Monday, January 05, 2015

MacDonald, McGee, and Big Data

The holiday weekend found me up to Free Fall in Crimson (1981) in my ongoing slow re-reading of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels, which I last read in high school. At that point, I took all of MacDonald's pronouncements about life and society--divided almost equally between McGee and his friend Meyer--as truths, bordering on revelation. Newly encountered, at midlife, they are, not surprisingly, less convincing. Some observations give off a rancid whiff of blowhardism; others seem to protest too much--primarily those in which MacDonald opposes his thoughts on sex and women to Hefner's, while forty years later we can barely distinguish daylight between them; and some simply offer thoughts about society and its direction that weren't borne out.

It's nearly all forgivable. MacDonald was trying to do something more than just write about a tough guy; the attempt is admirable in itself, and it succeeds almost as often as it fails. Where those reflections do still work is in McGee's frequent sessions of self-lacerating doubt about his life and persona, reflections. As the series wears on, I find myself more and more drawn to those, seeing them as MacDonald's own voice, and a more honest assessment of the trap of the series writer than any I've encountered elsewhere.

What I find most interesting about the McGee novels, ultimately, is the snapshot they offer of a certain strain of postwar American social life and culture. Florida is MacDonald's primary subject, of course, and in the years he was writing it was undergoing an irreversible transformation into the all-concrete, all-tourist landscape that it is now. He shows us a world of small towns where people are worried about their place in the social fabric. We see suburbanites willing to risk all to maintain their status, a status that is clearly communicated by the size and style of their houses and cars. We see modest downtowns still alive with local shops, restaurants, and hotels, yacht clubs with available waitresses, tennis clubs with randy pros, the whirlwind drunken world of the postwar suburban boom, fierce and feckless. MacDonald loathes it--or, more properly, its refusal to ask any questions other than "How much?"--so we get it at its worst, but its seductions, or compulsions, nonetheless peek through now and again. By the time McGee had his last adventure in the early 1980s, that world would be mostly gone, already malled, fully corporatized, and, within another generation, about to be Internetted, but I doubt MacDonald would find its replacement any more tolerable.

Another preoccupation is with the standardization and record-keeping of modern life, and how its perpetual creep impinges ever more on individual choice, liberty, and anonymity. McGee, whose occupation and income wouldn't bear much scrutiny, objects on both practical and philosophical grounds, and it's reasonable to assume that MacDonald felt the same. Which makes the following passage from Free Fall in Crimson fascinating: Meyer is explaining to McGee that the profusion of computers and data will actually be good for someone like him, its overwhelming scale guaranteeing that any single person can learn to hide in it:
If you try to hide, you are easy to find. You are leaving only one trail in the jungle, and the hounds can follow that one. Leave forty trails, crossing and re-crossing. The computers are strangling on data. The courts are strangling on caseload. Billions of pieces of paper are floating around each month, clogging the inputs, confusing the outputs. . . . Think of it this way, Travis. With each new computer that goes into service, your identity becomes more and more diffuse and unreal. Right now today, if every man, woman, and child were put to work ten hours a day reading computer printouts, just scanning the alphabetical and numerical output of the printers, they could cover about one third of what it is being produced. Recycling of computer printout paper is a giant industry. We're all sinking into the oblivion of profusion, and one day soon we will all be gone, with no way to trace us.
It's easy to understand why MacDonald got this one so wrong: who among laymen would have predicted the incredible improvements in our ability to sort and store data? But I will admit to surprise along a slightly different axis: Surely anyone as cynical as MacDonald about the motives of his fellow man in pursuit of power or money could have predicted that people wouldn't stop until they found a way to put all that information to use?

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