In a now infamous blog post, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s special adviser, declared he wanted to hire “misfits” to upset the stagnant equilibrium that he sees in the civil service. Rather than Oxbridge graduates, he wants “weirdos” and “true cognitive diversity”.
Part of Cummings’ inspiration for the kind of worker he hopes to find comes from the pages of William Gibson’s novels. Gibson made his name in science fiction circles as the “godfather of cyberpunk”, revitalising the genre with his debut novel, Neuromancer. This gave a popular blueprint for understanding the possibilities of the nascent internet and even coined the term “cyberspace”.
In his blog, Cummings specifically cited two characters – Cayce from Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition and Tito, from Spook Country, published in 2007 as a sequel. He argues:
We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand “diviner” who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB.
Cummings specifically asks that people who are struggling to find an environment to channel extraordinary talents apply. The idea seems to be that Cummings wants free thinkers who reject social conformity. But I have researched Gibson’s work for my PhD thesis. Cummings appears to have somewhat misunderstood the novels if he thinks this is what the characters represent.
Cayce and Tito both find themselves outside of society, but Cummings seems to think that this outsider status is a function of their exceptional skills. It’s actually more a function of the society in which they live.
Cayce suffers from an unusual allergy to marketing – she reacts badly to derivative branding, vomiting in response to the simulacra of simulacra represented by brands such as Tommy Hilfiger. Her “allergy” acts as a sixth sense for authenticity, making her valuable as a brand consultant and a “coolhunter”. She can observe trends at an LA urban basketball court, or in downtown Shinjuku, and predict which trends will go viral on a global scale. Her opinion on marketing and all things cool is highly sought after, but she also suffers from apophenia – “faulty pattern recognition” – or what we might more commonly refer to as paranoia.
She is rocked by the experience of being rootless in a globalised world – a condition typical of the kind of freelance work in which she is engaged and familiar to those participating in the so-called “gig economy” in the real world. She feels as though she has left her soul behind by moving from job to job at breakneck speed and she is homeless when we meet her. Even though she is well paid (unlike many undertaking insecure work), her instability robs her of her sense of self, distracting her from her day job and blinding her to genuinely dangerous situations.
Meanwhile, Tito lives in a single room above a Chinese restaurant, hiding in the shadows. He works as a courier for spies and illicit operations, using his multilingual background and his experience as a migrant and as a member of a crime family to survive in the underworld. Cayce is hired by Bigend, a businessman with interests that all come back to the desire to exploit new technologies before anyone else has the chance to understand them – whether Cummings sees himself in this Machiavellian, vampiric role is a matter for speculation.
Both characters live in a miasma of precarity, using their skills by necessity as a means of survival. Tito is highly talented, but his unofficial status sees him attacked by adversaries hired by shadowy forces, his outsider status weaponised against him. Not only does this endanger his life, it endangers the sensitive projects on which he is put to work – a reminder that having unprotected workers at the heart of government might be a security risk for both the individual and the institution.
Workers’ rights for weirdos
Gibson is known for the maxim, “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”. And Cummings seems to be describing just such a world for the people he wants to hire. He shows little respect for the rules of hiring and firing, warning his out-of-the-box “misfit” employees, “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now”. Many of his new hires, he says, should be “young” – a specification that many have suggested breaches employment law.
Nor should his new hires expect much by way of support. Cummings thinks they should not be subject “to the horrors of ‘Human Resources’ (which also obviously need a bonfire)”.
The theme is very much putting innovation above workers’ rights, but these concepts are not mutually exclusive. Cummings is well aware that the changing technological landscape will offer opportunities to wield and cement political power in ways that cannot (as yet) be predicted – but his excitement in taking advantage of this unstable historical moment seems to have blinded him to the importance of workers’ rights. He wants the best and offers them nothing by way of protection in return.
For brilliant weirdos like Cayce and Tito, workers’ rights buy the loyalty and security that money cannot. Wishing for the talents of a brilliant weirdo should not mean emulating terrible – and dangerous – fictional working conditions. When Cummings rails against stagnation, he should be careful what he wishes for. The insecurity of workers is the insecurity of the institution.