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Deconstructing "John Doe"
By Jerome Woody
January 19, 2003

Who is "John Doe"?

A man awakes, naked, in a fetal position on an island somewhere. Disoriented, he finds himself walking off shore, then drifting through the ocean, to eventually be found by a fishermen's ship. The fishermen on the boat cover the shivering man up with a blanket and begin to ask him about his situation. They ask him where he thinks he is. He tells them that he is located off the coast of Seattle. They ask him what time and date it is. He tells them the month, day, year, hour, minute, and second of that current moment. Another thing: these fishermen are from China and the man finds himself giving them the answers in Cantonese. Finally, one of the fishermen asks him if he knows what his name is. The man stares at the fisherman, and finally admits that he doesn't know his name, or who he is in general.

This is the opening scene of the pilot episode of John Doe, a mid-season replacement series that aired on Fox last fall. In the tradition of a more popular Fox show, The X-Files, John Doe is a mystery series with a surreal twist. The stranded man is the main protagonist in the series, a man who seems to know everything except his past and who he is. He names himself "John Doe" and begins to help out the Seattle Police in solving complex mysteries.
John's abilities are part of a growing trend of characters in science fiction, people who are gifted with what can be described as "information intuition," either having a direct link to information and knowledge automatically, or having the ability to use vast amounts of information in various ways. In John's case, his information intuition can also be called an "auto-pragmatic sense" due to what information abilities he has and, more importantly, what information abilities he doesn't have. For example, John Doe knows general knowledge, facts, figures, people and places, pretty much the kind of information that you have to answer in games of "Trivial Pursuit." He also knows academic knowledge, mathematics, physics, psychology, etc; the man is a walking university. Interestingly enough, he also has a temporal sense, he knows the current time instantly, and never carries a watch. And of course, he knows every living and dead language created by man.

But John's awareness has limits, he only knows people of public record, public figures, celebrities; he doesn't seem to be a human phone book. Also, he's neither psychic nor pre-cognitive, so he can't read men's minds or see into the future, so the information that he knows, although constantly updating itself, does not contain information of a personal or confidential nature. Finally, he doesn't have any super-analytical ability; he's no Sherlock Homes. But he doesn't need to be super-analytical. Why go through the analysis of the information when he already knows the information that would be come from the result of that analysis? That's why John Doe's awareness can be called auto-pragmatic, because he knows the knowledge already without going through the psycho-linguistic process of information-to-knowledge transformation.

John Doe as an Information System

If you told a systems analyst to create a Data Flow Diagram of John Doe, she would throw the case file back in your face and say that you were insane. If John Doe was analyzed as a data process, he would be known in the systems design world as "a miracle" (of course, that does seem to be the plot, doesn't it?), a process that can output information, but has no known source of where that information comes from. But imagine if you asked that same person to do a user interface analysis of our friend John. She would probably come back later and say that he has the perfect user interface. John, despite his extraordinary abilities, is a human being, processing the same gift of human communications as anyone else. He could take the vast amount of information he has at his exposal and transfer it to others through conversation. And he, like anyone else, has the ability to know what specific information people are looking for. Such casual queries would be too ambiguous for even the most sophisticated information system with natural language processing properties to decipher. Hell, I personally would like my own "John Doe." Of course, my version would look a lot like Halle Barry.

Information initiatives in popular culture

Although John Doe is a cool idea, like most Hollywood-spawned works, it is not really an original one. In fact, characters that can be labeled as information intuitives are growing in number in popular science fiction. The most well known and prolific creator of information intuitives is the man who created the term "cyber-space," cyber-punk pioneer William Gibson. Gibson has created information intuitives as central characters in four of his novels, Mona-Lisa Overdrive, Idoru, All Tomorrow's Parties, and the upcoming novel, Pattern Recognition. Two information intuitives of his creation, "Colen Langley" and "Candyce Pollard" have an ability that can best be described as super-cognitive data mining. They don't have the automatic information base that John Doe has, but can magically know future trends and events by looking at vast amounts of data. These abilities are a bit more practical than the John Doe example, but are still just as significant. But what does all does this mean, especially in the context of the information itself?

Is information magic?

Well, we all know that information is not magic, or do we? Take the idea of magic itself, in particular magic in Western-European mythology. In those myths, old men with long white beards utter words from books, and amazing things result. Even in this era, people of various religions pray to a god, an information transfer between devoted and deity, with the hope that he/she would answer. Of course, I'm only scratching the surface of this question. A better source would be Erik Davis, author of the book Techgnosis, Myth and Mysticism in the Age of Information. But either way, the information intuitives discussed in this article can be described as modern day or even future day (in the context of the Colin Laney character) magicians, those with the gift to tap into the old and hidden power of information. But enough with the philosophy of things; back to John Doe.

John Doe and the Library Profession

So what do John Doe and other characters of information intuitive abilities in general have to do with the library profession? In the context of library and librarianship advocacy, the answer is a bit complex. First, since neither Mr. Doe nor any information intuitive characters that I have come across are librarians by trade, you can't say that they give librarianship a spotlight (although there is one scene in the first episode of John Doe where John goes into a library and starts answering reference questions for patrons, but all that really resulted in was embarrassing the reference librarian on staff). But if people who are fans of the show or any other works in which information intuitives are key players can relate the characters' extraordinary abilities with the skill that librarians have, it may be of great benefit of the profession, but only if.

Another issue is whether or not librarians may even want to be associated with their mythical counterparts. For information and information professions to be considered mythical, there has to be an aura of secrecy and an almost unattainable link to it. Noam Chomsky once said that the first property of power was to make it secret and closed off from the witnesses of that power. As a profession, do librarians and other information professionals want to sacrifice easy access to users of their information gathering and analysis for that of legend-caliber notoriety?

Perhaps the way that these characters in fiction can benefit librarians is in the fact that they do show the power of an informed person, and that librarians are a resource in which people can be their own unique John Does, without the commercials and the hour-long time slot. In general, librarians can just stay the way they are, committed to service and to satisfying the information needs of the user, and perhaps one day a super-hero like John Doe will appear in fiction that has an MLIS degree.


Two things: if you want to see John Doe, I'm afraid that like most mid-season replacements on the Fox network, poor John may have been dropped for an absurd Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire type show on Friday nights. Hopefully, what ever content they have of the show will be available on video at some later date. Also, the writer would like to express that he wrote this article in a bar in Capitol Hill while in the process of getting drunk (man, I really need to get a girlfriend).

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Edited by Michael Harkovitch

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