I read a very good book the other day. Actually I read two very good books, both by Sue Grafton. The main one was the next novel in the alphabetic adventures of her heroine, Kinsey Millhone. She’s up to “W” (W Is for Wasted) and I’ve been reading her since A Is for Alibi, published more than 20 years ago. The other book was a compilation of short stories featuring private detective Millhone, with some autobiographical material for Grafton, some of it fictional. It was, as usual with Grafton, awfully good. The title was Kinsey and Me. In this book, she talks about inventing the character and learning to live with her. When she began the series in 1982, she decided to age her character at the pace of 1 year for Kinsey per every two-and-a-half books. At this point, the latest book—W Is for Wasted, priced user-friendly at Amazon.com—has assumed almost the characteristics of another subgenre of mystery fiction—the historical.
And here’s a question: Do you think a person living in 1988 who had never owned a computer would refer to a minor incident of forgetfulness as “deleted from memory”? Or did people in the late ’80s ever use the word “gift” as a verb? (Yech.) Well, those two nitpicks should teach Grafton not to sell her books to editors. Minor complaints, however. This latest is one of the best she’s ever done, and they’ve all been pretty darn good.
How does this relate to our beloved online scene? Well, it’s fascinating to observe an intelligent, trained detective pursue hidden knowledge without online resources. You keep saying, “Kinsey, kiddo, Google it!” Actually, there is one small section in which a subsidiary character goes to a library and gathers some data from—we assume—medical databases such as MEDLINE. The character even remarks on how the librarians in the university medical library kind of swarm over him with all kinds of help. He figures nobody asks them for anything as a rule. Boy! Do I remember those bad old days?! But the thing you note about Kinsey is all the effort she spends looking for pay phones and then looking for change to pay the pay phone. A major plot point hinges on her discovering the relationship between a tangential character and the villain extraordinaire. She gets it—with a lot of luck—from traditional interrogation, but the reader has to think how easy it would have been to Google it. The in-law relationship of a major Hollywood filmmaker and (careful, I will not spoil, I will not spoil, I will not …) someone would leap out of newspapers and magazines archived digitally.
But that got me to thinking. Newspapers and magazines. So many remain dependent on print for their life-giving revenue. And with the plummeting decline of print sales, it seems you can see publications closing almost weekly. Even the ones that cling to life have usually shrunk to a shadow of their former selves. So what happens when Sue Grafton (and her picture has her looking gray but healthy) reaches Z Is for …? That may be as little as 6 years from now if she maintains her usual 2-year gestation pace. (More if she has trouble finding what “X” is for.) So let’s round it up and say it’s the year 2020. That sounds like a nice visionary target. Well, Kinsey will probably still be months shy of her 40th birthday. The New York Times will still be around, but it will be all digital, as its publisher promised a few years ago. Other newspapers have not fared so well. The chains are down to a handful of major sources with customized feeds from a centralized news database substituting for semi-independent local papers. Magazines will have taken a big hit, and only a few big titles are hanging on digitally, with most readers still castigating paywalls as evil personified. So here comes user-generated content, still healthy, though I must admit the unpaid slaves of Wikipedia are starting to reach their “use-by” date. It’s blogs and forums and social nets. Now instead of finding that in-law relationship through a newspaper’s coverage of the social scene (“Wedding Announcements”) or in an entertainment gossip newsletter’s news capsule section, the prowling 2020 detective may have to find the information in the websites of a church or a caterer. Hope they’ve got the name right, spelling exact. And if the marriage did not include the offspring of a prominent person, you can skip the caterer sites.
In other words, we may see ourselves going from research of authoritative or semi-authoritative sources to original research. Much of it may come to depend on the individuals involved in a situation or relationship self-reporting. While no one may know better than an actual participant what happened, no one may have as much reason to conceal the truth, even from him- or herself. And actual participants, like eyewitnesses to a crime, have shown shocking failures in accuracy even when trying to tell the absolute truth.
I have a friend who distrusts “mainstream media” and keeps herself protected from their contamination by using newsfeeds from groups that share her political views. The funny thing though is when you look at the sources on those newsfeeds, they’re almost always citing a news wire or newspaper. What will happen to the quality of information gathering when sources using a structure of judgment—reporter with a background or expert in the field, editorial assignment, editorial fact-checking, etc.—fade from the scene? I know! Go to the library and ask the librarians, End Users of the World. Oops! We closed them last year, or was it 2 years ago? After all, everyone can reach the internet, and the internet knows all.
Now you know I’m not advocating a return to print or any of its subsidiary institutional structures. Online is not only inevitable, it’s supremely desirable. Just look at poor Kinsey, no smartphone, no tablet, no laptop, no desktop, even. She could have been killed! But if we’re going to keep this revolution alive and healthy, we’ve got to build it so it works properly. We’ve got to keep our sources complete and permanent. We’ve got ages to come that need access to what we do today. As individuals, as institutions, as professionals, the call rings out—“All hands on deck!!”