Saturday, August 08, 2009

Remember when computers were cool?

There's a nice bit of social observation in Jo Nesbø's Nemesis. The protagonist, Harry Hole, has sought out his cab driver friend Øystein (last seen in these parts in a highly amusing conversation about the Rolling Stones) and asked if he might want to return to his old career:
"`Still not interested in going back to computers?'

"`Are you crazy!' Øystein shook off internal laughter as he ran the tip of his tongue along the paper. `Annual salary of a million and a quiet office – of course, I could do with that, but I've missed the boat, Harry. The time for rock 'n' roll guys like me in IT is over.'"
The boldface line is of especial sociological interest, I think, because computer and Internet types loved to cultivate a rogue image for themselves, and their followers in the media were only too happy to oblige. Nesbø published Nemesis in 2002. Your question today, especially if you're old enough to remember when the Internet was going to be a liberating force and the media loved scruffy young computer rebel/entrepreneurs, is this: When did computers lose their roguish glamour?
==============
Nemesis is the fourth of seven Harry Hole books in order of composition, the third of four in order of translation into English, and the second in series order of the four.

In order of original publication, the four novels are The Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil's Star, and The Redeemer. In order of publication in English, The Devil's Star came first, followed by The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Redeemer. I'd strongly recommend reading the books in order of original publication, at least the first three.

P.S. Nesbø has also written children's books, one whose title translates delightfully into English as Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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32 Comments:

Blogger Dorte H said...

I am not sure computers have ever had any roguish glamour to me; I think we saw them as a useful tool already when we bought the first one in 1986 (two poor students which shows how keen we were).

With regard to fart powder you may want to hear that the Danish word ´fart´ means ´speed´. So when the sign on the lift says: "I fart" it means "In speed."

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

When did computers lose their roguish glamour? When the Internet became an engine for commerce instead of a playground for nerds and academics. How can you be a rogue when you share the interwebz with Wal*Mart? I think it was over by 1998, when the DNS sytem was privatized. Or you could even go back to 1993 when the first web browser was launched and ordinary duffers could play on the Internet without special super-powers.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

It is a wonder that anyone who does not read Danish would ever ride an elevator there.

As for computers and fiction, it would be interesting to do a bit of "time travel" and observe 22nd century reactions to the quaint, "gaslight" mentality of writers who try to include computers and technology in their 21st century novels. Because of the fast speed of technological changes, each such reference in a novel almost become anachronistic as soon as the novel is published.

Meanwhile, be wary of elevators in Denmark!

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, the Danish word is probably related to the German fahrt: a ride or a journey. Nesbø's Norwegian title is Doktor Proktors prompepulver. I can recognize that pulver means powder. I'll have to trust Wikipedia for the rest.

It's not so much computers that had the glamour here, but rather the people who programmed them. I think of the magazine Wired, for example, with its ultra-heavy emphasis on its own style, and about news stories about computer companies where the workers wore jeans and sandals, to the reporters' breathless fascination.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

When the Internet became an engine for commerce instead of a playground for nerds and academics. How can you be a rogue when you share the interwebz with Wal*Mart? I think it was over by 1998, when the DNS sytem was privatized. Or you could even go back to 1993 when the first web browser was launched.

Thanks. It's always good to have some historical background to my whining.

I wonder how long the rougish image outlasted the reality.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., technology in crime fiction has come recently here and on other blogs. When clumsily handled, that sort of thing dates quickly.

But Nesbo handles the issue fairly well and probably accurately. Lots of people probably do need help with computers in their daily lives. Many of us have probably read older novels in which cars or telephones are rare and thus greater narrative importance than they would be today. If the stories are good, we may remark at their portrayal of a bygone time, then get on with our reading. Future readers will probably react no differently to good stories in which computers are rare or the preserve of experts.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

War Games came out in 1983; it romanticized hackers. I think I bought the company's first PC that year (10mb hard drive! 256k memory! Lotus 1-2-3! Multi-mate WP!).

No more than two years later personal computers were ubiquitous in companies. Maybe five years later a lot of people had them in their homes. That's my memory, anyway.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was using computers before I started reading crime fiction regularly, so I don't have much perspective to offer on this.

I have been around long enough to raise my eyebrows and wifty, idiotic rhapsodies that mention "freedom" in the same breath as any item of personal technology. I've mentioned this before, but based on the one article I've read about the inventor of the Sony Walkman, the man is an idiot.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

You inspired a brief reminiscence at my place, Peter.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yikes! It had been a while since I'd seen 1-2-3 or Visicalc or reasonable prices like those mentioned.

August 08, 2009  
Blogger Liliana said...

Yeah, times change.

I think compouters still have glamour, if you use them to do what you like to do. I hate using my PC when I have to work on it, but I enjoy using it to be in touch with the world, since I don't watch much TV and don't have the time I wish I had to read newspapers. I also enjoy it when I'm writing something, while listening to music at the same time, and when I get the chance to 'find' someone I hadn't seen for ages. However, I simply try not to spend too much time with this machine, since I have friends, family and pets who give all kinds of happiness, and that's what's really important.

About computers in crime novels, we must take into account that every story is somehow influenced by what is going on, and, if computers are rulers nowadays, it would be unrealistic forgetting them when writing a book. I mean, if I wrote a book, I would certainly mention computers, even if they were only to be used to 'google' something or someone. :)

August 09, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I was in a writing group at one point, and it was interesting listening to the point of view of one woman who came from a journalistic background. She was writing a mystery, and was very sensitive to the timeliness or datedness of her sequence of events. One of the topics of her mystery was abortion, and there was some news up about a morning after pill,which was playing havoc with her plot in some way. But I have to say that 'freshness' was a new element to me in looking at fiction. A novel is not a newspaper, after all. And yet, I could see her point.

August 09, 2009  
Anonymous LauraR said...

I think the glamour was over by the late nineties/early noughties, when the dot com bubble burst.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Liliana, that would one sensible way of using computers in crime stories, just one more feature of your character's daily life, like her car, perhaps, or her house, her clothes, her friends. Nesbo uses computers well, and I like the way Sean Chercover works them into his novel Big City, Bad Blood. For him, a powerful database is just one more tool for his investigator to use, and he uses it in a plausible way. It's nothing like a cure-all from a bad pulp science-fiction story.

It would be unrealistic to forget them in a story, but it would also be unrealistic to use them a deus ex machina whenever the writer can't figure out what to do.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I never think about a novel's freshness except in terms of its inverse. I'll often note a situation that could be trite but is not, and I'll think about how the author has avoided triteness.

Your fellow group member was probably right to think about the freshness of her story. I suspect that a good enough author can make any plot point work by focusing on how it affects the characters. If it's a cheap deus ex machina, on the other hand, ripped right from today's headlines, it may not work so well.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the glamour was over by the late nineties/early noughties, when the dot com bubble burst.

That makes sense, especially for half the glamour.

I see at least two varieties of computer-related glamour: the whizz-bang, big-bucks kind, and the wifty Internet-as-a-liberating tool kind. The latter is the sort of thing that Americans will proably keep falling for over and over again, as soon we get this nasty recession thing out of the way.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I'm realizing that I have a pretty good guess about when computers stopped being cool--in 2001, not long before this movie came out. Not everyone liked it at the time, but I thought it was excellent. Of course, I think Peter Sarsgaard is almost always exceptional and at the very least, consistently interesting.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't remember having heard of the movie, but I like very much the way Ebert opens his review. He seemed to be in tune with what the movie was trying to do. It's worth a look. Thanks.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Michael Koryta has several mysteries featuring two ex-cop PIs; they tap into databases about three times per book. It's all very casual. 'Course, the first book was published in 2005.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, I think Ebert not only got it, but saw where other critics got off on the wrong foot. The woman in it, Molly Parker, is excellent too.

There was a documentary that came out at exactly the same time about two whiz kids who were the next new thing in that techie world, and then, suddenly weren't. I'll post it if I think of the name.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, casual is cool when it comes to computers and crime. So is the middle-aged protagonist who has trouble adjusting to computers if the author does not overdo it.

Here’s what I wrote when Sean Chercover and Howard Shrier appeared at Noir at the Bar in Toronto:

“They [keep the P.I. genre fresh] in some similar ways both small — Chercover's Ray Dudgeon and Shrier's Jonah Geller use computers and databases in their work — and large: both kill where their predecessors may only have felt like killing. Both also shed tears, which earlier tough P.I.s did not do.

So P.I.s and cops can use computers as long as the stories are still about fear, death, crime, violence and all that other good stuff.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

That's a good point. A writer should not get too wrapped in the latest bells and whistles in a crime novel. Probably in any novel, but that's another discussion. The plot--i.e., the crime--has to be the central focus.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I like Ebert's parallel between the stripper and the whizz-kid. I actually reserve most of my scorn for the hype over computer folks rather than for the folks themselves.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The plot has to be the central focus, or the characters -- standard stuff.

I am reminded of what the great baseball thinker Bill James (not to be confused with the great crime writer Bill James) once wrote when major-league teams first started using computers.

"There is no such thing as computer information. It's just information, good, bad, true or false." He compared this to the early days of the car, when people would talk about taking an automobile trip. Then, once people got used to cars, they stopped noting this and would instead talk about the trip in terms of its purpose -- shopping, to Cleveland, on vacation -- rather than its means.

Writer dazzled by computers -- not that I can think of any off-hand -- are still dazzled by the means.

August 09, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think I need to read more of this 'baseball writer'.

I think of these internet tyros as feckless, but that doesn't mean I excuse them for their stupidities. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts...", well, you all know the drill.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you do my heart good. I have often said that even readers who care nothing for baseball could enjoy reading Bill James. His wit, his skepticism, his common sense and his analytic powers are just plain fun to read. Those qualities could be useful in fields well outside baseball, which is why he could be a useful, entertaining read for anyone. I can't think of another writer who cuts with such zest through bull----.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

So what should I read of his?

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The most entertaining place to start might be Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract, in which he applies his great wit and analytical skills to baseball back to its beginnings. Any of his books would be worth a browse at the library or, at an, er, well-stocked bookshop. But be sure he wrote the books, since he's become something of a brand, his name attached to books that he may have just supervised, originated or edited but not written.

Even his technical articles can be breathtaking in their common sense, which is not so common in baseball. (James is best known for his elaborate statistical formulas. Some sportswriters and fans who lack imagination think this is the most important part of what he does.)

August 10, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Thanks, Peter. I'll take a look around.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would not surprise me if you found it at work.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Liliana said...

There was another book I wanted to tell you about, but I couldn't remember the title. Now it finally came to my mind. It's "O Xangô de Baker Street", by Jô Soares. It's a crime story set in Rio de Janeiro. I found it rather interesting and, at the same time, hilarious! Imagine Sherlock Holmes not being able to carry on an investigation because of the food he ate and all the 'caipirinhas' he drank... It's a funny story, but still an interesting crime novel, at least for me.

August 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Obrigado. That's an amusing title. I see that the book was made into a movie as well.

Perhaps some cadomblé rituals get in the hero's way as well as caipirinhas -- a dangerous drink because they're so sweet!

August 10, 2009  

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