Saturday, March 16, 2013

David Cole: Internet Anarchy

This week's guest blogger is David Cole, author of seven mystery novels in the Laura Winslow series.

David Cole
Laura Winslow, David's central character, is a half-Hopi, one-time-Ritalin-abuser computer hacker, living on the run while battling the demons behind her own anxiety disorder. His first book, Butterfly Lost, is a semi- to medium-hard-boiled mystery. Laura inhabits social, psychological, and geographic borderlands, and continually tries to solve the ambiguities of Native/non-Native identity, the ties and terrors of personal commitments, and the backstreet life of the US/Mexican border region.

David has had a long-time interest and involvement in Native American culture and issues, notably in the American Southwest.

For six years David worked for NativeWeb, Inc., a non-profit corporation offering Internet services and information to Native and Indigenous peoples of the world. He is one of the founding members of the collective: their website at currently averages about 6,000 visitors a day. NativeWeb was chosen as one of the top twenty Humanities sites on the Internet by the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) EDSitement website.

David has what I believe are the ideal credentials for a writer
in any genre, mystery included. A varied background, along with demonstrated expertise in a number of demanding disciplines.

In his own words:

"My youthful isolation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula tends to push me towards creating characters who are outsiders, caught between enjoying their small town lives and wanting to be somewhere else. This inevitably colors my writing, so that bright moments are set against a darker side. Few boys I knew in high school liked the emotional complexities of movies or literature or classical music, so I grew up with girls, and in later years, women, as my best friends. This has always influenced my preference for women as strong central characters.

"I taught English in college and at an alternative high school, and worked for many years as a technical writer and editor. A political activist since the late 1960s, I founded a political theatre troupe in California during the 1970s. At other times, I've worked in computer support and website design, as a short order cook, patent engineer, and lead guitarist and vocalist in a rock and roll band! I now live with my wife and cats (the number of cats varies) in Syracuse, New York."

David's background in computer technology and applications leads to the substance of today's guest blog.

For decades, mystery novel plots pretty much centered around money, sex, love, family problems, or corporate shenanigans. Recently, a whole new element has been added: the internet, where content evolves constantly, just as does the internet itself. These days, the state of the internet is pretty much anarchy. At the same time, the use of the internet in mystery novels has proceeded rapidly from casual to intense.

Ten years ago, authors would throw in favorite websites, but never as a real plot element. And, previously, detectives and private investigators looked for information in fairly traditional ways: searching state records for drivers' licenses, conducting personal interviews with suspects' friends and family members, accessing medical records and various criminal law-enforcement databases. You had to "know" somebody to get much of this information, and not that many people knew how to go about this. Now, almost anybody with a computer can search for almost anything about almost anyone. It's all online, somewhere. If access is not legally available, computer hacks can easily invade networked computers of all sorts, from federal and state-based mainframes to personal laptops, and everything in between.

As in: "Give me your name and I will generate a report on you within a day or two."

I already see complex changes in the mystery novels I have read in just the past year. But it's not merely the "internet" that's a factor here. It's "databases" that are on the internet, or accessible through the internet, and what can be done with them. There are so many databases of all kinds that talented criminals can steal multi-millions of dollars by hacking into them. Personal indentities can be stolen, altered, or even created. A "character" in a novel now need not be a real person, just someone with a website and an email address. Actually, a "character" can be a computer. (Reflections, here, on "HAL 2000" from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Imagine the new challenges for mystery authors. Fictional PIs are now usually proficient at gathering any kind of information. If they don't do it themselves, a new kind of character has been added, someone who hunches over a computer for hours every day. The traditional "sidekick" reinvented as proficient geek-hacker. This drastically changes the traditional element of mystery plots: how to acquire the necessary data. Also, the increase in the number of internet "dating sites" makes all kinds of character involvement new and popular.

My seven mystery novels have always featured some aspect of computer technology. But, oh what a change now from my first book, Butterfly Lost, written twelve years ago, in the late 1990s. In that book, I actually "created" computer program capabilities that didn't exist at the time. Now, any kind of program can exist, and if it does not, a talented programmer can create it in days. As an example, in Butterfly Lost, I "created" a facial recognition program because none really existed at the time. Now you can see this program just about everywhere, on TV or in the movies. Unfortunately, as is too often typical of TV, the medium distorts the reality of "searching" these databases; a facial recognition "match" can take days or weeks; it certainly cannot be done within the one-hour time frame that TV programs are limited to.

And this brings up a good point about some of the less than accurate information in mysteries I have read over the past few years. It's an unfortunate fact that most authors don't know that much about computers and databases. References to them are pretty much generalized. But I see a new wave of mystery novels coming in the next few years with plots that more and more feature digital "data" not just as plot device, but as character motivation. In fact, I see mysteries being written where nobody actually dies - a novelty until now. That would be really different, and really interesting.

So, what can authors do to catch up on rapidly-changing technologies? They will do what all authors of any quality have always done: they will do their homework and research the subjects they write about and work with. They will invest time and effort in learning about databases and computer crimes. In my opinion, Wikipedia is a very good starting point.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Great post! Welcome to Type M, David.