The Prison Steganographer


When a civil war erupted and prisons across his country were flooded with insurgents, a book reviewer at a small newspaper was forced by the government to leave his job and instead become a prison steganographer. A steganographer is a person who works with detecting concealed messages, and his new task was to every morning scrutinise any items that were sent to prisoners from outside, in order to detect the presence of some hidden and encrypted communication that could help the prisoners organise an escape.

Asked for the reason behind this strange appointment, the government had replied: “In order to spot a hidden cipher, a person must be hyper-sensitive to evidence of human agency. From decades of analysing literature, this is a skill you by now should have honed to perfection. When you analyse a novel, your aim is to reverse-engineer the author’s numerous decisions back to what he intended to communicate, which he, for the sake of delighting his reader, has obscured through so many layers of detail and incidentals, that the overarching message now registers only subliminally in the uncritical mind. It is in your job description to extract any meaning that may be buried beneath the meaninglessness with which you are confronted.”

He could see where they were going. He was, it was true, extremely receptive to literary themes, and his professional habits did tend to spill over into his life off-duty, where he found great pleasure in discovering patterns of the most abstract order. He sometimes imagined himself to be the protagonist in some literary kind of Truman Show, determined to out-smart his creators by making explicit the meaning lurking behind life’s many coincidences, and in that way decode the communicative scheme he himself was a medium for. Were there dots to connect, then connect them he would, and if no dots were to be found, he took it as a sign to look harder. He was, beyond doubt, the man for the job.

And yet, when on his first day his elderly assistant hurled on his desk a collection of objects ranging from shampoo bottles to shoes and shortbread biscuits, he was understandably at a loss. Which aspects of these items could conceivably embody a message, and which could not? So he began to think long and hard about the nature of meaning and communication.

For something to be meaningful, he figured, it would have to matter, and something only matters if it can guide the recipient to make sensible decisions he otherwise would not be able to make, such as the course of actions in an escape plot. He figured, moreover, that any decision could be represented as a series of “yes/no” answers for all actions the recipient has to choose between. Should they escape through the window? No. Should they use the door? Yes. Similarly, a word could be represented as a series of “yes/no” to all possible letters. Is the first letter an “A”? No. A “B”? No. A “C”? Yes. This way, if sender and receiver share a context of interpretation, any perceivable physical difference in the objects could theoretically encode a decision. Meaning, he reasoned, was nothing but differences that make a difference.

There were, thankfully, additional constraints in place. The meaning-bearing differences would have to be sufficiently permanent and numerous to have capacity for storing a long message. Also, given the complexity of an escape plot, it would be foolish to use a rigid coding scheme with a limited vocabulary. Very likely it was in English, encoded maybe through barely-noticeable dot inscriptions. So he began to scrutinise the objects for any suggestions of dot-patterns, count the frequency of each type of pattern, and then plot their distribution. From examining his printer type tray, he knew that letters in English occur with specific relative frequencies. This allowed him to infer that the most frequent dot-pattern represented “E”, the second most frequent represented “T”, and so on. Suddenly, he could make plain conspiratorial messages encoded in dents on shampoo bottles, fibre patterns in shoelaces, and subtle marks on shortbread.

Amazed by his success, the prison steganographer grew increasingly obsessed with his work. Secluded in his dark office, his only contact with the outside world was now his sweet, avuncular assistant, who morning after morning carried in new sets of prisoner gifts for him to brood over. His obsession escalated when, all of a sudden, every morning the items included a pot plant. He was convinced they contained some message encoded in their leaf veins, but whose frequency distribution obstinately refused to match that of letters in English. It must, he decided, be encrypted with yet another layer of transformations, to mask the presence of some particularly grand escape plan that could threaten national security.

The mysterious pot plants soon consumed him entirely. For weeks on end, all he did was toying with statistical regularities at higher and higher altitudes of abstraction. His health deteriorated, his paranoia intensified, he no longer greeted his assistant or thanked him for the tea he brought him. Until one day, the collection of items his assistant hurled on his desk no longer included any flowers.

“Where is the pot plant?” He asked, irritated, without lifting his eyes from his desk.

“I am sorry, sir, but it is so hard to find them now as winter approaches.”

“As if the devious escape plot conspirators of the world would care!”

“Sir,” the assistant now said in a voice broken with mortification, “sir, I think… I think you have been reading too much into it. These flowers that I every day have carried into your room… I plucked them myself on my way to work to give you some sweet smell and greenery in this squalid office of yours. They carry no more meaning than my plain and simple sympathies.”

The assistant stiffly turned his back and left, as the steganographer felt the cold, lonely squalor of his circumstances impinge on him. He looked up, out through the window, on the civil war unfolding outside, and thought, with the clarity of a book reviewer, that just like how the prison vainly imposed order on chaos, he too had imposed meaning where there was none, fooled by random noise behaving conspicuously, and – in so doing – he had missed the signs that truly mattered.