Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Book Review: Rainbows End

Before being attacked by the Lynne Trusses of the world, the title of Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End is not missing an apostrophe. The book is named after a retirement community which was chosen by either "an everyday illiterate or someone who really understood the place.” Vinge is part of a wave of technologically sophisticated authors depicting the post-internet world, this cadre includes Charles Stross, William Gibson and Cory Doctorow, yet I am reluctant to call this movement cyberpunk. Post-cyberpunk maybe?

The book is very technical in nature, and includes dialogue on instant messaging (thankfully not on chatspeak); it also introduces several new acronyms for neuroscience technologies that we may have in the future: JITT (Just In Time Training), and YGBM (You Gotta Believe Me). It is possible that all of this SMing and techno-speak may put-off some people, but they do work in the context of the hyper-connected world described by Vinge. While the text conversations get clunky at times, the story makes up for it, and the characters jump out of the page, particularly the main character, erstwhile poet and recovered Alzhaimer sufferer Robert Gu.

The world of Rainbows End is what makes the novel memorable, and I beleive that it showcases three new technologies that make it an excellent read for cyberlaw classes. In this world, medicine has not only managed to expand lifespans considerably, it has begun reversing the process of ageing, particularly neurological debilitating diseases such as Alzheimers. Vinge's real triumph is to describe what would a world inhabited by rejuvenated elderly would look like, particularly because medicine cannot cure everything. So there are people like Robert Gu who have made astounding recoveries, while there are other lucid yet infirm elderly on wheelchairs. This world is also one where wireless broadband is ubiquitous, but the internet looks nothing like ours. Computers are wearable and include contact lenses that over-impose an information layer to reality, so the future web is a vast world of augmented reality where people can wear avatars in everyday life, but also where everything and everyone is tagged with information. The third technological feature of this world is that it is a strictly controlled hardware environment, where every piece of gear has embedded protection that connects with both Homeland Security and with certificate authorities. This allows a level of control that we cannot dream of, but it is also a rather vulnerable world.

There are some really interesting considerations of this post-geriatric world. Leaving aside the bioethics of the technologies described, I found the social implications staggering. We already live in an era sharply divided along generational lines. The wired generations live in a different world than that of the analog ones. While the number of older people adopting some of the technologies is growing (my mother has joined Facebook and frequents internet forums), there is still a large disconnect with the possibilities presented by the user-generated world, so there are entire generations left behind. This is not really explored in social research in cyberspace, but Vinge presents us with an important question. What if lifespans keep getting longer, and older generations have the mental learning capabilities that they had when they were younger? The answer is both shocking and elegant. Send them to school! In Rainbows End, schools are filled with the very young and the very old, both learning how to use and navigate the datastreams. This makes a lot of sense, but it also presents some challenges for a society where the old and the new clash in such manner. There is an endearing connection between teenagers and the old geezers that I found both believable and desirable. Technology could bring back respect for one's elders. What a liberating idea!

Rainbows End is also the ultimate user-generated world. Users can modify themselves, but also their environment. There is one fan-generated layer covering the entire world which has mapped Pratchett's Discworld into our own, so if you were in China you would be in the Agatean Empire, if you were in London you would see Ankh-Morpork, and presumably if you were in Australia you would see XXX. In fact, the world is filled with these "belief circles" where fans choose which reality to inhabit, and sometimes they clash and fight for recognition and space.

Finally, Rainbows End depicts a tightly controlled network environment, where every piece of hardware must have a valid certificate issued by an authorised certificate authority. This is simply the endgame of Trusted Computing, and the embedding of technological protection measures not only into media, but into every single piece of equipment that has a chip inside. While in theory, this allows a level of surveillance unmatched even by our CCTV crazy environment, it can also be circumvented. Vinge's genius is that he recognises that even if those pushing for secure hardware environments get their wishes fulfilled, hackers would still be able to circumvent the technologies by using illegal gear. But also, Vinge describes the dangers of such a world, which would be vulnerable to cascading failures if someone was able to attack a single ceritficate authority and void a whole lot of permissions.

To conclude, Rainbows End is a wonderful look at the near future, but one that leaves some questions for us to decide. I like his view of the post-geriatric world, and I think that augmented reality will soon be here. The book is filled little gems and witticisms that make it highly enjoyable and readable if you get past the texting.

And yes, rainbows do end.

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