Some time ago I found myself losing interest in most mainstream fiction, no matter how highly praised. I just couldn’t square those stories with a world where people have household robots and we can have serious lunchtime conversations about the large-scale commercialization of unmanned drones. (If Amazon isn’t the world leader in distributing the future, I don’t know who is.)
I’m not the first to remark that any creative work set in the twenty-first century should, by rights, be science fiction, or at least technology fiction. And yet this isn’t the case — the so-called literary novel has had a hell of a time outgrowing its nineteenth-century roots with the settings and the trappings that dressed up the canonical works we were all taught in English class. But talking about how technology affects our lives isn’t solely the domain of science fiction. There are books in the General Fiction section of the bookstore that not only deal with the interaction between humans and technology, but also highlight how weird that interaction can sometimes be.
It’s telling, perhaps, that the books that fall into this category have a touch of urban fantasy about them. Max Barry’s Lexicon, for example, has a school that recruits gifted teenagers and teaches them incantations that give them great power (stop me if you’ve heard this one before).
But beneath the concept of “poets” who can persuade people to do almost anything lies the notion of segmentation: profiling people with a few simple questions so that you can target each individual with precisely the words that will be most effective for influencing him or her. If you don’t recognize that story right away, Barry draws an explicit parallel with the analytics that are collected on almost every website of any significance, learning your preferences with the goal of tailoring your future experience and shaping your future behaviour at the same time.
And then, while Lexicon was still knocking about in my brain, Vienna Teng released a new album that included “The Hymn of Acxiom” and made me realize suddenly that I wanted more artistic treatments of Big Data and less of the kind of hype that LinkedIn emails to me on a regular basis.
Where Barry’s description of the mechanics of web marketing is a mixture of the banal and sinister, Teng’s take is more mystical, oddly comforting, and, yeah, still a little sinister. But we can be OK with the peculiar intimacy of machines sometimes: I met someone this summer who automatically buys whatever music Amazon recommends to him without bothering to read reviews or even preview the tracks because he knows he’s going to like it. Some algorithm refined in Seattle, he admits, knows him better than his wife does.
(There are algorithms that I suspect most of us are less OK with. Take the outfit called LIVESON, whose name shouts at us as if to knock us off our feet and follows it up with a creepily memorable tagline that recalls the premise of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back” or the pilot of Caprica. And we haven’t even touched on Big Brother yet — even though the Orwellian version didn’t envision the all-seeing eye actually having the ability to process all it saw.)
But back to the bookshelf. I’d be remiss if I wrote about Big Data lit and omitted Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The scene in which the characters try to use Hadoop to solve a centuries-old puzzle is probably the least of its delights, but I love that it is a story — published by literature heavyweight Farrar, Straus and Giroux — where people say, “Oh, you have what looks like a computationally expensive problem? Let’s rent some time on a Hadoop cluster.” (Like you do.)
Sloan’s first book-length work was the novella Annabel Scheme (go read it for free; it’s Creative Commons), in which he named the title character using Google AdWords. That story featured a detective who specialized in the cases involving the “digital and occult” — a sensibility that’s also woven into Penumbra, a story in which you might have access to a distributed data processing engine but you still need to know the right questions to ask, or all the Clarkean magic at your disposal is for naught.
And after all, I find that’s what I want from treatments of technology. Not hype about market opportunities and profit margins, or facts in ones and zeroes, or even dire warnings about their dangers, but a touch of the occult, of the personal, the mysterious and unknowable.