May 13th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Spoolpigeons

One of my favorite science fiction novels, one that few of you have heard of, was John Brunner's The Jagged Orbit. Written in 1969 after the riots that followed the Martin Luther King assassination, it imagines a world in which a powerful weapons company stokes the simmering racial tensions in America, keeping things just this side of all-out race war, in order to sell more guns. They provide the latest and greatest in personal weaponry to all-black enclaves first and at a steep discount, and then make an absolute fortune selling the same weapons to all-white neighborhood militias desperate to keep up with the arms race.

But the part that's most interesting after all these years is the profession of the lead character, Matthew Flamen, because his job is one that could actually exist in the next couple of years, and it will have very interesting effects on society if it does. Matthew Flamen, you see, is billed as the last, and greatest, of the spoolpigeons.

What's a spoolpigeon? Imagine 3-D rendering software a bit better than the current state of the art, software that could let you render a full-motion scene with virtual actors in photo realism, something that at a casual glance couldn't be told from actual camera footage. Imagine a journalist equipped with pre-built 3-D models, and programmed voice simulators, that let him perfectly mimic news, political, sports, and entertainment figures of his day. The rendering doesn't have to be in real time; in the book, it took about four hours for the best computers of the day to put together a 5-minute segment. Now put that technology in the hands of Matt Drudge.

A spoolpigeon is a gossip journalist who scans various rumor sources to try to reconstruct what probably actually happened at some newsworthy event where cameras obviously couldn't have been, like some backroom deal or some sleazy sexual liaison. He gets his information from scanning computerized rumor databases much like ones on the modern Internet, and from off-the-record deep-background briefings, and from leakers with various agendas; he also frankly engages in a lot of guesswork as to why people did certain things. You know, some business deal happens that makes no sense, and none of the spoolpigeon's sources will tell him why it happened or what was said at the meeting where it was decided, so he tries to make an educated guess as to what happened and what the secret agendas were.

He then runs his guess through a software model that was co-developed by him, his TV network, and most importantly the insurance company that handles his and the network's lawsuit liability insurance. If the model predicts that there is a 90% chance that his guess is close enough to what really happened to be lawsuit-proof, then he has permission from the network to simulate it and broadcast the simulation as actual news footage. If it turns out that he was wrong and there's a libel suit, the insurance company will cover it. Once one of his guesses or sources hits the 90% probability level, he uses personality-simulation software, libraries of previously over-used phrases from each person involved, and his own writing skill to script and plot the news footage, sets it up on the simulator, and goes on about his daily business between then and the nightly broadcast while the computer does the rendering.

One of the many reasons that this has been on my mind lately is that I've become something of a fan of a couple of "disaster porn" TV series. (That's another Brunnerism, I think, from The Stone That Never Came Down maybe. In whatever story I got that phrase from, all deliberately sensationalized news is called fill-in-the-blank porn -- gossip porn, sports porn, political porn, whatever. Hence, major disaster coverage that really really plays up the suffering for the purposes of hooking you in is disaster porn.) Probably my favorite ongoing one is National Geographic TV's "Seconds from Disaster," but there are several of these shows. They take you through some past or future hypothetical disaster, from aviation disasters to 9-11 to Pompeii to the Titanic to Mount Pinatubo to an asteroid collision with the Earth to a hypothetical super-volcano eruption under Yellowstone. They use actors and state of the art computer imagery to show you the whole thing, everybody involved in any way, second by second as the disaster unfolds. They keep putting disclaimers on the screen in small print at the bottom that this is simulated footage. But even a cynical and media-savvy person like me can find the human drama so compelling that it's hard to remember that this isn't actual film footage that was shot inside, for example, the Chernobyl reactor control room and those aren't the actual people it happened to. No, really, at one point I was watching my second documentary reconstruction of Chernobyl, and I had this moment of deep confusion that I couldn't place, until I realized that what was throwing me was that they used different actors to play the various technicians, and part of my brain was saying, "Wait, that's not how he looks!"

Now imagine if gossip reporting could be that compelling. Imagine that the people speculating about back-room shady deals, and corporate corruption, and celebrity gossip, weren't limited to just showing "talking heads," experts, talking about what might have happened. What if they could show it to you, and make it so vividly real that it felt as if you had actually seen, for example, the film footage of Monica Lewinsky under the desk in the Oval Office, or the Bushes taking money from the Saudi royal family to cover-up Saudi involvement in 9-11? (I pick these two examples very deliberately, because they're both almost certainly false, but very widely believed by partisans from each side.) Furthermore, what if corporate executives and politicians and actors and musicians and big-league athletes suddenly had to live in a world where having no witnesses around, no cameras around, wasn't a defense against that kind of exposure?

In all of Brunner's "end of civilization" books from around that time, there's a wise older man, always a discredited and unpopular expert in the field, who lectures everybody and acts as the author's stand-in for delivering chunks of social commentary and other exposition. In The Jagged Orbit, this figure, a sociology professor, makes the famously pithy remark that the spoolpigeons finished the job of changing society from one governed by guilt, the fear of having done something wrong, to one governed by shame, the fear of being exposed.