Iain Banks: The Interpreter of Culture

These days I’m spending far too much time rereading favourite books or watching favourite movies because their author, director, star has carked it. And while on the one hand, it’s depressing, on the other it helps to remind me of the glories of their lives and why they were both popular and excellent at the same time.

As I reread The Player of Games, Iain Banks most excellent second culture novel from 1988, I’m sad that, after this months new release, no more from his mind will arrive to be read while also remaining in awe of both his storytelling capabilities and his perception.

Consider this extract on the freedom of information and Privacy in the context of our current society’s struggle with the free availability of information and how that compromises Privacy.

You could find out most things, if you knew the right questions to ask. Even if you didn’t, you could still find out a lot. The Culture had theoretical total freedom of information; the catch was that consciousness was private, and information held in a Mind – as opposed to an unconscious system, like the Hub’s memory-banks – was regarded as part of the Mind’s being, and so as sacrosanct as the contents of a human brain; a Mind could hold any set of facts and opinions it wanted without having to tell anybody what it knew or thought, or why.

And so, while Hub protected his privacy, Gurgeh found out, without having to ask Chamlis, that what Mawhrin-Skel had said might be true; there were indeed levels of event-recording which could not be easily faked, and which drones of above-average specification were potentially capable of using. Such recordings, especially if they had been witnessed by a Mind in a real-time link, would be accepted as genuine. His mood of renewed optimism started to sink away from him again.

Also, there was an SC Mind, that of the Limited Offensive Unit Gunboat Diplomat, which had supported Mawhrin-Skel’s appeal against the decision which had removed the drone from Special Circumstances.

The feeling of dazed sickness started to fill him again.

He wasn’t able to find out when Mawhrin-Skel and the LOU had last been in touch; that, again, counted as private information. Privacy; that brought a bitter laugh to his mouth, thinking of the privacy he’d had over the last few days and nights.

Now remember it was written in 1988 and try and cast your mind back to how information was available then and how privacy might have worked. In my view Banks has perceived our present (his future) based upon a very limited technology compared to what we have today. Sure they had interconnected computers back then, but I think he was quite ambitious to think that just 25 years later we’d have something approaching Culture levels of information scraping, sharing and the impacts that has on privacy.

I’m sure as I plough my way through The Player of Games for the umpteenth time, I’ll rediscover much much more that associates somehow with recent situations. And then, I’ll think hard about what in 1988 might have given Banks that perception of these things a quarter of a century later, at the time of his death.

And I’ll raise a dram to his memory while I do it. Slainte Beatha, a chairde.

UPDATE: Looks like I’ll have to start watching The Sopranos from scratch now as well.


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