What might education look like in the near future?
I’ll begin by sketching out the plot from this section, then add some notes about the world, followed by questions.
(For more information about this online book club reading, click here.)
But first, I wanted to share some good reflections on the novel so far from a reader over on Google+. There Marc Schnau comments:
My personal highlight was the slowly developing connection between Gu and Orozco. In my opinion, there was a lot of potential. And I didn’t worry about Gu, being some kind of a sociopath (I’m a fan of Grimdark fantasy and some of the main characters … phew).
But over the next chapters, it felt like Vinge didn’t have a clear vision about the course of the story. Is it about human beings, humanity in strange times, a dystopy or some kind of a general critique of society? Or a little of everything without a real focus?
The whole tech-thingy was a bit trend-ignoring: wearables, interactive papers, hot topics in many SF novellas written in the 80s and 90s.
Vinge does mention a problem with online learning as a important factor for the loss of a lively university community, but instead of diving deeper into this, he pays more attention to the problem of
virtualaugmented vs real life without getting to the point (before I decided to switch to the next book from my virtual shelf).
Marc, carry on! We enter the local university this week, and in a big way. Agreed about Gu/Orozco.
Robert Gu continues learning about the new world. He gets better at technology. He connects with more people, including Pakistani Zulfikar Sharif, whom Miri hires to help Robert, and “the Elder Cabal”, a group of university faculty and staff opposed to aspects of new technology and planning a daring act. We learn that his dead wife, Lena, is actually still alive, having faked her death to get away from Robert; Miri tries to reconnect them. We learn more about Alice’s work. And Gu is still mean to people.
A Google-like company is running a Google Books-ish scanning project, Librareome, in the local university’s library. We tour that library of the future, including an elaborate, fantasy-themed AR environment.
The intelligence plot advances through conversations between the principals. Rabbit runs several schemes, and we learn a possible identity for him.
2. World notes
Vinge keeps growing the world, pretty energetically.
History: the Chinese tried an early version of You-Gotta-Believe-Me weapons during an occupation of Myanmar, but it didn’t succeed (104-5). Sharif refers to America as the old world (107) (!). Chicago was hit by a nuclear weapon five years before the novel’s time (159). The Palestinian uprising against Israel ended (167). We learn a little more about a war between China and America, including an attempt to create military-grade artificial intelligence (178-9; 201-2).
Culture: there’s Goodenuf English, apparently a basic version of the language, possibly augmented by Spanish and/or pictograms (103). There’s a game called “Egan soccer”, which is, I think, a nod to Australian science fiction writer Greg Egan (155). Several AR levels are named after Escher and Terry Pratchett (174-5) People can team up virtually into a “joint entity”:
“Partners with complementary strengths and weaknesses. In public you are one, represented by the mobile partner. But what you can do and understand is the best of each of you.” (144)
Information and digital literacy: information quality might be worse than it is now. “Disinformation is king” complains Tommie (170). Generational divides based on technological use are deep. And Terry “Pratchett owns a rather large part of Scotland.” (182)
Ecology: countries or businesses ship icebergs for fresh water (105).
Technology: one character sports “typer rings” (119). There’s also wired clothing, like an “old” t-shirt which displays digital content (119). Another character mentions the possibility of “game stripes” within clothing (138), while a third refers to having had to “fry-clean” corrupted clothing (163) and a fourth “flickers” over dinner (190). The messaging system allows for delayed, scheduled releases, once like a Harry Potter howler (137).
An easy game to play is “synch monster”, when several people each take control of part of a giant stuffed animal (147) (this is also a neat metaphor for different people manipulating Robert Gu). The local high school has medical sensors which can read people’s emotions (156); cars have multiple cameras, which people can access remotely (181). Small robots can harass (161). Augmented reality can be haptic, including touch (172). Many fans can collaboratively create a shared AR world (181). Individuals can fly across 3d maps through an “out of body” feature (195).
Buildings can use “stability servos” to move around in response to earthquakes (176). The federal government has access to a Secure Hardware Environment (SHE).
Librareome project: led by oneMax Huertas, it promises to respect copyright by setting up micropayments to authors (and copyright holders, too?) (132). Huertas also wants to combine the scans with “all classical knowledge” to create “a single, object-situational database” (166).
Education: “senior issues” is in the elementary or middle school curriculum (138). Note that Robert Gu despises teaching (149). We see more multimedia creation (162). There was a failed attempt to teach directly to the human brain in wartime, “Just in Time Training” (178-9). There are still final exams (213).
Meta: Gu and Blount sneer at and defend science fiction (128). Miri describes a connection between two people as “an incredible coincidence” (140).
3. Questions to brood upon
- Robert Gu “felt a moment of pure joy the first time he managed to type a query on a phantom keyboard and view the Google response floating in the air” (111). If he’s becoming more tech-fluent, will he lose his more traditionally humanistic skills?
- So much of the novel teeters on the divide between mind and brain. The Alfred Gaz plot is about controlling human brains. The JITT program tried to teach directly into the brain. People are worried about having the bodies hijacked through software. Where is this theme headed?
- Gu refers to Rabbit as “Mysterious Stranger”, presumably referencing Mark Twain’s unfinished novel of the same name. Should we view the hacker as Satanic?
- Robert Gu is also showing signs of becoming less vile (feeling bad about his family’s dislike, 183; a hint of guilt, 188; a touch of sympathy, 216), and of changing his skills (gaining “analytical talent”, 186). How is he as a point of view character at this point?
- Bob and Alice as an encryption reference makes sense, if Rabbit’s trying to hack them.
What do you think of the book now, two-thirds of the way in?
Next week we finish the novel. On July 31 I’ll post on chapters 20-epilogue (pages 217-364 of the hardcover edition).