Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Book of Numbers: a very short review

One of my summer projects was to read the book that (it seemed) everyone couldn't stop talking about back in June: Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers.

Maybe "read" isn't the right word to use with Book of Numbers, though.

Perhaps it would be better to say that I marched through it, like an army might march through foreign territory.

Or to say that I explored it, like an adventurer might explore unmapped lands.

Or to say that I rolled around in it, like a dog in grass.

Or to say that I crawled back and forth on it, like a baby on the living room rug.

If these are strange things to say, well, it's because Book of Numbers is a very strange book, and it isn't really a book that you "read" in a normal sense.

Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers is a book about a man named Joshua Cohen, who is writing a book.

Joshua Cohen, in Book of Numbers, is writing a book about a man named Joshua Cohen, who is not a writer, but rather is an Internet luminary.

To make things (maybe) somewhat easier to follow, the Joshua Cohen who is an Internet Luminary is not referred to in the book as Joshua Cohen, but rather as "the Principal," when he is referred to at all. Mostly, the Joshua Cohen who isn't referred to as Joshua Cohen speaks about himself in the form of long recorded interviews, in which he speaks of himself in the third person.

OK, maybe that didn't make things easier to follow.

It probably doesn't matter anyway, because by the end of the book it's been wrapped in several more layers of indirection, and has become a book about the leaking of the materials used in the making of a book about Joshua Cohen by Joshua Cohen about Joshua Cohen by Anonymous by Joshua Cohen.

Feh. Anyway...

The Internet luminary's company is clearly supposed to be Google, but in Book of Numbers it is referred to by a different name, Tetration.

The luminary himself, however, is I think supposed to be Steve Jobs, perhaps just because he's a more interesting character to parody; er, uh, that is, to write thinly-disguised historical fiction about.

But it probably could have been any Silicon Valley monomaniacal leader: Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, it probably doesn't really matter, for the purposes of Book of Numbers.

Indeed, I suspect Cohen doesn't really care about those sorts of details; he's after the flow, the feel, the whole zeitgeist of it all.

And so Cohen spends much of his time embracing the now, and being hip.

For example, the high tech industry is famous for making up words and coining jargon, both for good reasons and for lazy ones, and so Book of Numbers at times seems to be nothing but coined words in an imaginary language, such that you find yourself having to wade through pages and pages of gibberish like

Point is, what was important was not the organism itself but the connections among the organisms. The algy had to make the connections. We figgered if we could index all the tech links, and apply to each a rec link, whatever terminology we mortally employ, we could engineer the ultimate. The connection of connections.

How a single user regarded a thing would be comptrasted by what things existed. Not only that but the comptrasting of the two would be automated. Each time each user typed out a word and searched and clicked for what to find, the algy would be educated. We let the algy let its users educate themselves. So it would learn, so its users would be taught. All human language could be determined through this medium, which could not be expressed in any human language, and that was its perfection. The more a thing was clicked, the more perfect that thing would be. We would equate ourselves with that.

I think this passage is trying to say something about Google and about how the act of searching for information has become more important than the information itself ("not the organism itself but the connections among the organisms").

And I think this passage is trying to say something about how modern "big data" algorithms have capabilities that are beyond the comprehension, in the aggregate, of the programmers who build those systems ("So it would learn, so its users would be taught.").

And I think this passage is trying to make some sort of simile about how searching the Internet for the truth has become some sort of odd new religion, with the results of your search treated as holy writ ("this medium, which could not be expressed in any human language, and that was its perfection").

And I think this passage is trying to say something sly about Steve Jobs and his legendarily obsessive perfectionism ("we could engineer the ultimate").

And I think this passage is trying to say something sly about Larry Page, and Page Rank, and how it's hard to distinguish between Google the company, Google the employees, and Google the product ("We would equate ourselves with that.")

But really, I have no idea.

It's like trying to read a bowl of potato soup.

And this isn't just an isolated incident: I found myself having experiences and reactions like this every few pages (rather exhausting, with a 600 page book!).

On and on the book goes, and on and on I read, as Cohen spins story after story, winding them around and together in various dream-like recollections, all based on the premise that Our Great Internet Luminary is relating stories from the birth of the Internet.

So we hear stories about startups in garages, technology breakthroughs, new ideas arriving unexpectedly and not immediately being recognized, opportunities lost and found, empires rising and falling, populated by businessmen, engineers, politicians, bankers, lawyers, schemers, and dreamers.

And Cohen takes care to wind all sorts of real-world topics into the book: hackers, information warfare, commercial interests, terrorism, the impact of pornography on the growth of the Internet, the impact of 9/11 on the growth of the Internet, the enormous re-shaping of the world's industries by the Internet from entertainment to journalism to retail to transportation, etc.

It's all so relevant, and all so important, and yet all, in the end, so terribly unsatisfying.

Maybe it's because I lived through all this in person, and so I find it hard to be struck anew by it, having been struck by it plenty hard enough plenty of times already.

And maybe it's because I have the rather cynical view that the high tech industry in general is far too disturbingly a world of celebrities, and trendiness, and so a book like this which seems to be all about celebrity and trendiness, and very little about humans and real life, leaves me rather at sea.

For whatever reason, I'm afraid that I am not able to join the seemingly endless parade of reviewers who couldn't wait to heap praise on Book of Numbers, who couldn't wait to anoint it the book of the year, or the book of the Internet, or the book of the something.

It's skillfully constructed, it's timely and relevant, it certainly wanders in the midst of the issues of the day.

But in the end I rather doubt this is a book I will return to, or think much about six months from now.

So be it.

No comments:

Post a Comment