We have long had a fascination with espionage, the lives of secret agents and cryptic codes hidden in the most ordinary of messages. For some, espionage conjures images of Bond, high octane adventure and glamorous living, whilst others imagine darkened rooms, with secret agents hunched over desks listening to tape recordings, and chasing criminals on the dark web. Personally I’m inclined to lean towards the latter, although in reality it seems fair to assume that espionage is largely neither of these things – by its very nature espionage is highly secretive work, with long running investigations spanning months, if not years, and endless hours of trawling through useless information. A far cry from 007 and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
So why are we fascinated by this world? Why is it that we are drawn to the idea of spies and secret messages?
Besides grand notions of fast living and cheap thrills, the most obvious, and perhaps simplistic answer, is that as humans we are predictable. By this it is meant that as social creatures, we are naturally drawn to intrigue and knowledge as it can place us in the best possible position – as the saying goes, knowledge is power. This desire for information is further compounded by our own inquisitiveness – we have a need to know, whether that’s how something is done, why something is the way it is, or what we are missing.
Below is a clip from the TV programme Penn & Teller: Fool Us in which magicians are challenged to perform a trick that will ‘fool’ the audience, but more importantly consummate professionals Penn and Teller.
There is nothing particularly exceptional about it (aside from the standard of magic) that would distinguish it from many other magic videos on the internet. What is interesting about it however, is the comment section:
This is just a small handful of comments, but as you can see they revolve around how the trick was done; it is dissected in minute detail, referenced against time stamps on the video and discussed amongst the online community. Note also the language that is used: “I know…”, “he obviously…”, “get it?”. Not “knowing” can be incredibly frustrating, whilst “knowing” offers a certain degree of power and superiority over those that don’t understand how the trick works.
Now, magic is just one example of how we tend to try and work out how something is done. You might also be thinking that this has little to do with our fascination with espionage: cue crosswords. Look in any magazine, or any newspaper and chances are you’ll find one. They are incredibly popular, and employ some of the most basic principles of code breaking. Whether you’re 12 or 57, finishing a crossword or cracking a particularly hard clue is satisfying, and triumphing where others have failed has certain thrill.
It is as close as many of us will get, or indeed want to be, to the world of espionage but to deny that it holds a certain appeal doesn’t seem logical. Take GCHQ’s recent Christmas puzzle below – this was the first task that participants were challenged to unlock, in an increasingly difficult series of cryptographic puzzles.
Over half a million people took part, and I am sure that you’re wondering whether you yourself could crack the code – FYI no one managed to get all the answers right, and just three managed to come the closest.
The world of espionage however is not wholly about code-breaking. In the field it’s also about being able to read people, and gaining the trust of others. When it comes to the latter, a spy’s ability is tested to the limit – they possess at least two identities, one is superficial and the other is real. Naturally they must assume the same about everyone with whom they come into contact; the challenge is to distinguish between them, to identify whether the person that is presented to them is ‘real’ or whether it is a façade.
And guess what, everyone likes to think that they are a good judge of character. It’s why we like to pick who we think is the “baddie” in films and single out characters who might have ulterior motives. In other words, we like to think that we are intelligent and know better – what I would term the “I would know” mentality, of which espionage is the ultimate test.
Despite high profile cases highlighting the darker side of espionage – the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, or the death of Gareth Williams for example- it seems unlikely that our fascination with this hidden world will end any time soon. So whether you imagine high octane adventure and glamorous living, or darkened rooms with secret agents hunched over desks listening to tape recordings, its mystique is half of the appeal.