SMALL DEMONS: The devil's in the detail

By S.J. Purcell. March 28, 2012


In the information age, everything’s connected. As soon as you are online, websites begin to suggest related content. Social networking sites suggest people you might know. Online stores suggest products you may also be interested in. It is a mechanical process, in that very little input is required of the user: invisible algorithms are used to ‘suggest’ what the user is looking for, before they even have the chance to decide whether they are looking for anything. In short, information has become more convenient. Now, Los Angeles-based company Small Demons have set out to apply this type of logic to the world of literature. By setting up a (free) website, they seek to connect books via any artistic works, historical figures, places, and many other items, mentioned within. You can register using your email, Facebook or Twitter account and – once registered – are then able to search their extensive library of books.

For example, if I search for David Foster Wallace’s 'Infinite Jest' (a good example, by virtue of its inordinate length), I can see that Infinite Jest itself was mentioned in Mark Leyner’s The Tetherballs of Bougainville. I am also told that Infinite Jest mentions God, Winston Churchill, Euclid, Quebec, Roy Orbison’s Blue Bayou, Nightmare on Elm Street, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the U.S. Constitution, Gatorade, the Sony Walkman, GQ Magazine, Nike, the Korean War, heroin, the lightsaber, Kleenex, and many, many more things. The exact paragraph in which each of these things is mentioned, is also provided in full. And if I click on any of these things, such as the Sony Walkman, I can see it is also mentioned in other books, such as Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Larry McMurty’s When the Light Goes.

The aim appears to be for the user to click and move from one item or book to the next, ad infinitum. What is unclear, is how collating details in this way is of benefit to the user, beyond condensing a text to a convenient list of details.

Books, by their nature, require time to consume; only then, do they begin to unfurl and reveal the dense world hidden within (good books, anyway). Removing books’ inherent richness for the sake of convenience immediately seems counter-intuitive. While Wikipedia –perhaps the archetype of super-connectivity in the information age– proves the interrelation of facts can lead to Eureka-moments of discovery in a handful of clicks, these facts are presented in context. Background is provided, details sketched out. When details are extracted from within the context of novels, i.e. the narrative structure, and presented with a mere excerpt of the greater whole, these details lose their meaning. Let me explain.

Say I were to search Small Demons for Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, American Psycho. I would certainly be told that the novel mentions the brands Oliver Peoples and Louis Vuitton. I would also certainly be told that Phil Collins and Genesis were mentioned. But, even including the surrounding paragraphs with each, would I have an accurate understanding of the purposefully heavy-handed irony with which these things are mentioned in the novel, had I not read the book?

According to Small Demons, “powerful and interesting things can happen when you connect all the details of books”. Whether or not you agree, or simply see this as another example of technology encroaching upon the previously sacrosanct world of literature, is –of course– up to you. But to this writer, books are one of the greatest examples of what mankind can create. They can be exciting, they can be heartbreaking, or cathartic. They can be educational. They can be political, prescient, and persuasive: they can be everything, and anything. Diminishing something so great to a smattering of convenient details just seems to miss the point entirely.  

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