Saturday, December 20, 2014

The powers of detection, 2014.

Since the BBC first brought Sherlock to the modern day, we've had plenty of interesting conversations about how Sherlock Holmes would work in the modern day. Where the text message making a handy replacement for the telegram, that sort of thing. But as we focus on the remarkable personality of one Sherlock Holmes, we often miss what is happening to the rest of us.

Our powers are growing.

Take observation, for example. Sherlock Holmes had the ability to notice the most minute detail and then draw inferences from it. Paying attention was a key part of his methods, living in the moment and taking in all the visual information presented at any given second. Such skills were rare and amazing, something none of us had . . . until suddenly we all had them, in our pockets.

A smartphone can capture a scene with so many megapixels that we can look at the minute details for as long as we want. One second can now last for days as we magnify and scan each bit for all the information it has to offer. Sure, we might not recognize every facet of everything we see at first. We lack knowledge, right?

Well, that used to be a problem. Now we're connected to the biggest repository of human knowledge that ever existed as well. Research on obscure subjects is not dependent upon travel and tutelage. The web may not be omniscient, and it does have it's fallacies and falsehoods, but so does any human mind you'd care to name. And the web contains a lot more valid data than that same mind.

All this has its flaws, yes, but before you cite your favorite failing of modern technology as a reason we can't raise ourselves to cyber-Sherlock status, consider this about Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Before Sherlock came on the scene, even a goodly number of his devoted fans would have told you that he could not work in the modern day, that his skills were too closely tuned to the habits and world of the Victorian age. But that argument has always missed one key point about our friend Sherlock.

It wasn't about the specific facts that Sherlock Holmes knew. It was about how he gathered them.

If you go back to A Study in Scarlet, you'll find one of the great factors Watson brings out is that in creating a profession all his own, Sherlock Holmes used cross-discipline studies to make himself the best detective possible. He looked at every bit of knowledge from every field he could and thought "Could this be useful to a detective?" and then kept or dropped it accordingly.

A specific set of Victorian data wasn't what made Sherlock Holmes. It was his ability to use everything that came within his reach to its fullest potential. Whether it was in 1887 or 2014, that ability would still serve him well.

So as technology takes our personal powers to the next level, Sherlock Holmes, we will always find Sherlock Holmes, the true Sherlock Holmes, still one step ahead of us, should he come around.  He'll be using every bit of tech we have, and then some of the new things we weren't even thinking about as useful in the art of detection. And that's what makes him Sherlock Holmes.

Once, long ago in the early 1980s, my friend Bob Burr and I spent an evening making merry at the expense of a book of pastiches called Sherlock Holmes in Modern Times by Ira Bernard Dworkin. We considered the author something of an Ed Wood of literature, more enthusiasm than talent, and were reading passages from the book and getting quite the chuckle. In the final pages of the book, Sherlock Holmes and Watson have a very odd conversation.

"But Holmes, how will you keep up with technology," Watson asks, then rambling for a full paragraph in the style Dworkin favored, finishing with the words, ". . . even with your keen mind."

Holmes's reply is equally rambling: "Yes, Watson, you are right. My methods are old-fashioned, outdated. I must go back to the university and learn about the Third World, computers, laser beams, space technology, aerodynamics, automation, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, new energy sources, artificial insemination, women's liberation, clothing, new religions, plea bargaining, affirmative action, ad infinitum."  (Mr. Dworkin definitely had forgotten, as many writers do, Holmes's "brain attic" speech. Ad inifinitum was definitely something Holmes held back from. I also enjoy that he needed to learn about clothing, apparently, having gone nudist at some point.)

But then Dworkin's Holmes says something that is actually very profound, given what we've seen in Sherlock: "But I do not have to relearn the meaning of justice. My knowledge of and the quest for justice is still the lodestone of my existence." Despite all his literary quirkiness, Ira Bernard Dworkin got one thing right, back in 1980, in a book that was surely a vanity press publication. It isn't about what Sherlock Holmes knows, it's about his goals in using it, and his focus upon them.

Even in Modern Times.

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