Reading _Rainbows End_: part two

What might education look like in the near future?

Rainbows End on my bookshelfLet’s explore by continuing our reading of Vernor Vinge’s 2006 novel Rainbows End.  Last week we read the first nine chapters.  Today we’ll look into the next ten, chapters 10-19.

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 virtual augmented 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.

  1. Plot

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).

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5 Responses to Reading _Rainbows End_: part two

  1. bowneps says:

    I was engrossed up to this point, and then something shook me loose. I’m still not sure what. Perhaps it was the destructive scanning process in the library, or the completely ineffective group fighting it; they seem so irrelevant to the project for which rabbit has enlisted them. I’m fine with some plot slippage, but when it slips into a horrific direction and I can’t see the reason, my motivation decreases. Also, I can’t see why nobody is arguing against the librareome project on the grounds that virtual copies of books can be hacked.

    • Tom Haymes says:

      I think the hacking comment is implied but I think the bigger point Vinge is trying to make is that they are giving knowledge/information over to a key gatekeeper who may or may not have humanity’s best interest in mind. This goes very much against the central tenet ot the university concept. I also don’t see this as a digression.

      The novel is about the mirrors created by information. The virtual library is a mirror of the physical one, albeit one heavily flawed. Getting to Bryan’s question, I think the key takeaway from the library transformation is the conversion of the library to an environment that emphasizes superficial entertainment. I can see parallels in the efforts of librarians in our day trying to make their libraries more attractive by offering more entertaining options than increasingly irrelevant books on their shelves. (If you want a closely guarded academic secret, don’t look for students’ personal information, look for library circulation records.)

      There are huge opportunities for librarians in an Information Age. After all, they have always been stewards of information. This used to be primarily seen as guardians of the tomes. However, their role as literacy champions and guides has not diminished. It’s more needed than ever before. Interestingly, Vinge does not delve into this issue very deeply as we don’t see librarians doing much teaching (at least not so far).

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    On page 189 (paperback), the “Mysterious Stranger” says to Gu: “You are naive, Professor. Our wold is overflowing with technical expertise. Knowledge is piled metaphorical light years deep. Given that, the truly golden skill is the one I possess – to bring together the knowledge and abilities that make solutions.”

    This is the kind of “education” that seems to make you truly powerful in this world. I’ve actually been telling people for awhile that the age of accumulating specialist knowledge is ending in all but a few fields and that the key skill in the future will be assembling different pieces toward a holistic end. In the IT world, it’s increasingly not about fixing a single PC or coding a single program. It’s about connecting technologies among hardware systems, between hardware and software, and, most importantly, between both and augmenting human capacities. That is a a rare skill, and one that our siloed version of industrialized education does a poor job of teaching.

    The name of the game in industrialized education was specializing and you were valued by just how deep you could go into a particular subject. Yet, the geniuses of the present and future are increasingly expert in linking fields of knowledge in new and innovative ways, leveraging the power of information to serve specific ends. Given resistance to interdisciplinary efforts at most institutions, education may struggle to adapt to this new reality. It’s only partially adapted in the book. Rabbit points out that Ms. Chumlig does the same thing he does but at a much lower level. I guess that’s why she teaching instead of spying….(or is she? – I suspect Alice is the Rabbit, BTW – Lewis Carroll wink.)

  3. I’m so horribly out of sync that I can’t figure how to best participate in the comments, so for now I just wrote something to leave here. Hopefully I can swing back later with more thoughts.

  4. Pingback: Reading _Rainbows End_: the conclusion | Bryan Alexander

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