Friday, May 16, 2014

Death and E-Books

by J. D. Popham

A man who lived not far away died about two weeks ago, bludgeoned to death in his home.

He was in his sixties, a genial man and a part-time poet who lived in a modest house, in a quiet neighborhood.  He was welcoming and well liked, and in the habit of leaving his front door open; sometimes even at night.  Nothing was stolen from him or his home.  Someone, for reasons unknown, walked into his house, murdered him, and left.

The murder of kindly folk with no apparent enemies for no apparent reason is, sadly, not new.  It is the starting point of many mysteries. Detectives, both real and imagined, begin their investigations with the assumption that such an event is not random and not without motive, the converse being exceedingly rare and therefore unlikely.  Beginning with that assumption, and reconstructing the victim's last few days, they seek to uncover previously hidden events that might lead to suspects and motives.

However, this murder is turning out to be a particularly difficult case for the police to work.  The victim, it seems, was completely analog.  He did not have a Facebook or Twitter account. He did not participate in social media of any sort. He did not carry a smart phone, or even a flip-phone. He did not use email and did not own or use a computer, preferring to type his letters and poetry out on an old Smith Corona mechanical typewriter and send them manually via the US Postal Service.

As far as the digital world was concerned, he did not exist.

Faced with this completely analog victim, the police must resort to analog methods; literal legwork and shoe leather must be employed.  Law enforcement, it seems, has become increasingly dependent on their ability to reconstruct our pasts based on our digital histories.  Where did you go? With whom did you speak? With whom were you involved? Did you receive any death threats? Did you make any unusual financial transactions? Were there any recent changes in your normal routines? These are all questions easily answered by following our digital footprints.  Such trails rarely lie and do not change their stories.  Dead men tell no tales, but their online ghosts are positively loquacious. 

An online presence has become so ubiquitous that these days there's something a bit suspect about a person who doesn't have one.  'Googling' someone before a first date used to be considered a bit rude and creepy. Now it's considered creepy if an internet search on a prospective date doesn't return any hits.  Such a person, it's assumed, must be dull, deceptive or perhaps a bit psycho.  Even persons in their sixties are likely to maintain some sort of online presence, and the utter lack of such a presence can often trigger suspicions that one might be hiding something or hiding from someone.

Behaviors that were perfectly normal ten to twenty years ago have become anomalies.

All of which has made the simple act of buying a new e-reader a more thoughtful event than I'd originally planned, an occasion for looking over my shoulder at the digital ripples I leave in the online pool. 

Now, despite my love of physical books with actual pages I am quite fond of the e-reader.  It's a great invention.  As much as I love analog books, they take up a fair bit of physical space and my many shelves are packed with the likes of McCormick's Origins of the Euoropean Economy, Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman, and my first edition of C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen.  My e-readers allow me to purchase 'disposable' reading, i.e., books I only plan to read once, or technical tomes that are large, heavy and soon out of date, without having to (Sacrilege!) dispose of physical books.  Physical books are weighty things too, and an e-reader makes for much lighter and less bulky packing for vacations and business trips.  Then, of course, there's the pleasure of re-discovering titles long out of print, but now available as e-books.  It's a bit like meeting old friends I'd thought lost to me.

However, I can't help but be aware of the e-book's connectivity to its master; who, by the way, is not me.  When you look into the digital abyss, the abyss looks back.  Not only does the e-reader report back to its master the book searches I initiate and the e-books I buy, it reports what I actually read and how and when I read it.  If I look up words or make digital notes, it knows that too. It's rather like having someone always reading over my shoulder and taking notes.  As a person in the 'big data' and 'advanced data analytics' trade, I am very mindful that even the seemingly innocuous act of reading can create digital events that add substance to my online ghost.

Many of the technologies a younger generation takes for granted were the stuff of Science Fiction when I was a boy.  I am not surprised they have come to pass and am pleased to have seen the realization of what were once deemed flights of fancy.  However, it never occurred to me then that James T. Kirk's recreational reading might be being captured by the ship's computer and used to evaluate his fitness for command, or that C3P0 might be uploading Princess Leia's wardrobe preferences to an Imperial fashion conglomerate with close financial ties to Emperor Palpatine. I never imagined that information about the use and users of such amazing devices would become assets as valuable as the devices themselves; that we would become product as well as consumer.

We worry excessively over government access to our personal data and digital footprints.  At the same time, we expect the government to use other people's data to keep us safe; to anticipate threats and, failing that, catch the bad guys. We often assume the data that underpins our online ghosts belongs to us, forgetting that it is, in fact, a set of assets collected by and belonging to our service providers and then bought, sold, parsed and scrutinized in virtual back-rooms.  We assume for-profit corporations are somehow more benign than governments, forgetting that 'shareholder value' is the core around which a corporation's organizational DNA is wound, and the wellspring of its ethical make-up.  All this is was once the stuff of Science Fiction as well.

It is exceedingly strange to realize that people without an online presence are becoming oddities, outliers.  It's stranger still to consider they may, all too soon, become extinct.

An analog man transported to such a future would find himself the stuff of Science Fiction; a corporeal ghost moving about in a virtual society with no 'presence' of his own, whose passage through the world left only vague traces perceptible to the virtual-dwelling population.  What would he be to them? Curiosity?  Threat?  Horror?  Or perhaps nothing at all, if acknowledgement of existence were dependent upon residence in the digital universe.  Second Life or no life, as it were.  And if he died there, poor ghost, who would mark his passing?   Who would mourn him, and what rites speak?

Charon, so far as I know, does not take bitcoin.


  1. I am not a fan of e-books especially at the educational level. The effort to find information is compounded by several factors compared to a real book.

    Say I am looking for an example of how a tax shelter is structured in regards to a research project. I know the example I am seeking is somewhere in the section dealing with tax shelters however a search on my e-reader returnes nearly every page over three chapters. With a physical book I know it was about "here", ok I remember it was after this section, nope flipped to far, ok almost there bing there it is. compared to the e-reader where I have to go forward and back waiting for load times and hoping the entire page loads. Technically speaking and logically looking at the problem e-reader should be easier however from a practical standpoint a real book is easier.

  2. We don't have the population to support numbers of large specialized stores here and even the main retailers of books seemed to have a much more limited choice these days. GRR Martin, their top twenty, and sod all else.

    Coupled with the advent of the digital age, there has been an odd centralization/de-centralization. The convenience of online books and readers is slowly superceeding stores and paper. Not to mention the fact it is much cheaper for the retailer.

    Similar things are happening with television - the old networks are losing ground to specialist providers where ever there is sufficient bandwidth. I'm sure there the bones of a few good stories lurking in there, and I wonder from time to time if physical books (let alone the writing skill) are going to become something of an endangered species in the not too far distant.

    Recalling a few scenes where the a character is studying someones bookshelf to get the "shape of someones" mind, somehow getting together to compare playlists just doesn't have the same ring to it. We used to visit friends and compare toys and books. Run around outside. The kids these days bring laptops to minecraft parties.

    Our social constructs too are changing, the defining line might be the haves and have nots. If you don't have internet connectivity, how will you engage with the financial systems, move about the city, or communicate with, or even (if you still could) book a meeting with social services? You won't exist.

    Lastly, there probably won't need to be any 451. Just shut the power off for a while - and let the utter dependence on one centralized depository work against us. So yeah. Books. A good thing imho.