Ever been locked out of your computer because you could't remember your password? Ever become fearful that all your work might be stolen or destroyed by computer hackers? Ever walked through the streets frightened of security cameras, or felt that the world is turning into a system of impenetrable code? Published here for the first time, this is a poem about security, surveillance and paranoia: a modern cautionary tale. The title alludes to a bizarre and brilliant short story by Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.
Peter Bayard, author of passwords
It started as a sort of game:
each year he’d change his cyber-name
because he had a dreadful fear
that robot-hacks were coming near,
intent on stealing all his work.
He felt them there; he knew they’d lurk
and with their little hacking-picks
and with their mean and drastic tricks
they’d infiltrate his system and
put paid to all the work he’d planned.
Naïve at first, the names he chose
were ones that everybody knows
like Howards End, Cold Comfort Farm –
and yet they kept him safe from harm.
With time he learned to be discreet,
and choose codes that were clean and neat,
disclosing nothing but their sound
with meaning nowhere to be found.
Time passed; and growing older now
Peter was anxious, wondered how
he’d cope if hackers found the code
to all his passwords, and his mode
of storing them in secret places,
obliterating all their traces.
How had he managed on so few?
Day after day, his panic grew.
Each week he’d check no-one was out
to snitch his stuff. To quell all doubt
and keep the cyber-pests away
he changed his passwords every day –
then hour by hour, because he knew
all of the damage hacks could do.
He worked through all the heroes’ names
in novels, films, and children’s games;
he searched and searched the internet
for new ones that he’d not used yet.
Compulsion crept into his ways
and darkened all his working days.
Peter towards the end went mad.
His nights were torment. Waking sad,
he knew the end was near because
he spent his days upon all fours,
searching through books not on the net:
his head was numb, his pants were wet;
he lost the way in his own house
and scuttled round, a timid mouse.
He’d used all words that he could find,
they filled the corners of his mind
in hidden files. Without a key
no-one could pry, no-one could see
and yet he went on storing them
minute by minute in his den.
The neighbours watched and wondered why
they never saw this man go by:
his curtains closed, his door now shut
against all comers. In his gut
he knew that death was coming soon.
He howled and bayed at every moon,
fearing the Moon-Man had been sent
to find out what his passwords meant.
They found him dead before his screen.
The password could be clearly seen:
‘Nemo’ this man had chosen last,
and it deleted all his past.