TITLE: Information, Dystopia, and a Hook AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 29, 2008 9:11 PM DESC: ----- BODY: On my drive to Purdue today, I listened to the first 3/4 of Caleb Carr's novel, "Killing Time". This is not a genre I read or listen to often, so it's hard for me to gauge the book's quality. If you are inclined, you can read reviews on-line. At this point, I would say that it is not a very good book, but it delivered fine escapism for a car ride on a day when I needed a break more than deep thought. But it did get me to thinking about... computer science. The vignette that sets up the novel's plot is based on a typical use case for Photoshop, or a homework assignment in a media computation CS1 course. Carr describes a world controlled by "information barons", a term intended to raise the specter of the 19th century's rail barons and their control of wealth and commerce. The central feature of his world in 2023 is deception -- the manipulation of information, whether digital or physical, to control what people think and feel. The novel's opening involves the role a doctored video plays in a presidential assassination, and later episodes include doctored photos, characters manufactured via the data planted on the internet, the encryption of data on disk, and real-time surveillance of encrypted communication. If students are at all interested in this kind of story, whether for the science fiction, the intrigue, or the social implications of digital media and their malleability, then we have a great way to engage them in computing that matters. It's CSI for the computer age. Carr seems to have an agenda on the social issues, and as is often the case, such an agenda interferes with the development of the story. His characters are largely cut-outs in service of the message. Carr paints a dystopian view striking for its unremitting focus on the negatives of digital media and the science's increasing understanding of the world at a molecular level. The book seems unaware that biology and chemistry are helping us to understand diseases, create new drugs, and design new therapies, or that computation and digital information create new possibilities in every discipline and part of life. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Carr starts with these promises as his backdrop and chooses to paint a world in which everything that could go wrong has. That makes for an interesting story but ultimately an unsatisfying thought experiment. For escapism, that may be okay. After my previous entry, I couldn't help but wonder whether I would have the patience to read this book. I have to think not. How many pages? 274 pages -- almost slender compared to Perec's book. Still, I'm glad I'm listening and not reading. -----