Thursday, October 26, 2006

Information Technology musings...

Information flows like liquid gold through our culture and society in this day and age. And I can't help but think that detective fiction as we know it is over. In Black Betty the main character actually drives around questioning people for information. Today he'd be text messaging, internet file browsing, GPS monitoring, phone tapping... Likewise, Marlowe's driving around looking for a Dr. V and meeting people randomly in a bar. In Skintight Stranahan lives in a little house on stilts away from everyone and has to fight off assassins who actually sail out to his place. Who lives that far away from technology anymore, and still stays in the game? In Birdman the closest they seem to get to something like the internet is the slow process of shifting through files about hospital employees. This frustrates the crap out of me. We have CSI and mysteries and crime solving brigades that collect the tiniest bits of information... but it seems boring compared to detectives actually having to sneak around or obtain information like they do in the novels we've been reading. Today someone like Marlowe would push a few buttons, maybe bully some contacts with blackmail information gleaned from hacked emails and instant messenger conversations and shabam, info. Or maybe tap some phones. Hack some IP addresses.

Today a lot of our crimes are facilitated by technology. Guys on the Fox News (i hate fox news) crime watch track down women in chat rooms and rape them. Teens pose as teachers on MySpace and teachers pose as teens and everyone messes with everyone else. You can stalk your classmates with Facebook. You can look up the people you graduated with on those stupid adds on websites. Or even hire someone to figure out your family tree. Everything is fast exchange of information. Snail mail is becoming obsolete- a mere formality. Satellites can read a license plate number from space. People like Martha Stewart wear ankle things that little men watch on screens to make sure they aren’t escaping house arrest. Along with the ease and power of information trafficking comes the abuse of that power and ease. Crime is born, the elusive kind of crime that doesn’t leave a paper trail but a cookie trail, or a web history trail, or an email trail…

It’s so BORING compared to someone like Stranahan in Skintight getting down and dirty, and the chasing where the big guy with the cornflake face flies on planes to get where he wants to be to kill someone he doesn’t know, and the action that happens when someone has to physically hunt stuff down instead of getting fat drinking Dr. Pepper in front of a computer screen like I’m doing right now.

Who’s going to write a book where Easy Rawlins is hired to find Black Betty, so he sits down at a computer, logs on to the internet, and sends out a mass email?

People tell me that advances in information technology don’t make the process easier, just quicker. It’s true. You still have to pick the hairs off the jacket of the dead body and fight people like Potter who have enough money and good enough connections to keep information from flooding onto the scene before you can use the internet to hunt down your suspects through the files and databases. We just get more and more ridiculous, implausible-seeming stories now. We have to entertain ourselves with massive conspiracy theories and stories like Alias about crazy technology that makes almost anything possible. The chase scene has been replaced with the FBI showing up to arrest some pale nerd who stole money with a scam website, or the police showing up at a family’s home to say “Ma’am, your son illegally downloaded a Justin Timberlake song, and now he’s going to pay!”

I guess the heart of detective fiction is the f-ed up nature of humanity and the twisted inner workings of our strange, dark psychological existence. We can’t really get rid of that. I guess it’s an entertaining if not good thing – makes for really sick stuff in crime watch articles.


Megan Skorupa said...

I would agree that "The Information Age" we are currently in is going to kill detective fiction as we know it. However, that is not to say that the proverbial phoenix can't rise from the ashes of the detective fiction of the past and take the genre into a new direction rife with its own pulsating allure.
It has already happened with the change from the British "whodunit" to noir and then to the crime fiction found on our TVs in CSI and SVU. Surely the Marlowes and Easy Rawlins characters will have to be replaced with more tech savvy heroes, but the replacements are not your third string quarter backs that are going to meekly close out the game.
For anyone who has watched the new version of crime, which is on a more global scale(ie. terrorists are the bad guys-but WHICH terrorists is the question) shows like 24, the reality of the information age is that crimes, yes can be solved faster, but this does NOT yield a boring product. In fact, the intensity of the "game" goes up several notches. Instead of the meandering pace of The Long Goodbye, we now have heroes like Jack Bauer who use technology as well as instinct and a hardboiled altruism to go after the "bad guys," and attempt to save the world all in just 24 hours time.
While this may have seemed implausible in the past, it truly isn't now, what with GPS, phone tapping, and satellite technology. The information age allows the speed of crime-committing AND the speed of crime-solving to be faster. While there ARE those pale computer nerds hacking away at governement codes, there are still the same crime bosses who now employ those nerds and the same hired killers to protect those interests. As the popularity of the James Bond series can attest to, gadgets and technology do not make detective and crime stories less sensational.
Have no fear. The detective fiction of tomorrow will not be a snooze: There will always be the dirty work in detecting, technology doesn't change that-just watch 24 and watch Jack Bauer use file de-cryption then chase down a terrorist, and then kick some serious ass. Literally.

MarissaSangalang said...

It is true that technology has changed the criminal world, and I think it’s for the better. Instead of focusing on how to rough someone up enough to gain information, detectives can use DNA, ballistics, or security cameras to more accurately execute their investigation. Detectives no longer need to make as many “educated guesses” that the literary characters such as Holmes and Miss Marple were so good at. Or, the detectives could do a combination of both, tackling criminals with brains and brawn. Using new technology only assists detectives in doing their job more accurately and effectively.

The problem isn’t the fact that modern detectives now have this technology, it’s that now criminals do also. In the past the toughest, meanest, strongest criminals were the most feared; now it’s the smartest. This problem is not going to just go away. Technology increases every year with smaller hidden cameras, satellites that can be used to map out a terrorist attack available on Google, and other dangerous tools that I couldn’t even imagine to describe. It seems the only solution is for our government to keep up; developing better ways to identify criminals before the can commit another crime. Will this lead to invasions of our privacy? Probably. Society will need to decide what’s more important to them: security or freedom?

Maggie said...

I don't believe the information age poses a threat at all, unless you fear a changing genre, which has happened already with the change from the classic mystery to Noir. We've already seen a shift in a way from the independent outsider leading the chase, back to the police drama and with that we get a whole new set of themes and complexities to the genre. As for increased technology, in crime fighting it's often as a result of some kind of escalation, or rather a cop vs. robber space race. Their technology has a small grace period before it's matched with something as effective. In other words, it won't be boring because there will always be some task that will challenge it and the final step will depend on human intellect and ingenuity. Then there's always the option of crossover genres, such as Nero Wolfe, which was sort of a mix of noir and the classic mystery. Nero Wolfe, the great brain would sit and think, while his assistant Archie Goodwin, the Marlowish character hit the streets and did the actual investigating. What next? A hard boiled PI who busts international terrorists? Maybe not, but I believe in this genre, change is good.