It was a Thursday night and I was driving home along Alexandra Parade in North Fitzroy. When I stopped for the lights at Smith Street, I noticed a large glowing object in the periphery of my vision. I’m not usually one to pay much attention to billboards, but this was spectacular; a massive, bright orange supersite emblazoned with the words “get out of your mind”. A website was featured in much smaller text across the bottom: www.neurocam.com. The whole affair was further accentuated with a bank of high-powered spotlights, creating the illusion that it was hovering in space above the featureless, darkened building it was mounted on.
I was aware that ‘teaser campaigns’ were all the rage at the time and gone were the days of didactic product peddling. “Get out of your mind” - what did it mean? In the several seconds I was stationary at the lights my mind raced through a series of possibilities. Is it something to do with yoga? A new sexual enhancement drug? New age meditation techniques? As the lights turned green and I moved off, I almost dismissed what I had seen as just another banal attempt by the advertising industry to create intrigue, but “neurocam.com”? That was something I had never heard of before and it did pique my curiosity. It made me think of brain cameras and why a company would choose a name, which so obviously conveyed something firmly entrenched within the realms of science fiction. Unless of course it was something to do with medical imaging technology, but in that case why would they use such an odd slogan? And besides, you don’t often see billboards advertising such equipment as MRI scanners and X-ray machines; billboards almost always advertise products or services for the general public. Several minutes later a song I liked came on the radio and I put Neurocam out of my mind.
A week or so later I was at a party and happened to overhear a conversation that immediately sparked my interest. A forty-something balding man and a young woman with multiple facial piercings were talking about something called Neurocam. As I moved in closer to glean the gist of the conversation, I heard the man say something about a website and ‘signing up’. I was about to attempt to join the conversation when someone I knew grabbed my arm and started drunkenly talking at me.
For some reason the combination of seeing the billboard and overhearing the conversation at the party made me want to investigate further. As soon as I got home I googled “get out of your mind”. Nothing much turned up there, it seems that it was a slogan used commonly for all kinds of things, ranging from books on healthy eating to all manner of new age philosophies. Next I tried “neurocam.com”. Success. The website was very sparse, providing a disappointing lack of information about what in fact Neurocam is. Intriguingly, on the ‘disclaimer’ page, there was featured a long list of all the things Neurocam is not:
neurocam is not a pyramid marketing scamneurocam is not a product
neurocam is not a service
neurocam is not an Internet dating website
neurocam is not a new technology
neurocam is not a marketing campaign
neurocam is not trying to sell anything
neurocam is not trying to buy anything
neurocam is not a cult religion
neurocam is not a scientific discoveryneurocam is not a drug
neurocam is not a new species
neurocam is not a form of artificial intelligence neurocam is not a game
neurocam is not a social experiment
neurocam is not a movie or television series
neurocam is not pornography
neurocam is not anything to do with neurology
neurocam is not a new type of camera
neurocam is not a study
neurocam is not a psychology experiment
neurocam is not a terrorist training organisation
neurocam is not a corporate team-building exerciseneurocam is not a security company
neurocam is not anything to do with genetic engineering
neurocam is not anything to do with genetic manipulationneurocam is not a rare disease
neurocam is not viral marketing
neurocam is not anything to do with spiral dynamics
neurocam is not a literary awareness program
neurocam is not a Rosicrucian order
neurocam is not influenced by the Thelema
neurocam is not an initiation process
neurocam is not an experiment
neurocam is not confined to cyberspace
neurocam is not a new age philosophy
neurocam is not the question
neurocam is not the answer
neurocam is not a new fashion trend
neurocam is not a new fashion trend
neurocam is not an aphrodisiac
neurocam is not a self-help workshop
neurocam is not a new branch of cognitive science
And so on...
This was followed by an enigmatic quote from Neurocam International’s CEO, Ms Bridget Fischer:
"Some of the most rewarding experiences we have come about through random circumstances of which we have no real understanding. It is sometimes important to commit to something we know very little about if the act of commitment in itself becomes part of an experience."
Was this some kind of joke? I’d never seen anything like it and for some reason I felt instantly suspicious. The whole idea of ‘committing to something I knew very little about' seemed absurd to me, and reminded me vaguely of David Fincher’s film Fight Club, where the main character Tyler Durden gathers together a secret army to participate in Project Mayhem, an organised assault on mainstream consumer society. And ‘random circumstances’? What was that all about? Were these people insinuating that the act of seeing the billboard, overhearing the conversation about Neurocam and ending up on their site had some kind of hidden meaning to it? Who was this Bridget Fischer and was Neurocam really an international organisation? So many questions and so few answers. The ‘experience’ thus far was not exactly rewarding.
The only other content on the website was a contact page with a couple of Neurocam email addresses on it and a registration page. The registration page was giving people the opportunity to apply to join Neurocam by submitting some basic details:
1. Your full name, date of birth and preferred operative name
2. Your preferred email address if different from the sender address
3. Your city and country of residence
The phrase ‘preferred operative name’ was curious. So you could apply to become an ‘operative’ for an unknown organisation engaging in unknown activities. It seemed absurd on one level, but absolutely intriguing on another. I just couldn’t contextualise this in any way, shape or form; there was no precedent whatsoever. I wanted to think that it was some kind of hoax or prank, but that was immediately ruled out because I knew enough about advertising to know that supersite billboards cost about $15,000 apiece and people just don’t spend that kind of money for kicks. Unless of course they have millions at their disposal, which is possible, but it hasn’t happened yet. Or has it? During 2003, Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher produced a television series called Punk’d, which basically consisted of him playing elaborate practical jokes on unsuspecting celebrities.
There was also the fact that Neurocam claimed to be an international organisation, so perhaps they had billboards all over the world costing millions of dollars. I was perplexed, something just didn’t add up and I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was incredibly tempted to sign up just to see what would happen, but held back as I was worried about my email address being inundated with spam, or being tricked into some tedious equivalent of the Nigerian 419 fraud scam. The Internet was rife with all manner of dubious activities, and even though I thought Neurocam was something altogether different, I wasn’t about to leap in headfirst.
The following day at work I mentioned the enigma of Neurocam to a colleague and she hadn’t heard of it. When I mentioned that the frustrating thing about it was that the only way to find out more was to sign up, she gave me one of those looks that cartoon artists often illustrate with a light bulb above the head: “Perhaps it’s an ARG, it’s got to be an ARG, there’s no other explanation,” she said. Having no idea what she was talking about, I requested more information. To those with a limited knowledge of cyberspace like myself, apparently an ARG or Alternate Reality Game is a kind of online game, which revolves around a story. This seemed to make sense, so I jumped on my computer and did some more research. According to game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal:
"An ARG is an interactive drama played out online and in real world spaces, taking place over several weeks or months, in which dozens, hundreds, thousands of players come together online, form collaborative social networks, and work together to solve a mystery or problem that would be absolutely impossible to solve alone."
This information was all very interesting to a point, but I needed to know what purpose ARGs served to figure out if Neurocam was one or not. Further digging revealed that most ARGs are free to play as they are funded through their promotional relationships with actual products. The Beast was a promotion for Spielberg’s 2001 film AI, I Love Bees promoted Xbox video game Halo 2, Iris promoted the release of Halo 3 and The Dharma Initiative promoted the television show Lost.
McGonigal uses "I Love Bees” as an example to discuss the positive aspects of a concept called ‘collective intelligence’:
"The term ‘collective intelligence’, or CI for short, was originally coined by French philosopher Pierre Levy in 1994 to describe the impact of Internet technologies on the cultural production and consumption of knowledge. Levy argued that because the Internet facilitates a rapid, open and global exchange of data and ideas, over time the network should “mobilize and coordinate the intelligence, experience, skills, wisdom, and imagination of humanity” in new and unexpected ways."
I wasn’t sure that a bunch of people playing online games constituted a radical new way of people working together, but it was an intriguing idea nonetheless.
Not everyone was as excited about the possibilities offered by the Internet and ARGs as McGonigal and Levy. I found a great article by journalist Annalee Newitz who claimed that ARGs are merely a surreptitious form of advertising saying “I feel like the ARG is just a fancier term for guerrilla marketing. Like I said, I don't mind being advertised to, as long as you call an ad an ad—not an ARG.” So perhaps it was all just a new way of peddling product on the Internet.
I found myself vaguely disappointed by this, but was still not entirely convinced that Neurocam was in fact an ARG. It seemed that all ARGs made no attempt to disguise the fact that they were interactive online games, whereas Neurocam was simply a total mystery. And if it was advertising a product, service or entertainment form, what on earth was it?
I had to admit to myself that my curiosity was getting the better of me and I knew that there was only one way forward. That night I set up a brand new email address under a false name and submitted Neurocam’s application form. Now I would get some answers.
One week later I received the following response from someone named Maxwell Knight:
Thank you for expressing interest in Neurocam.
Your application has been forwarded to a designated officer within the Human Resources Security Division so that our organisation can further evaluate your suitability for recruitment.
In the interest of facilitating an expedient assessment, the Human Resources Security Division is currently implementing a series of background checks. We apologise in advance for the potentially intrusive nature of these checks and assure you that Neurocam International only undertakes this course of action in the interest of protecting our proprietary operational procedures. Any information gathered from this historical evaluation will be treated as strictly confidential.
If your application is successful you will be contacted by Mr. Charles Hastings, Head of Neurocam International’s Operations Division. Mr. Hastings will further inform you about the nature of the tasks Neurocam requires you to complete.
An unsuccessful application will result in the cessation of all further correspondence between Neurocam and yourself.
Neurocam appreciates that, in 83.6% of instances, new applicants experience a desire to enquire about many issues which may further enlighten them as to the true nature of Neurocam. Due to the need to maintain a high level of operational security, Neurocam is unable to provide much of the information desired by entry level participants.
Thank you once again for expressing interest in Neurocam. I hope that your application will be successful and that I will soon have the pleasure of working with you.
Head, Human Resources Security Division
Suitability for recruitment? Background checks? This was starting to seriously freak me out. Suitability for recruitment for what? If I was to become an ‘operative’ for Neurocam, there was no information whatsoever detailing what my responsibilities would be. And implementing a series of ‘potentially intrusive’ background checks on me implied that they knew who I was and where I lived. I knew such information could be obtained using IP trace software, but that seemed to be an extreme length to go to. Only the police and certain government departments would have files on your average citizen, which made me wonder if this was something far beyond what I had initially thought. But I kept going back to the idea of it being an elaborate prank, and rejecting it because it just didn’t fit. But if it wasn’t a prank and it wasn’t an ARG, then what was it?
I was also puzzled by the wording of the email, in particular the mention of a “Human Resources and Security Division”. This kind of terminology was firmly entrenched within corporate speak, which added further confusion as to why an organisation of such magnitude would exist without any traces beyond billboards and a website. I was reminded of a film called The Game directed by David Fincher, which is about a wealthy San Francisco banker who is given a reality altering present from his brother, which results in a series of twists and turns in his life. The film features a shady underground organisation called Consumer Recreation Services who facilitate this experience using a massive cast of actors and the co-operation of his family, friends and colleagues in order to give him the experience of a lifetime.
Neurocam certainly had similarities to CRS in terms of secrecy, but now I was completely paranoid. Perhaps this was all an elaborate show staged entirely for my benefit? Did I know anyone wealthy enough to stage such an extensive prank? Did I know anyone who would have enough imagination to even think of it? Once again I was at the mercy of Neurocam, waiting for the results of my application.
During the week that followed, I kept thinking about the fact that I might be being followed or watched by agents of Neurocam. It was a strange experience, which caused me to perceive my actions from a different perspective, as if I was looking down on myself from above.
Exactly one week later I finally got my much-anticipated response from Neurocam regarding my application. It was entirely not what I expected:
To continue with Neurocam’s application process, ALL APPLICANTS are required to complete the following perception-based assessment. An assessment of the applicant’s suitability for operational deployment will be made following the fulfillment of these non-negotiable pre- requisites.
APPLICANT PERCEPTION ASSESSMENT NCI-2001/01
Assess applicant’s perception abilities.
1. Write a detailed account of everything that happens between 4pm and 9pm on (date witheld for security reasons) Pay particular attention to any occurrence, which may be deemed ‘out of the ordinary’. Include in your account two images that represent the best and worst things that happen on (date witheld for security reasons).
2. Submit this report via email to firstname.lastname@example.org by close of business (date witheld for security reasons).
(C) OPERATIONAL SECURITY Not Applicable.
As with all Neurocam assignments, you will be assessed on the manner in which you complete this assignment. Intelligence and creativity are traits highly valued by Neurocam and a demonstration of both of these will expedite your further advancement within the organisation. Your application and aptitude in this assignment will be the basis for consideration for operational integration.
ENDS APPLICANT PERCEPTION ASSESSMENT NCI-2001/01 ---------------------------------------------------------------------
Head, Operations Division
Okay, so now the shadowy organisation of unknown origins called Neurocam wanted me to actually spend my time and energy doing something for them, to complete an application to become part of something unknown. This was infuriating! I scanned the text once more looking for clues. A “perception assessment” task which required me to observe and record events transpiring on a particular day, which would allow them to assess my suitability for “operational deployment”. Operational deployment? I already had a job, why would I want another. Would I get paid? I thought about what kind of job would require highly honed perceptual capabilities, intelligence and creativity. I noticed that this email was from Charles Hastings, who was the head of the “Operations Division”, whatever that may be.
I considered the task at hand. Writing an account of events happening during the following Monday between 4pm and 9pm was easy enough, but I was rather alarmed at the idea of “an occurrence deemed out of the ordinary”. Assuming that Neurocam knew who I was and where I lived and worked, did this mean that they were going to stage some kind of event for my benefit? The idea seemed ludicrous, but then the whole thing was completely bizarre. I just couldn’t understand why they would go to the trouble.
I considered the idea that this had something to do with some kind of experimental theatre project. I recalled a book I had read years ago by British Author John Fowles, called The Magus. Fowles tells the story of a central character, Nicholas, who is unwittingly drawn into a series of bizarre incidents which are staged by a mysterious stranger on an isolated Greek island. Nicholas’ entire reality is eventually subverted by what is presumed to be an elaborate work of theatre in which the relationship between director and audience is redefined and the world itself becomes the stage. Was it possible that a theatre group were staging something conceptually similar over forty years later? It was entirely probable that Neurocam was in fact a large-scale work of theatre, which was indeed re-evaluating the traditional divisions between the stage, actors and audience. I could be one of many people interacting in many different ways with this production. I decided that this was my best working theory and resolved to follow Neurocam’s instructions to the letter. After all, it was the only way to find out more about whatever it was they were doing.
The following Monday at 4pm I armed myself with a notebook and a small digital camera. I finished work at around five and was home by six. I made dinner and watched some TV. I didn’t notice anything particularly ‘out of the ordinary’, but I thought that maybe I was looking too hard. During the tram ride home I was hyper aware of everyone around me and it seemed that several of them were staring at me. Or was I staring at them? When I got off the tram I kept checking to see if anyone was following me. When at home I frequently looked out the windows to see if anyone was watching me from a parked car outside. I waited for strange phone calls or a knock at the door. Nothing happened. I paid extra attention to the TV, thinking that perhaps they would try to get a message to me that way, but nothing stood out.
At 9pm I started transcribing the incredibly dull events of the last five hours. I kept worrying that I had failed the test and that Neurocam would reject me, which was totally irrational of course as I didn’t even know exactly why I was doing this in the first place. I was honest in my account of events that transpired, although I considered embellishing the facts to impress them with my ‘creativity’. I took a picture of the perfectly cooked steak I’d had for dinner and the resulting mountain of dirty dishes to represent the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ things of my day. Not particularly imaginative I know. I emailed the report off to Mr Hastings and felt torn between resentment for being manipulated into the situation in the first place, and gratitude for examining a small slice of my own life in more detail. I laughed at the idea of someone at Neurocam Headquarters sitting down and reading such a boring diary. I wondered if they had thousands of people all over the world doing exactly the same thing.
Over the next week I sporadically googled Neurocam to no avail. I found it incredible that a supersite billboard linking to a website with presumably high traffic would generate no web presence whatsoever. This further fuelled my paranoia that this was a unique experience set up for my own benefit, which I knew was an absurd and highly improbable idea. I patiently waited for the response to my perception assessment assignment. Finally, one week to the hour, things took a turn for the even more bizarre when I received an email from Mr Hastings, who had another task for me:
To conclude Neurocam’s application process ALL APPLICANTS are required to complete the following assignment:
ASSIGNMENT: NEUROCAM IDENTIFIER - COVERT DELIVERY NCI-3001/02
The successful covert and secure collection of a standardised "Neurocam Identifier".
The secure transfer will be executed as follows. Deviation from operational protocol as outlined will result in instant termination of your involvement with Neurocam.
1. Travel to the secure transfer location (refer to map provided).
2. At this location, carefully camouflaged, there is an electronic safe. Using the map provided, locate that safe.
3. Carefully remove the camouflage.
5. Enter code 159A and open the safe.
6. Take ONLY the package with your Operative ID written on it.
7. Re-secure the safe.
8. Replace camouflage in such a way as to ensure that Neurocam's property remains unable to be easily located by non-Neurocam personnel.
9. Vacate the area.
10. Once in a secure location, open the package.
This assignment must be successfully completed by (date witheld for security reasons).
(D) OPERATIONAL SECURITY
The Operations Division appreciates that attendance at a remote locale, based primarily on correspondence and data gathered via telecommunications, is known to raise risk profile issues with respect to standard urban environment factors.
To address potential concerns of operational personnel in this instance, permission is granted to invite a person of your choice to accompany you while executing the mission. Your judgment in this case is being trusted—and, of course, judged. Should you elect to do so, choose a companion that can be trusted not to disclose to any other party Neurocam's operational protocol and proprietary industrial practices.
Please be aware that, for the purpose of additional security and quality control, you may be monitored throughout the completion of this assignment.
Neurocam International is aware that many operatives are tempted to publicly discuss and relate their Neurocam experiences via online forums, web journals and the media. Operatives are strictly not permitted to disclose the details of operational assignments under any circumstances. Any operatives in breach of this protocol will be immediately terminated.
Head, Operations Division
This was now clearly escalating to another level. Neurocam wanted me to travel to a physical location, uncover a hidden electronic safe for which I had the code, and retrieve a “Neurocam Identifier”. The map provided indicated that the ‘safe’ was concealed at the base of the western- most pillar of the large red installation beside the Tullamarine freeway in Flemington. I now felt very suspicious. I considered television programs like Candid Camera, which lured people into staged situations for the express purpose of catching them on camera doing something embarrassing or entertaining. Was this any different? If I decided to make the trek out to Flemington, what would be waiting for me? I was almost positive that it would not be a concealed electronic safe containing a ‘package’ for me. This was highly unlikely and more than a little bit sinister in a post 9/11 environment. Up until now I had always assumed that these activities were above the law, but this assumption was only based on the fact that Neurocam had enough legitimacy to have billboards and a website. I recalled one item on Neurocam’s website disclaimer; “Neurocam is not a terrorist training organisation”. Were we to blindly accept these statements as truth because Neurocam said they were true? Was Neurocam engaging in illegal activities like terrorism? Was this concern a result of my exposure to the media’s endless talk of terrorist threats, or was it an actual possibility? Terrorists would certainly have enough money to erect billboards, but would they operate in such a blatant fashion?
One of the many things brought up by my ‘assignment’ was a possible answer to the question of Neurocam’s lack of public visibility. In the ‘Operational Security’ section of Mr Hastings’ email there was a direct request for ‘operatives’ not to talk about their assignments under any circumstances. It was conceivable that if there were many participants involved in whatever this thing was, and if they all wanted to find out more like myself, they would not risk ‘immediate termination’ by talking about their experiences. It was a unique idea, one that again reminded me of Fincher’s film Fight Club—“The first rule of Fight Club is do not talk about Fight Club.”
But this was Neurocam, not Project Mayhem. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by the idea that there might be a large number of people doing exactly the same as myself at this precise moment in time. Who were they? There was no question of me not completing the assignment. I’d come this far and I wasn’t about to throw in the towel and possibly never get any answers, even if this was some ridiculous new reality TV incarnation of Candid Camera. If this were the case, at least I’d probably get some kind of prize as well as having a great story to tell. Two days later I decided to go to the location alone. I considered taking a friend along for moral support, but dreaded lengthy explanations about why I was doing this in the first place.
At about 6pm on a balmy Tuesday evening I drove along Mount Alexander Road and parked at a community centre opposite the car yard marked on the map. I skirted around the car yard, down an embankment and under a bridge that took me to a large concrete expanse leading to the red pillars. The scale of them at such close range was impressive and it took me some time to walk all the way to the pillar at the far end. Apart from some kids on skateboards off in the distance, there was no one around. I thought of Neurocam’s claim that I might be monitored on this assignment and looked around for surveillance cameras. Nothing stood out.
Once near the base of the pillar I had to climb up through a garden area, which consisted of large grass tussocks amongst wood-chips. At the base of the pillar there was no sign of an electronic safe or a team of people with cameras hiding in the tussocks. I stood there for a while feeling foolish, thinking that this might after all have been someone’s idea of a cruel joke. I guess it was possible that pranksters could have money to waste on such activities.
I was just about to leave when I noticed that the wood-chips at the base of the pillar seemed slightly wrong in some way. I knelt down and dug around a bit, finding the edge of what felt like an old bit of carpet. I tugged at it and lifted a squarish section of matting about fifty centimetres wide. When I pulled it right back, spilling the wood-chips everywhere, I saw an electronic safe set in a slab of concrete beneath!
It was the most surreal thing - so unlikely - but there it was. Still expecting the Candid Camera crew to come running out, I entered the code I had been given into the high-tech looking digital touchpad. There was a small beeping sound, a click and a light flashed from red to green. I lifted the handle of the door and opened it upwards. Inside the surprisingly deep cavity was a pile of yellow envelopes stamped with Neurocam’s logo and hermetically sealed in clear plastic wrap. Each envelope had a handwritten name on it, presumably operatives’ names. There must have been about one hundred in total.
I pulled them all out and sorted through intriguing names like Tillops, Midnight and Elhorhanna until I found one with my own operative name on it. I was very tempted to open someone else’s envelope, but worried that I was being watched and this was strictly against Neurocam’s instructions. Following my orders, I put all the envelopes back, closed the safe and replaced the matting and wood-chips. I made my way back to my car without seeing anybody or anything unusual.
Once inside my car, which I considered to be a ‘secure location’, I opened the envelope. It contained a typed letter on Neurocam letterhead signed personally by Neurocam’s mysterious CEO Bridget Fischer, along with a small orange badge with a strange logo resembling an all seeing eye on it.
I read the letter:
Dear Operative [name withheld for privacy purposes]
Welcome to Neurocam!
I am pleased to advise that I hereby offer you a position within Neurocam International.
Your Perception Assignment report was evaluated in accordance with our pre-determined assessment criteria. Neurocam’s Human Resources and Security Division found that your report demonstrated a minimum of seven of the ten qualities desired by Neurocam International. This rating determines that you would be an appropriate candidate for operational deployment.
Neurocam International hopes that you will accept this offer and that this act will mark the beginning of a sustained, mutually beneficial association with our organisation. Upon acceptance of our offer you will immediately receive accreditation for ongoing operational deployment, a privilege achieved by less than 26% of applicants.
Your operational deployment will be effective immediately. The details of your first assignment must remain confidential until such time as the Operations Division contacts you. Be aware, the date of your first assignment will be determined by a variety of factors (including, but not limited to, your current location, your age and the state of any current Neurocam operations within your area). Although your deployment is effective immediately, Neurocam cannot guarantee the exact date upon which you will receive your first assignment.
Being part of Neurocam is a responsibility we expect you to take very seriously. Neurocam International highly prizes its strong corporate image and reputation, and your continued involvement with us is conditional upon the demonstration of a public manner which will in no way reflect poorly upon the organisation. Conduct contrary to this condition, such as overt aggression, physical violence, or any similar potentially embarrassing or disruptive behaviour displayed during the completion of assignments, will result in the immediate termination of your involvement with the organisation.
Congratulations on completing Neurocam’s application process. I take great pleasure in being the first to welcome you to the Neurocam team.
So this was it, I was now officially part of Neurocam International without having any idea what it actually was.