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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

When the Web Goes Wrong

Much as I (almost) hate to admit it, I’m old enough to remember life before the internet.  (Yeah, there actually was life, pre-Web... and it didn’t even involve horses and buggies. Imagine that.) Of course, I also remember a time when there were no cellphones. (Whoa. That’s like mind-boggling to anyone under the age of 30 or so, right?) But here’s the thing--it wasn’t a bad life; you can hardly miss something which has yet to be invented. We relied on telephones wired in to our homes and businesses, and we wrote a lot more letters. We also had considerably more face-to-face interactions. That’s just the way it was... and the way it had been for most of the 20th century, actually.
We all know what happened during the last quarter of last century, though. Technology underwent one of those phenomenal surges, resulting in an unbelievable amount of new stuff (and new possibilities). No longer is it necessary to conduct business during traditional hours or be tied to a landline; we can roam the globe and and reach out and touch someone (erm, figuratively speaking) on the other side of the world via cell, and we can do bonafide business whilst clad in our flannel jammies and scruffy bunny slippers (with no one any the wiser, thank the Quantum Field).
Of course, there are plenty of other benefits, too. (You know, besides naked web-surfing.) More lives can be saved with the advent of cellphones and GPS tracking. And, more people have access to a wealth of information (and misinformation, but that’s another kettle of fish) about, well, everything, provided they can hop on the ‘net. (We’re nowhere near achieving equality around the world... but we are, at least, one small step closer.)
Technology always has a downside, though. Kids are growing up less fit, playing on their computers and noshing on processed junk rather than running around outdoors. Even worse, they’re growing up desensitized; playing those uber-realistic, graphic games which depict some pretty gruesome deaths tends to lessen the impact of real-world atrocities. It’s so bad that in extreme cases, some of those kids--dealing with the usual angst and alienation from which teens have suffered since time began (sweeping generalization on my part, but hey, I remember being a teen)--act out on their bad feelings by using the same kind of violence they’ve learned from TV, the movies, and games. 
We all know what happens to kids; eventually, they grow up to be adults. It’s a scary, badevilnasty world when kids and adults alike lose any desire to be sort of decent to each other... when the ultimate “high” can no longer be achieved through generous application of drugs or alcohol, or sex, or some act of bravery (aka stupidity), but only through hurting something/someone else. That’s pretty much the scenario which mother-daughter writing team P.J. Tracy’s little crew of computer hackers-cum-crimesolvers find themselves coping with in their latest thriller, Shoot to Thrill.
The oddball little bunch of Minneapolis-based programmers known as “Monkeewrench” are called in to work with the FBI this time, to design a program which will alert the police when genuine (as opposed to staged) “snuff” videos are shown on sites like YouTube. Before long, their job expands to include identifying and following the pattern in a recent rash of abductions/murders across the nation, all of which have one thing in common--posts on online message boards announcing the crimes before they’ve happened. It’s a case that hits home especially hard for the Monkeewrench crew, when they eventually determine that more than one of the deaths has ties to the Twin Cities. (One, an apparent bride, was found drowned on the banks of the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis.)
The team aids the local police once again, too, when an outbreak of terrorism--in the guise of a couple dozen mysterious packages left in very public places over the course of one hectic day in the Twin Cities--keeps the bomb squads busy and causes a city-wide panic (not to mention a mass exodus). It’s also not such a great surprise when the two separate investigations wind up following the same path, as the mounting evidence points to one or more people (or groups of people) having posted hints and clues to the act of terrorism before it even happened, just as with the murders. 
It had been quite awhile since the last episode in the Monkeewrench saga, so I was really looking forward to this book. While it’s not my favorite in the series, there’s still plenty to like--a scary, pulled-from-the-headlines kind of story, set in a city I'll always be fond of, featuring the further antics of a quirky group of lovable misfits. There’s a little bit of character development, too, particularly of Monkeewrench's notably prickly head Grace McBride, who actually makes friends --whoa!--with the FBI contact while she also contemplates the nature of her relationship with detective Leo Magozzi. (Unfortunately, there just isn’t quite enough character interaction for my taste; the fun of watching these uncomfortable people try to sort of "fit in" isn't so much in evidence here, and I miss that.)
Still, Shoot to Thrill features a truly chilling premise, dealing as it does with desensitization toward violence mixed with an insatiable desire to be in the limelight. Even though there’s a resolution to most of the bad stuff contained in this book, you can’t help but walk away knowing that this kind of scenario could really happen--anywhere, any day--and is probably just the tip of the iceberg as far as what people will probably try. It's a pretty sure thing that we still haven’t seen nearly the worst that people can do, yet. For all the good things that have happened since the advent of (and absolute reliance on) computers and all that other gee-whiz-bang technology, you can’t help but realize that it’s also given some very bad people a huge stage--the largest arena possible, really--on which to act out their wildest, darkest, fantasies.
Monsters? They live and walk among us. Or, at least, they sit at their computers all day and plan crazy-creepy stuff.
GlamKitty rating: 4 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)