In Someone Else’s Conspiracy: a book review of Crowd of One, a novel by Filip Severin
The epigraph to Crowd of One is taken from Edward Bernays, one of the least-known and most influential figures of the modern era: ‘Men are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.’ Bernays pioneered what eventually became known as public relations (aka propaganda) by applying crowd psychology to control the ‘herd instincts’ of the ‘irrational masses’. What he termed the ‘crystallizing’ of public opinion rapidly evolved over the course of the twentieth century into the manufacturing of consent to the political and commercial imperatives of society’s managers and elites. Like it or not, we all live in Bernays’ world.
Marlon Renner, the central character in Crowd of One, certainly does. He is a young man from Maine who works in Paris for Atlas Analytica, a shadowy entity in a world of low-profile companies that eschew publicity, websites or even premises. ‘To map out an individual’s personality traits, Atlas Analytica uses a psychometric model known as the Big Five,’ which helps it understand a person’s needs and fears and persuade them ‘into thinking or doing as you like.’ Usually, such persuasion is based on a suitably invented narrative of conflict, so as to engage with strong emotions such as anger and anxiety.
The use of these techniques – particularly in social media, with the help of ‘bots’ – is perfectly legal, Marlon and his colleagues assure us (and each other), although companies like Atlas Analytica take care to distance themselves from the action by creating a string of shell companies and offshore havens. The buying and selling of psychological profiles based on people’s likes and dislikes, comments and purchases, takes place on an industrial scale, as there are always loopholes that permit organizations to sell their data even when they are ‘committed to ensuring your privacy.’
Mr LaFontaine, Marlon’s boss, has returned to Paris because he sees which way the wind is blowing. In a blizzard of mixed metaphor, he explains Europe to Marlon:
Now, the cracks are widening, and the tables are about to turn. What you see out there is a society in freefall, ready to crash and rebuild itself. That’s why I came back. The old continent is facing another turnaround …
The quicker you learn how this works, the more you’ll be able to squeeze out of this system before it goes belly-up.
Whatever the legality of these pervasive business and political practices, they are based on a profoundly cynical view of human society. Marlon becomes increasingly enmeshed in a network of morally dubious decisions and clandestine structures, all of them linked by lonely journeys and anonymous hotels. Yet Marlon’s success ‘is what he wanted – to prove that he can make his own way in life. That he is worthwhile.’
It is here that one thinks of the sociological classic The Lonely Crowd (1950) referenced by Crowd of One. Marlon is not much given to introspection and seems only partially acquainted with himself: ‘He can’t tell whether he is going home or leaving home, or whether it makes any difference.’ He requires the self-justification of defending free speech even as he schemes to bring down a country’s economy. Marlon feels like a young man in search of a cause who has found it in the wrong place. When he says ‘Our in-house psychologists say that it’s in our DNA to follow the crowd and seek homogeneity … They call it the soul of the wolf and the fear of loneliness’ – he describes himself.
In short, Marlon is as much a ‘part of a pattern in someone else’s head’ as the masses he manipulates. There is a great deal of talk about ‘the big picture’ in Crowd of One, a metaphor frequently used to make the ends justify the means and enable a megalomaniac’s vision to outweigh a world of suffering. ‘The mind of a crowd is a different beast than that of an individual,’ Marlon thinks. ‘It’s strong, authoritative, and capable of a brutality that most individuals are not.’
Recent events such as massive data breaches, interference in elections, the exposure of espionage, the misuse of information and the existence of state-sponsored troll factories make Crowd of One extremely topical. And while, for that reason alone, it is a readable book, it also has considerable weaknesses. The prose is frankly dull and utilitarian in the manner of notes to a screenplay: ‘Marlon walks to the desk’ and thousands of similar phrases become tiring and repetitive. The present tense is mannered and clumsy when used with so little variation. In addition, people invariably ‘grab’ a cup of coffee rather than simply pick it up; descriptive details are so minimal as to be cursory; a word used in one sentence will be repeated needlessly in the next; characters are flat; significant plot points are telegraphed.
We inhabit Marlon’s perspective throughout, but not much goes on inside his head that is particularly interesting. His past is vague and generic and, while it hints at underlying reasons for Marlon’s conformism, there is not enough to go on to make speculation worthwhile. Marlon’s father is an unfortunate man, which might explain Marlon’s unquestioning acceptance of LaFontaine and his need to please him. In a rare descriptive significance, reference to a ‘dry fountain’ near LaFontaine’s home office suggests he is not the fount of knowledge and wisdom Marlon takes him to be.
This is all a great shame, especially as Crowd of One leads us to ponder the contempt with which most of us are regarded by the sociopaths and scoundrels who run much of the world. Perhaps everyone thinks of themselves as exceptions to the crowd, as impervious to manipulation and advertising, but what ‘crowd’ do we mean and have we ever met it? In an age when social media are discovered to be unsociable, when much of our communication and ‘keeping in touch’ via the internet actually degrades our relationships, when the ‘friends’ we ‘like’ can be algorithms generated by unscrupulous agencies, each of us is forced deeper into his or her crowd of one.
Filip Severin | ISBN 9781983217036 (pbk) | ebook