Charles Petzold

Of a Book Entitled “Follow the Data”

February 26, 2008
New York, N.Y.

In 1999, as I was finishing work on my book Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, I had ideas for four "spin-off" books. I prepared single-page descriptions of each of these book ideas and showed them to my agent. Her favorite and my favorite was a book that I called Follow the Data.

I decided I didn't want to try to get a book contract for Follow the Data right away. I wanted to try writing at least some of it free from the pressures of contracts and deadlines to see how it went. (I had done the same thing with Code: I wrote the first 10 chapters of Code before I showed it to anybody.)

The title of Follow the Data came from the famous line "Follow the money" that screenwriter William Goldman wrote for the film version of All the President's Men. My idea was to explain different types of analog and digital storage and communications by showing how the data is transformed in various ways and then transmitted or stored. (For example, vocal cords vibrate sound in waves to vibrate a microphone diaphragm that converts sound to electrical waves to be input to an analog-to-digital convertor, etc.)

I didn't want the book to be purely technical, however. I wanted to have actual characters in the book just like in a novel, except when a character would take out a cell phone and start dialing, the book would shift to a technical discussion of what's happening inside the phone, and then trace the data until it reached the ear of the person on the other end, and then the book would proceed somewhat as a novel again.

In short, any time that anybody used any type of media — be it written, spoken, visual, audio, mechanical, electrical, electronic, etc, etc, etc, — the book would go off on a technical tangent.

I wanted my main character to be a musician of some sort, and I thought it would be most illuminating to have sections of the book set in the past, so I could discuss some obsolete forms of technology such as the telegraph or acoustic sound recording or the newspaper. To make it simple, I decided to spread out the book (and my character's life) over 100 years. The book would have five sections separated by 25 years, corresponding to the years 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975, and 2000. What a perfect book to be published in the first year of the new century!

But what type of musician would still be performing at the age of 100? Not an opera singer or a classical pianist, for sure. But perhaps... a blues singer? And with that thought, the book crystallized very quickly. My main character would be a blues singer in the tradition of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter. I named her Mrs. G (I don't know where that came from) and I knew that she also played banjo like Elizabeth Cotten did in her early years.

In the 1900 section, she is born to a middle-class family in Atlanta. Her father is a professional photographer (storage of visual information), and he sends a telegraph (transmission of text) announcing the birth of his daughter to relatives up north.

In the 1925 section, Mrs. G is married, a new mother of a baby boy, and playing her music and recording 78s on acoustic equipment. Her father is now an aspiring filmmaker, perhaps a somewhat older version of Oscar Micheaux.

In the 1950 section, Mrs. G's son (a veteran of the second world war) is involved in the early civil rights movement. Mrs. G appears on the Ed Sullivan Show.

In the 1975 section, people are playing eight-tracks and cassette tapes. Mrs. G goes into a studio to record some of her old songs but an over-enthusiastic producer decides to mix her music with more modern tracks, making what is later regarded as a "travesty."

It is the year 2000 and Mrs. G is 100 years old. People are using cell phones and computers. Mrs. G has been persuaded to come to New York City to record some of her old songs on state-of-the-art digital equipment. This time there will be no messing with it. A film crew is making a documentary about this recording session, and everything going on is electronic and digital — except for Mrs. G playing her old banjo and singing. In the last scene she is standing outside the downtown studio performing live with no electronics at all for a group of awestruck New Yorkers.

On and off, for almost a year I worked on Follow the Data, mapping out what technologies I'd be discussing in what contexts, as well as doing a considerable amount of period research. I remember spending many hours in the library trying to figure out precisely the level of technology involved in 1950 television, for example, and how live broadcasting was done.

The research was going fine. The actual writing was a disaster. Without quite realizing it, I had plotted out a 20th century epic — except that this particular historical epic wasn't really the point of the book! The book was supposed to show how information gets from place to place, and from person to person. I was trying to mesh two completely different books into one coherent narrative, and it just would not cohere. Every time I sat down to write a simple scene, I'd be horrified at the result.

It's not good to be horrified at your work. When you're trying to write a book, you want pleasant, uplifting, and encouraging thoughts going through your head. What seemed to go through my head when working on Follow the Data was the scene in Godfather II where Kay describes to Michael Corleone her concept of their marriage: "Oh, Michael. Michael, you are blind. It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that's unholy and evil."

It's not good to be thinking of your work as "unholy and evil" and as a freelancer, it's definitely not good to be spending so much time on something that's just not working at all. There comes a time when you have to admit defeat and move on.

Sometime towards the summer of 2000, the book entitled Follow the Data collapsed under its own weight. I'm not sure there was ever one day when I realized the book would never be written; I think it happened more gradually. Mrs. G — who by this time was a very real person to me — would never get out of my head onto the page. Follow the Data died, but Mrs. G has never quite faded away. I can still hear her music in my head.

I knew from the beginning that Follow the Data was an odd and unusual book, but by the summer of 2000 I knew it was a little too odd and unusual. Some books were never meant to be. I wondered what I could possibly do next.

By September 2000, I was working on my first book about the new Microsoft software technology known as .NET.