Saturday, 16 October 2010

On a librarian's perspective on some poor fictional use of information

This post does not conform with the standard types of entries for this blog (i.e. biking, mooses, nieces and nephew.) Sue me.

As my readers know, or should know, I am a librarian. I also studied history. This means I have a well developed sense of how information works in the present and over time. In turn, this means I have a certain intolerance for when writers ignore how information works.

Centuries-long conspiracies à la Dan Brown make me gag as information will leak out. You simply can't maintain a functional veil of secrecy for that long unless the organization is absolutely tiny. (Then the danger is that the knowledge will simply be forgotten.)

In reverse, big information sticks around for a very long time. Especially when this information is widely published. Several months ago, I was reading The passage by Justin Cronin. Overlong, boring and poor structured in the guise of being clever, his post-vampire-apocalypse tale has many indications that he doesn't understand how information works. To begin with, the cause apocalypse is a hyper-secret, yet massive, U.S. government research project that unleashes vampires. (This is actually wrong from the preceding point.) After the dust settles, the tale concerns a small group of descendants of survivors in the American Southwest some eighty years or so later. According to Cronin, it takes less than century for people to forget major cultural artifacts such as Christmas! Despite the fact that there are all kinds of books lying around describing it. A copy of A Christmas carol is found but nobody really understands the context. Likewise, Christianity seems more or less unknown. The Bible is the most widely printed book, ever. And I wouldn't put A Christmas carol that far behind! That type of knowledge would survive.

I also don't like The passage as the protagonists burn a library with nary a second thought. Come on people, if nothing else, a library would provide masses of reading material to occupy your bleak existence.

In a slightly different vein, I went to see the movie Red this afternoon. At two points, two different characters enter the ultra-secret file vault of the CIA (kept by a librarian type character played by Ernest Borgnine). These files are of the really, ultra, top, I-could-tell-you-but-then-I-would-have-to-kill-you, secret variety. This is the one place (in theory) this information is supposed to be kept.

Except that both files looked at have been heavily redacted. That is to say, all the useful information has been blacked out.

The whole point of keeping such ultra-secret information in the first place is so the organization can refer to it if the issue comes up at a later date, if only to know which set of lies to use. Redacted documents are copies you give to politicians and journalists. You still have to have an accurate original somewhere.

While the filmmakers probably thought it would be topical and prevent the truth coming out too quickly in the movie to have the information redacted, to me it just looks stupid. I think one of major problems with Hollywood is that most filmmakers knowledge of the world comes from watching other movies, which unfortunately, isn't real.

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