E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.03 - July 1995

Death and the Modem

By Robin Hunt

Philip Kerr once described his early work as a cross between Raymond Chandler and Christopher Isherwood; Michael Dibdin is the Dashiel Hammett of contemporary Italy, his novels peeling away its layers of corrupt bureaucracy. In works published this June, however, both confront issues larger than whodunnit. They try to answer the question of what happens to a culture where the impact of technology and media - mass or personalised - creates a vacuum into which we project new paranoias: be they those that cause large-scale social change, or those that can make man feel almost redundant.

In Gridiron, Kerr creates a new kind of serial killer: Abraham, an intelligent computer that controls every corporate need in a new state-of-the-art office block. From monitoring the urine of staff for drugs, to automated industrial cleaning, Abraham is in control. Far, though, from being a benevolent God, acting for the good of the Edenic building it has helped to construct, Abraham works by the beat-em-up, do-or-be-done-to rules of a computer game, and with the sentiments of a vengeful Old Testament deity. But Gridiron is not an investigation of technophobia, but rather of man's ability to bring destruction upon himself. And the novel has some fans already - the Four Weddings people, Working Title, have paid $1 million for the film rights.

Michael Dibdin rehearses a more immediate source of evil, also godlike. In Dark Spectre he investigates the dark side of new media: its power to promote the kinds of alternative religion that gave us Waco and Jim Jones, the fanaticism possible in an era when, as he says, "we have lost our cultural centre." The world of Dark Spectre is one where a few camcorders, the texts of William Blake and the idea of a global masonic conspiracy are enough to stimulate seemingly random acts of serial killing. It is a paranoid world all too easy to imagine. Recently on the BBC2 series Thriller, Didbin told filmmaker Chris Petit: "Paranoia is like a virus. All you need to do is make sure someone catches it." As if to prove we are all part of the illness Dibdin then reminded us that in contemporary Italy (where many of his amoral Aurelio Zen novels are set), "the news in the papers is not real news. If it was, it wouldn't be in the papers."

In Dark Spectre the all-pervading allure of television, and the do-it-yourself fame made possible by the camcorder revolution, leads cult members to video and direct their vicious murders - from a baby of 15 months to a wheelchair-bound 67 year old - collating a library of horrors for their deranged leader. This is a world where media has blown away mere morality and replaced it with a culture where fame comes at any price.

Wired: How important is it for you to reflect the changes wrought by technology - and technophobia?

Philip Kerr: More and more. The Italian scientist, Enrico Fermi, was absolutely galvanised by HG Wells's 1914 novel, The World Set Free, about the world on the brink of atomic destruction. He proceeded to alert other atomic scientists to the possibility - the intellectual possibility - of atomic warfare, and this was enough to stimulate them into action. But in Wells's day it was easier for novelists to be abreast of technology, because there was less of it. Now, it is increasing at a geometric rate. Novelists ought to keep up with ideas because the more the scientists are allowed to run away from artists, the more they can get away with. Writers can sometimes remind scientists of the imaginative consequences of what they are doing.

Currently I'm very interested in what you can do with a number. It's only going to be a matter of time before a bar code can contain almost anything. I've got my new British Library swipe card which can store so much more than book information. It could say I'm an obstructive bastard, or that I was dangerous with books. That's why I began to get interested.

Michael Dibdin: If I go to see live sport, there's a compulsion to see that goal, that foul, again. And if that's how it is for our generation, then for our kids - growing up in a world where they perceive reality as something which can be manipulated in various ways - it can seem as if their lives are deficient. That must be experienced as lack; that life is a low-tech thing, not state of the art.

We've all become too sophisticated. I'm living with three kids in Seattle, and they have very, very advanced levels of paranoia - it makes my generation's level seem completely naive: people have developed the ability to dance around things. It means the culture is very exposed to direct attack in the middle: through the nationalistic racism we are seeing in Bosnia and Eastern Europe and, in the US, through various forms of religious extremism. We've vacated the centre, but culture - no less than nature - hates a vacuum. And what's replaced it won't be sophisticated. It will be very crude, very primitive, very scary. I wrote about this in Dead Lagoon, because it's very clear in Italy. They got nationalism in 1848 the same way as they got railways. They "constructed" a nation state, yet now, effectively, most of the things that work are at the local level.

With the growth of surveillance it is harder to have secrets. But the crime writer's existence depends on containing then revealing them to us in the narrative.

PK: You will have a DNA profile for every person in Britain. You can have anything on record, so one thing led to another and I started writing A Philosophical Investigation about a society in which everything is known about people.

MD: I think Orwell got it wrong with the 1984 scenario. It doesn't seem that, in the areas I've investigated, it's worked out like that. What tends to happen is that the supposed omniscient technological society is, in fact, a glorious mess. I discovered this when I was researching Dark Spectre. I assumed that the law enforcement agencies across the States would, of course, be connected to central databases - which do exist: the FBI has the database. But half the states don't bother submitting information because the top men hate it, and the federal government can't oblige the states to conform because that would be in conflict with the Constitution. So all they do is ask states to submit information. Some do, some don't. Florida, California and Texas don't, and they are three of the biggest murder-producers in the United States. Washington State does. If you look at the computer records it looks as if Washington State is almost the most violent place in America - which is not true. When the individual states institute databases of their own, almost without exception they aren't compatible, and I wonder if this isn't deliberate. If they were compatible, then you have a network, and some guy in Illinois could tap into your database and find out what you know. Police don't like this, local government don't like this; this is not the way these operations work. They are intensely secretive, jealous of their information, unwilling to give it away, even if they are supposed to. Maybe they set it up this way so the person has to come to them and say please.

Is technology going to change crime, and crime fiction?

MD: One good thing I can see about this technology is the ability to do very fast searches. When I worked for the Oxford University Press about ten years ago, I got to play with one of the early versions of the OED CD-ROM. An ancestor of mine, Charles Dibdin, is credited as being quoted in the dictionary. Immediately there was a choice of 23 quotes. Potentially this could be of interest in an interactive crime novel, because it would allow you to put together apparently disparate things that have nothing to do with each other.

PK: What's going to be hard in the future is for the police to do their job properly, and not to have evidence challenged right under their faces. You can already manipulate a photograph, and that also applies to moving pictures. A brief in court could say: "What sort of evidence is this? Can we rely on it?"

[To Dibdin] With Vendetta weren't you using surveillance technology, the apparent capture of a murder on video, to recreate the old-fashioned closed-door murder?

MD: It was also partly a comment on the Italians' love of technological toys. They have the world's highest per capita ownership of cellular phones for example. When I was in Italy, it was Videocam. Now everybody's got one. I loved the idea of staging a murder in the form of a video tape, which was then reviewed by someone who was doing what we all do with videos: pause them, study them, rewind and so on. That is one of the genuine ways that technologies affect the way we behave. Someone said recently, I wish life had a replay button. I think some of us also wish it had a fast forward button.

PK: And erase.

MD: These were concepts that were unthinkable twenty years ago.

You both feature religion in your new work: the computer as a kind of secular god, and the madman who believes he is God.

MD: I didn't want to write about religion as such. I wanted to write about what seems to me to be the source of all crime - certainly all violent crime - which is power. And the idea that other people are less real than ourselves: if they were equally real for us then we wouldn't be able to indulge that sense of power. Both of these things seem to be connected to certain kinds of religious ideas, and since the book was set in America, the simplest way was to make them key ele-ments in a religious cult. We know there's any number of wacky cults - there's a guy on our local-access channel in Seattle who makes the happenings in the book look small-time.

PK: I was interested in the computer, I kept thinking of Satan in Paradise Lost, this perfect being. Analysing much of the Bible reveals a machine's point of view; a machine-like logic. So I started with the idea of a computer called Abraham. That occurred to me at the same as the smart building. There's a book called Descartes's Dream [by Philip J Davis and Reuben Hersch], that talks about the machine that transcends man, a machine that is capable of inventing itself. I don't think we are very far from that now. On a small level, you can argue that cellular automata, computer viruses, are a kind of intelligent life. But what is interesting about life is the definition. Carl Sagan talks about a definition of life, that we might all agree on, not necessarily excluding the computer virus. People are far more likely to compare computers to the human brain, but I don't think that's a valid comparison. They are very different things. There's no reason why intelligence in a computer can be applied to the brain. They are just intelligent in different ways. We have to change the way we talk about computers, and that change will be in language itself.

MD: The arguments work for the Old Testament, but the not the New. It works for the Jehovah figure; I'm not sure for the loving God figure. It's difficult to see how computers would manifest godliness.

PK: Perhaps the New Testament is the idiot's guide to the Old Testament? If you regard the Old as the computer manual you never understood, then the New is the simplified handbook. n

Robin Hunt is associate editor of Wired.