GPG Encrypted Communication and its Literary Possibilities

Categories: Spells

In this text I will describe very briefly the process of encrypted communication, specifically the GPG protocol which is used worldwide by people who need to protect their emails and the possibilities of this process for the scholarly analysis and the reading of literary texts.

When an email is sent through a commercial platform such as Google or Yahoo, the only layer of security is the user’s password, this means that the whole traffic from the sender to the recipient of the message is unprotected. An email sent through Gmail, for example, is reviewed and analyzed by the Google insfrastructure and they map the message so they can target users for advertising campaigns, this is why a friendly email conversation about let’s say, chairs, leads to ads of chair sellers at the different platforms that Google shares users’ data with. Also, if one of the individuals involved in a Gmail conversation is considered a suspect of a crime by some government, Google usually provides this user’s data, a practice that has become more and more questionable because of the many cases in which those requiring this information are censoring authoritarian regimes.

The GPG protocol has more than twenty years and despite of its antiquity it is still used by activists around the globe and by people who do not want to be profiled by these internet giants. The system is based in simple cryptography: every user has two keys, a public and a private one. The public one is shared with contacts and eventually uploaded to a public key server, any person who wants to send an encrypted email should know the public key of the recipient. The private key is more like a physical key since the user keeps it to herself and shouldn’t be shared with anyone else since this is the element that allows the user to decrypt the message that was sent.

If a GPG encrypted email falls into the wrong hands it will look like nonsense to them and it will be impossible to decipher unless the intercepter has the private key of the recipient.

When analysing complex pieces of literature such as Finnegans Wake by James Joyce or the works by Jorge Luis Borges, scholars tend to approach them from a detectivesque perspective, trying to find an absolute meaning on the writings like they were going to finally find an univocal interpretation of the piece, ignoring that in the hermeneutical voyage different individuals reach different conclusions.

The GPG cryptographic universe is divided into thousands of individual universes, there is no such thing as a master key that will decrypt every message, actually the opposite is true: only the personal key is going to transform the chaotic mess of characters into something that makes sense.

The Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz addressed this issue in his master work Poetics of the Cinema, in his book he questions the totalitarian aim of American cinema which presents the same story over and over rather than embrace the fact that “every person watches her own film when she goes to the cinema”. If we start thinking of us individuals as the bearers of a unique deciphering key, it would facilitate experimental instances of the artistic practice that will not need to be interpreted as productions that have an unambiguous meaning.

Friedrich Kittler in his writings about code explains how codification can be traced to the Roman Empire, how it has been used throughout human history to facilitate communication (Morse code) or to keep and decipher secrets (the Enigma machine built by Alan Turing). All these practices lead us to the current times in which computer code is everywhere and how, according to Kittler, it is even encoding the world. Programming languages are praised because of their univocality, “code is law” some people dare to say in order to describe the objectivity of code as if it was a neutral tool. They ignore that this law of code, this structure, promotes values that do not foster creativity since every development goes in the same capitalistic direction: speed, efficiency, data collection, etc. This is why the example of GPG becomes so relevant. True, the whole constitution of the GPG protocol has been done inside the current logics of programming too, where, in an open software environment, the code has been perfected across the years. However, the aim of this code goes in a way more interesting direction than the accumulative one because it ontologically suggests that every user is deciphering their content in their own way.

Is it possible to think of an internet in which every user is deciphering something different? Not different because of the profiling made by the giant internet corporations but because of a personal codification that would allow interfaces to look different depending on our private keys? Isn’t that exactly what happens when we read a book or watch a film? Can we incorporate that type of mental process into the technological realm? Certainly we could, however it is not allowed nor promoted in our controlled and surveiled cyberspace. For now.