Thoughts on Rainbows End

I’ve just finished reading Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. It’s ‘hard sci-fi’ set in about 2030 or so. “Hard”, in this case, means that the science basically makes sense. So the book is really a fairly serious piece of “world system” futurism supporting a plot-line and characters. This book was recommended to me a few months ago by Luis Villa, a tech-savvy law student at Columbia I had the pleasure of meeting last fall.

In general I’d say this is a very good book, with a relevant plot that illustrates how the old and young will adapt differently to technology, how global spy networks will operate, and how we will cope with world-ending technologies of the future. Vinge’s characters provoke, and his language does not appall, at least. For anybody interested in how virtual space and wireless communications might change the world over the next twenty years or so, the book vaults into the ranks of the really extremely fascinating.

Basically Vinge describes a pretty convincing version of how cyberspace will come to be useful in reality. The key technical insight, I believe, is the nearly world-wide grid of geo-locating network nodes. By triangulating between these reference points, real bodies can map virtual bodies over themselves.
I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for a while, and in fact many of my ideas about a gesture-based interface come up in this novel, which is somewhat reinforcing, I suppose. The importance of gesture — of ‘reading’ other people’s identities correctly while also using subtle gestures to issue commands — is a pretty hopeful look at how virtual/cyborg prosthetics might actually increase the spectrum of human expression in the future.

One thought that came to my mind recently, before starting this book, was that geo-locating nodes sprinkled by the millions over a war-zone might put an end to ground operations or even all physical war-making, because they could make all large-scale movement globally public. A large NGO with a few billion dollars could probably make this a reality.

In Vinge’s internet that kind of global information is mostly the privileged domain of the military, unfortunately. But despite this depressing view of where internet security is going, I think overall the book is perhaps a little too optimistic. The world system seems a little too perfect — no global warming, not much talk of mass poverty, wealth inequality, new diseases, etc. Vinge is clearly heavily influenced by the same theories of education that drive the One Laptop per Child project at MIT, and he describes a world where children from developing countries have access to the world virtual internet at an early age. The result will be a whole generation of proficient Googlers, collaborators and problem-solvers. To his credit Vinge describes pretty interesting ways in which internet search will expand — the real-time formation of “Analyst Pools” is particularly cool, but I get a disturbing feeling that he sees the internet acting as a global nanny.

Finally, the book shows a remarkable lack of deep appreciation for current human artforms, I think. Art in the future seems to come down to something closer to special effects. This strikes me as prescient, but I’m not sure Vinge is aware of what his world has lost…
Anyway I highly recommend this book to people who care about the future and are willing to put in the effort to envision an augmented reality.

Next on my reading list (this Christmas dumped a lot on me):

Finishing Paul Virilio’s Negative Horizon

Sampling from Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project

Three new books on Go

Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which I hope I’ll like since I really didn’t like Leviathan much

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude

A recent anthology of comics put out by the Yale university press (can’t remember name offhand)

A book on Synergetics (name escapes me)… and there are more, Christ!

1 comment to Thoughts on Rainbows End

  • [...] 2. “The trees have eyes” is an article about distributed sensing, specifically sensors intended to be spread around the jungles of Africa to detect poachers. But clearly distributed sensors are coming on a much broader scale (Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End delves into this a bit). It’s a kind of “thickening” of the soup we all live in, another layer of registration of all our activity, which could turn out well or poorly. In Vinge, the military has its own layer of protocols running on all the sensors (GPS gives us a precedent, though it’s much more mild); this strikes me as completely terrifying. [...]

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>