Jan 24, 2013 - Issue 501

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Google’s 24-Hour Spies

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Hitler left it to Goebbels to minister to the psychological needs of the German people, a task to which the Propaganda Minister brought his considerable resources of energy and imagination. He fed the people a carefully blended mixture of hopes and fears and threats and promises, cleverly seizing upon the Allied declarations…to prove that a future of slavery lay ahead for them unless the war was won.


-Gordon A. Craig, Germany: 1866-1945


The public library is one place you can go to ask questions and not be told to “check our website” for the answers. Checking out a website is fine and may save time, if you are one of those in possession of a computer or smart phone and you have access to an Internet connection or a public library. You can ask questions at a public library’s website, but you can also ask a live librarian.


I am at my neighborhood public library every day but Sunday, when it is closed. I am still in the stone age and access knowledge mainly from the books and journal articles I can carry home in my book bag. In the last year, I have come to rely heavily on my neighborhood library. Despite the fact that I continue to ask questions and continue researching in my field, the borrowing of books and journals from a college or a university library requires an annual fee for independent scholars (but not emeritus) who are no longer employed at a campus.


Accessing Jstor, at home or at the public library, for me, is out of the question!


Nonetheless, there is still the public library and a librarian who takes a pro-active and sincere interest in the interests of her patrons. (So far, this is something computers cannot do).


That is how I came to read Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. I might have missed this novel, given its subject. However, most all subjects under the Empire’s sun are connected.


Robin Sloan’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, writes George Sounders, sweeps the reader along (Blip Magazine). This is true! At least for a while! Like Clay Jannon, the twenty-something narrator, recently unemployed logo designer at the corporate headquarters of New Bagel founded by “a pair of ex-Googlers,” and whose design won an award from San Francisco’s AIGA Chapter, I was mesmerized imagining, as Jannon asks the reader to do, “the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side.” It is as “dizzyingly tall” as it is “narrow,” with “three stories of books…may be more.” And the ladder - somewhat magical! The “ladder” from which our narrator can swing like a “monkey,” takes him to very high places. “You roll the ladder into place, lock its wheels, then bend your knees and leap directly to the third or fourth rung.”


Peculiarity hooks you! However, there is more. There always is.


The “economy” takes “a dip,” and ex-Googlers close small start-up operations while others start small project-oriented businesses featuring the graphic designing of “boobs.” Jannon, on the other hand, becomes the night clerk at Penumbra’s bookstore.


This is no ordinary box-bookstore or even independent bookstore job by which the flow of cash sustains the store and its employees and certainly brings wealth to the CEO. At Penumbra’s, “on Broadway, in a euphemistic part town.” The elderly Mr. Penumbra offers very old, dusty books that are returned and exchanged among a handful of “regular” customers. Cash is exchanged for the few postcards and fewer still Sci-Fi or fiction paperbacks by the occasional un-regular customer.


Jannon must take copious notes on each customer. His duty is to write a narrative “on the pages of the book labeled NARRATIO, numbered IX.” Besides noting the book dropped off and the one picked up, Jannon must note the attitude, that is, the disposition of the customer, and his or her expressions. Record the verbal exchange, if any. Describe how the customer dressed in detail and how he or she walked and talked.


“I do my best to keep a clear, accurate record of what transpires during my shift, with only an occasional literary flourish.” In a sense, Jannon and the reader realize, he is writing a book.


“‘We keep a record for every member, and for every customer who might become a member, in order to track their work,’” Penumbra tells Jannon.


Their work!


“‘What are they doing?’”


They read!


“‘They are reading.’”


Jannon is intrigued with his work as “narrator,” but he is more familiar with the graphics he can create with his keyboard and computer software. He begins to re-create a virtual image of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore on his laptop.


Sloan, writes Sounders, is “in love with the idea that our technical abilities can serve as conduits for beauty.”


“Conduits for beauty”! Here is where I part with Sloan, Jannon, Mr. Penumbra - and the bookstore! I was willing to accept the regular customers engaged in the careful reading or the de-coding of medieval texts, but when Jannon discovers the bookstore is suddenly closed - he and the customers are locked out, and Penumbra is nowhere to be found, the narrative of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore shifts.


There are darkened streets and mysteriously ambiguous buildings where a committee of people meets, some cloaked. I think cult. There is the language of “dragon” myths and of warriors. Is this to appease readers of the Harry Potter series?


Then, the Googlers enter the narrative, another shape shift, and a guided tour of Google headquarters by a Googler whom the narrator describes as android, but brilliant. Her vision of the world is one big computer - and Google will do it!


I leave the novel to return to the world. In fact, I had one eye on the printed pages and the other on the real world where there are humans not speaking of dragons and warriors but confronted daily by drones and soldiers! When I was not reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I saw visions of Blade Runner, the film that left me skeptical about the “future” with its repressive police state.


Nick Harkaway writes that Mr. Penumbra’s is an “optimistic book about the meeting of modern technology and medieval mystery, a tonal road map to a positive relationship between the old world and the new” (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore).


Neoliberalism tackles “balancing” a city’s budget by targeting schools and public libraries where books and the Internet (technology) do meet - already!


As I read Sloan’s more “optimistic” rendition of computer geeks, I thought about the geeks in the field now clicking on icons, and the future generation of geeks, android-like, creating and operating flying local and military patrol systems throughout the global.


I, who enjoyed the Star Trek series, Captains Kirk and Picard, optimistically expected that by now, every human being would be in possession of a “food synthesizer” that would feed the world’s hungry - and treat us to chocolate sundaes and Earl Grey tea.


“It is a book that gets it,” writes Harkaway. Gets what? Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore makes you think. Yes, technology will advance - but how will technology truly benefit the lives of ordinary people without a price tag that continues to promote inequality and without turning participants into androids?


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore fantasizes an idealistic and youthful vision of the world in which we all “get along” harmoniously with technology for the greater good of humanity. The author’s audience, unburdened by the knowledge that imperialist nation States have historically co-opted inventors and inventions, scientists and science, to propagandize an enemy (Indigenous, Blacks, communists) and weapons to annihilate them, and unaware of the reality of today behind the image of a “terrorist,” would unquestionably accept the novel’s vision of a new world order.


As a child in the mid-1960s watching Star Trek, I would not have imagined then or now humans who find it out of the question to use the advancements in technology to feed the poor and improve the conditions of everyone’s lives. I could have continued thinking as a child and believing that one day, these same humans or their descendants would start thinking and questioning - but for the countless dead who did dare to question and challenge the imperialist mindset. My “audience” consists of those people dying today from the “technical advancement” of Monsanto’s seeds and Exxon’s drills. My “audience” is the “invisible” majority for which the American Empire needs scientists and geeks to repress or outright eliminate.


Did I mention Google? The innocent Googlers is what did it for me. Of course, there are good-intended, creative, and brilliant workers at Google, but there are also the Googlers working to save the work at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore and to save the work of reading (although they cannot save Penumbra’s bookstore)…


Google is perhaps not so innocently amassing knowledge from books into a collection that will revolutionize the way we access information. Google says it has good intentions. Google will profit! The exchange of cash in this revolution will advance Capitalism!


Remember that “economy” business that “took a dip,” and forced the pair of ex-Googlers to close the New Bagel shop and sent the narrator to locate a job (without the help of the computer, he tells us – a new experience for him!) at Penumbra’s bookstore? Well, that “economy” after the 2008 “dip” needs Googlers.


Here is Sloan’s narrator Jannon:


The buzz about Google these days is that it is like American itself: still the biggest game in town, but inevitably and irrevocably on the decline. Both are superpowers with unmatched resources, but both are faced with fast-growing rivals, and both will eventually be eclipsed…But here’s the difference: staring down the inevitable, America pays defense contractors to build aircraft carriers. Google pays brilliant programmers to do whatever the hell they want.


I am unconvinced by Sloan’s “editorial” here. I did not break down and cry with his narrator’s description of unemployed ex-Googlers, and the image of Googlers doing “whatever the hell they want” is not, I think, quite true. Googlers, for the most part, will be guided - and not by a Mr. Penumbra! As the narrator, Jannon, points out, these are brilliant folks, “educated,” that is, taught to think and perceive the world in a certain way, at the top universities, the Harvards, Princetons, and MITs, and similar to the android Jannon meets, they are programmed to work on projects that will propel them to the top of the Google food chain. “They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself…They are building a time machine…”


The Invisible Hand programs these Googlers as it programs the Empire and Google! The contractors building aircraft carriers for the Empire are not so far afield from the brilliant Googlers.


Americans may be already asleep in the car if not driving without a guide, but the Europeans are not - and they are alarmed.


According to the report, “Fighting Cyber Crime and Protecting Privacy in the Cloud,” this month, European citizens discovered that the car is driven by the recently Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Amendment (FISA) signed by the Empire’s Commander and Chief, President Barack Obama (December 30, 2012). The amendment, the EU charges, authorizes “‘purely political surveillance on foreigners’ data’ if it is stored using U.S. cloud services like those provided by Google, Microsoft, and Facebook” (“U.S. Spy Law Authorizes Mass Surveillance of European Citizens: Report,” Slate, January 8, 2013). This newest advancement of FISA terrifies Europeans because it “poses a much graver risk to EU data sovereignty than other laws hitherto considered by the EU policy-makers.”


Here in the U.S., as Jonathan Turley notes, FISA received a “bipartisan pass” (“FISA Extension Gets a Bipartisan Pass,” January 6, 2013). The U.S. media distracted Americans with the terror called the “fiscal cliff” while Obama signed a “5-year extension of the FISA amendment that was granted by the Senate in a bipartisan 72-23 vote.” So forget the “public discussion” of Bush II’s warrantless wiretapping program, Turley writes. It will “soon fade into the shadows.”


Obama does not ask questions. Androids cannot.


Google does not either. In 2010, it asked the National Security Agency (NSA) to help protect it from hackers, but failed to ask itself what would be the consequences, what will the real price tag read? According to Noah Shachtman, (“‘Don’t Be Evil,’ Meet ‘Spy on Everyone’: How the NSA Deal Could Kill Google,” WIRED, February 2010), Google may want geeks, but “it runs the risk of getting spies, too.” The “Don’t Be Evil” team, he continues, is “in bed” with “the spy agency known for the mass surveillance of American citizens.” Shachtman recounts the NSA’s “long history of spying” on people at home and abroad and the NSA’s history of spying during the Cold War and more recently during the “war on terror,” but this is history - who would expect the colleges and universities to permit their students, future geeks, access to this kind of knowledge!


Is Google even aware that the American Empire’s war to eliminate “terrorists” is Google’s war now too?


As a good Patriot, Google already sniffs through our email so capitalist marketers can easily find us and cater to our desires - for a profit. Are the invisibles, those without access to computers and the Internet, better off? At least the live librarians are still around to recommend books, including Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.


In the meantime, Sloan leaves his readers with an image of Clay Jannon and the Googlers working on creating “a special-ops squad for companies operating at the intersection of books and technology” (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore). Never mind the people “educated” to read company logos rather than books. Here is one you should keep in mind: a young soldier in front of a computer clicking that other logo and another “dragon warrior,” Google spy, reporting “suspiciously” anti-Patriotic language to the NSA. While you watch the immediate consequences, anticipate the far-reaching ones.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Click here to contact Dr. Daniels.