Review of Rainbow’s End

Posted: February 1, 2010 in Com 546

Rainbows End is a novel based on author Vernor Vinge’s futuristic vision of technological singularity. Written in 2006, this story is set in San Diego in the year 2025. Vinge’s foresight regarding a technological shift in the way we communicate is intriguing, entertaining, and even feasible, as many of his predictions are already in their root stages today.

Rainbows End is about a widely renowned poet by the name of Robert Gu, who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for years. Thanks to medical advances in technology, Gu gets treatment that reverses the effects of his disease. While this may seem like a blessing, at the age of 75 Gu is disturbed by the new digitally driven world with which he now has to integrate. In order to learn new technical skills, he must return to Fairmont High to take classes on topics that are now instinct for youth like his 13-year-old granddaughter, Miri.

Through a range of twists and turns Robert Gu is academically driven to partner with various entities, young and old, and accidentally weaves himself into a conspiring plot that threatens national security. Robert’s, roommates, his son and daughter-in-law, are also coincidentally integrated into the conspiracy as top military officials investigating the possibility of a breach.

This novel is based on the foundation of an augmented reality. People are able to “wear” via advanced contact lenses that not only serve as internet browsers and search engines, but also as game facilitators and visual alteration systems. Users can complete various tasks by simply visualizing what they want to see along with what they want others to see. While this technology may sound like something from the movies, only two years after the release of Rainbows End National Geographic featured an article on the development of a new contact lens embedded with electric circuits. The circuits allowed users to see displays within their line of view. The University of Washington is still developing the technology, but it is projected to aid people with vision impairments as well as provide readouts for driving directions and web surfing (Jackson 2008). Much like the applications Robert Gu was expected to use them for in 2025.

Initially Gu hates the idea of “wearing” and refuses to wear the lenses. Like many of today’s older generations, he is taken aback by the digital advances that transpired over only a few years and is in denial about the need to use them. In this book, society soon finds out that these advances are not “fads” but shifts in the ways we communicate, much like the nature of today’s social production revolution. One of Gu’s older classmates, Dean, thought wearing was a fad, and as a result was forced into early retirement.

Over time Gu becomes more familiarized with his new digitally oriented surroundings and we watch him go through the five stages of technological adoption as dictated in the book Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers (Rogers 1962). At first he develops a negative attitude toward these fundamental changes in his everyday life. He then makes the decision to reject learning how to utilize the technology, but ultimately is persuaded by its capabilities to implement and adopt these methods as processes to be utilized.

As Gu learns more about the wearing technology he realizes that this augmented reality has had a huge impact on the one place he loved the most, the library. In Vinge’s vision of 2025 physical libraries are at risk for extinction. All the books are digitized and access to those materials is restricted to the web. Much like the idea of wearing itself, this notion of fully digitized libraries is not far-fetched, it’s already happening. In a report from Overdrive, a website manager for over 9,000 library websites, from 2007 to 2008 there was a 63 percent increase in the amount of people who searched for references on their local library’s website. Last year CBS News Correspondent Nancy Cordes went to a bookmobile and didn’t see a single page. Books were replaced with e-readers for downloading what used to be stacked in the back of the truck (Cordes 2009). Clearly we are well on our way to fully digitized libraries. While I hope that physical libraries will always exist, with the rapid growth of online access and information sharing I can see why Vinge predicted that they could be at serious risk in the future.

Considering the emergence of social media networks, and overall increased interaction on the world wide web over the past decade it is clear that the world is in the process of becoming a networked society driven by information gathering and sharing (Benkler 2006). In open networks issues regarding privacy arise, as is illustrated in Rainbows End. By “wearing” users are able to look up personal details about each other while still in one another’s presence. We see similar habits today, HR departments research prospective employees, and ‘googling’ someone has become somewhat of a standard for dating in the digital age. There is even a new app for smartphones that allows users to search for background checks on the go. The app, called Stud or Dud, looks up everything from marital history to criminal record checks (Gross 2009). The only difference with Vinge’s software is that users can find this information at the blink of an eye, literally. Through “wearing” people can read search-related information while still appearing to be engaged in the conversation.

Vinge’s vision of a digitally enhanced world is clearly feasible considering the technologies that are still being developed today. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in speculative science fiction in the digital media sector. The more I analyzed Vernor Vinge’s vision of 2025, the more I realized he might have been dead on.

Resources:

Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. London: Yale University Press. Retrieved from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/Download_PDFs_of_the_book

Cordes, N. (2009). Will E-Books Transform the Way We Read? CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/09/26/eveningnews/main5343801.shtml

Gross, D. (2009). Is your date a ‘stud’ or ‘dud?’ Ask your phone. CNN Tech. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/11/25/dating.apps/index.html?iref=allsearch

Jackson, J. (2008). ‘Bionic’ Contact Lens May Create Tiny Personal Displays. National Geographic News. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/01/080129-bionic-eye.html

Rogers, E. (2003).  Diffusion of Innovations. The Innovation-Decision Process. (Pp 168-219). Glencoe: Free Press. Retrieved from Google Books at http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=v1ii4QsB7jIC&oi=fnd&pg=PR15&dq=%22Rogers%22+%22Diffusion+of+innovations%22+&ots=DIYuzRSncS&sig=vtJ9YorZsNQlvflLN8m8tjdYqHA#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Vinge, Vernor. (2006). The Rainbows End. New York City: Tor Books.

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Comments
  1. Melissa Bird-Vogel says:

    I agree – that Vinge’s vision of a digitally enhanced world isn’t too far off or absurd.
    Thanks for your writing – interesting link to the Matrix. Never seen/read Scanner Darkly – worth the time?

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