Monthly Archives: November 2013

Defoe, Google, cities and Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Re-reading Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I was struck by a passage that reminded me of some the issues that came up recently when teaching Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain on our MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment. It was, to say the least, a surprising association between “a novel about books and technology, cryptography and conspiracy, friendship and love” and a description of eighteenth-century London. But here’s the passage from Sloan’s novel in which Neel Shah (CEO of a niche software company) and Kat Potente (west-coast evangelistic Google data-visualizer) are contemplating a New York sidewalk:

“It’s so small but there are so many people,” she says, watching the human flow. “They’re … it’s like fish. Or birds or ants, I don’t know. Some superorganism.” …

Neel nods knowingly. “The suburban mind cannot comprehend the emergent complexity of a New York sidewalk.”

“I don’t know about that,” Kay says, narrowing her eyes. “I’m pretty good with complexity.”

“See, I know what you’re thinking,” Neel says, shaking his head. “You’re thinking it’s just an agent-based simulation, and everybody out there follows a pretty simple set of rules” – Kat is nodding – “and if you can figure out those rules. You can model it. You can simulate the street, then the neighbourhood, then the whole city. Right?”

“Exactly. I mean, sure, I don’t know what the rules are yet, but I could experiment and figure them out, and then it would be trivial – “

“Wrong.”[1]

Neel believes that no computer of Google’s could ever be big enough to analyse the city’s complex and organic interactions. The allusions are rich, the most obvious of which is to the Simcity and The Sims franchises. But Sloan makes a Google employee extol the possibilities of designing an algorithm for a city of people; a fact that brings to mind Google’s efforts to map and photograph the world in its entirety. Indeed, in a previous passage, Kat has used Google Street View to locate a secret library in New York. Both platforms have a set of related aims: to comprehend and model a complex ecology. But there’s a gentle irony in this scene that it is Neel who is sceptical about such modelling. It’s a question of scale, and – as any student of satire will know – comparing the ostensibly small with the apparently epic produces some interesting ironic effects. Neel’s company designs the software to enable 3D digital simulations of female breasts, and the irony of a dubious industry in simulating a relatively small part of the female anatomy critiquing the gargantuan designs of Google Earth cuts both ways. However, it is Neel that has the last word – the city cannot be modelled or contained – so Sloan seems to be directing the irony primarily at Kat’s, or Google’s, totalizing hubris.

Now on the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment, we were paying close attention to the modes through which eighteenth-century authors represent landscapes of various kinds, and at this point comparing Pope and Defoe’s attitudes to the city of London.  So here’s the section from Defoe’s Tour in which he grapples with the size and complexity of early eighteenth-century London:

This great Work is infinitely difficult in its Particulars, though not in itself; not that the City is so difficult to be described, but to do it in the narrow Compass of a Letter, which we see so fully takes up Two large Volumes in Folio, and which, yet, if I may venture to give an Opinion of it, is done but by Halves neither.[2]

Defoe, like Neel, acknowledges the limitations of contemporary technology: the attempt encompass London within a letter, when even John Strype’s 1720 multi-volume folio edition of Stow’s Survey is ‘done by halves’, may come at the cost of the complex ‘Particulars’ of the city. Defoe goes on to say that perhaps the City itself may indeed ‘be viewed in a small Compass’ (2:95). However, the attempt to contain and represent London as a whole is thwarted by its uncontrolled and complexly organic evolution:

It is the Disaster of London, as to the Beauty of its Figure, that it is thus stretched out in Buildings, just at the Pleasure of every Builder, or Undertaker of Buildings, and as the Convenience of the People directs, whether for Trade or otherwise; and this has spread the Face of it in a most straggling, confused Manner, out of all Shape, uncompact, and unequal. (2:95)

In response, Defoe circumscribes this vital London by drawing a ‘A LINE of Measurement’ (2:98), effectively creating a static model of London – a simulation, if you like – in order for it to be properly analysed.

There is a neat parallel between Defoe’s and Kat Potente’s – and Google’s – attempts to model the complex ecology of cities. Both of these scenarios speak to the desire to be, in the words of Michel de Certeau, ‘the solar eye’, the voyeur elevated above a city laid before them. Such a perspective ‘makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text’ and creates, he argues, a ‘panorama-city … a “theoretical” (that is, visual) simulacrum.’[3] It is a desire to overwrite the messy real city with a fictive version of the city.

Yet complicating such a desire, Defoe and (with the caveat of irony) Neel Shah are both also fascinated by what de Certeau calls the forces of ‘human agglomeration and accumulation.’ Partly out of frustration, but partly out of admiration, Defoe asks ‘Whither will this monstrous City then extend? and where must a Circumvallation or Communication Line of it be placed?’ (2:97). When Kat mentions Google’s ‘The Big Box’ (a fictitious project of huge interlocking modular servers, and perhaps Sloan’s dig at Google’s search box[4]), Neel responds, “It’s not big enough. This box” – Neel stretches out his hands, encompasses the sidewalk, the park, the streets beyond – “is bigger.” (128). For Neel and Defoe, the city is always poised to burst beyond the confines of book or search box.


[1] Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (London: Atlantic, 2013), pp. 127-28.

[2] Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols (London, [1724-25]), 2:94. Further references in brackets after quotations.

[3] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 92-93.

[4] Google increased the size of its search box in 2009.

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