a series of vignettes that seem unrelated but tie together as the story progresses. How and why did you decide to create your work in this way? Does it relate to your theme of interpersonal connections?

SB: There were three reasons for this. First and foremost, I constructed the scenes to be very visual. It’s amazing what photographs can do – the instant we see an image, we fill in a story, we bring in our own experience to make sense of what we see. My goal was to write visual guideposts to reveal the story and lead the reader through the inner workings of a world that most take for granted – but also to allow the reader to add his or her own experiences to make the story more personal.

Second, and this relates to the first point, whether as a writer or as a teacher, I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to me to treat people as intelligent beings. Too often books spoon-feed us and leave nothing to the imagination. I can only hope that I have struck a good balance.

Finally, as you mentioned, one of the pervasive themes of the book is connections – how are we connected to others and to events that we could never have foreseen? How is it that a well-intentioned intern is instrumental in the death of a would-be philanthropist? I made a concerted effort to connect the chapters in unexpected, and multiple, ways. Indeed, I hope that the form of the novel reinforces the theme.

Q: The theme of image versus reality also comes up again and again–especially in later chapters when, for example, Stephen’s girlfriend Molly creates a website and uses a pseudonym to disguise herself as someone [sic] from the Middle East. Do you want to encourage your readers to be skeptical of the credibility of certain websites and online chat rooms?

SB: It’s funny that you bring that up.  Having worked on the Internet for as long as I have, my first reaction is to distrust anything I find on the internet until proven otherwise. At the very least, yes, I certainly hope that I have encouraged readers to be skeptical of the characters they meet online.

Molly, the anthropologist, plays an important role.  Without giving too much away about the book, remember that she enters the book with the best of intentions. Though her character has a vastly different background and motivation than the Silicon Valley denizens who surround her, she shows just how far awry people can go, and eventually how dangerous they can become, in the maniacal pursuit of ‘the truth.’ The effects are intensely magnified when they possess the tools to dissect, analyze, and watch the behaviors of so many people so easily.

Q: On page 82 you even illustrate his rigid and demanding work schedule in detail–why did you do this?

SB: Stephen is a kid in a candy store. He’s just been granted an amazing array of resources along with access to people’s emails, searches, friends – basically an entrée into their thoughts. He finds it intoxicating. He’s the ideal candidate for the job he is in.  The title of the chapter is “The Life and Soul of an Intern;” he gladly trades his life outside of work for one inside the cocoon that has been meticulously built to harness employees who are willing to give so much.

Q: And he’s not the only one: In of the most memorable scenes, a fellow Ubatoo data-mining intern creates a program which allows users to clearly view any websites people are using from their homes without their knowledge-and all of the interns become mesmerized by the homes using adult sites. Stephen’s friend Aarti even remarks, “For everything else we do, this is what people decide to look at.” What did you want to get across about privacy invasion here?

SB: There are escalating levels of privacy invasion throughout the book–this is the middle one. First, the novel should be very clear:  there is nothing private on the internet. It doesn’t matter if it’s an email that nobody except your friends are supposed to read, or a picture that you’ve shared only with that special person, or the file that you’ve uploaded just to keep safe.

Perhaps one of the truly ironic aspects of this is that adult-content searches are first to enter people’s minds when they think of privacy invasion.   The problem is that, at least at the company detailed in the book, adult searches are so common that they are most often not what is most interesting about a person – it’s the other, less mainstream, pursuits (this is commonly known as the long-tail) that truly make a person interesting.  These are the things that often reveal the most about a person – and most people never even think to try to keep these private.

Q: I notice recurring themes of identity and of the classification of people. Why did you choose to highlight this theme?

SB: It’s a fortunate coincidence that you referred to it as a ‘classification of people.’ Classifying people, their actions, and intentions is one of the cornerstones of internet data mining. Is this person a good candidate for an advertisement? Will this person buy a $10,000 car or a $100,000 one? Will this person be a terrorist? Is this a compatible person to date? What zip code does this person live in, what is his occupation, where has he traveled? Who are his friends? It’s all about classification – from the beginning to the end. In the business of internet data mining, the faster and more accurately you can classify people, the closer to being omniscient you become.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?

SB: From the very beginning, this was going to be a book about the abuse of the enormous amount of data we willingly reveal about ourselves through our everyday actions. The hardest question was how to best demonstrate this. In the end, I decided to turn to something  that is, at times, on the forefront of our minds, but always in the back of our thoughts – terrorism and the massive religious unrest and changes that seem to occur daily now. Once this direction was chosen, it was crucial to me to ensure that no group was stereotyped; that’s why the book very deliberately mixes the good and the bad across religions and races.

Q: Do you have any other novels in mind for the future?

SB: Looking back on the book, I believe it’s fair to say that it was heavily influenced by 1984 (George Orwell) and The Jungle (Upton Sinclair). My next project also owes a great deal to 1984, but from a perspective other than privacy.   Imagine a world (not ours, of course, because the next work is also fiction), but one that may have a lot of similarities to ours, in which the majority of people turn to a single place for all of their information. We would be crazy to put all that trust in that single place, unless we were absolutely sure that place was trustworthy, wouldn’t we? For all the rhetoric about the internet being the salvation for the democratization of information and giving a voice to those who previously had none, how do you find that information, those lost voices? Right now, access to and ways for finding that information are pretty limited, pretty funneled, pretty controlled, no?

The ramifications and exploits of the discoveries and inventions made in the past 10 years have yet to be uncovered. I suspect that all of them will not be as innocuous as they seem today.  There are many stories yet to be written.

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The Silicon Jungle will be published on May 18.
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