Recently a friend loaned me a copy of Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge (2006). I should fully disclose that, while I really love reading science fiction, I mostly make my sci-fi reading decisions based on neat covers that I like, so I haven’t delved that far into the Vinge back-list. And apparently I should, because he has some rather devoted fans out there.
Although I had some plot-based problems with this book, there is more than enough technology and library-related goings on to make even the most anti-sci-fi librarian take note. The story takes place in the year 2025, primarily in San Diego. In this future world, our Web 2.0 has blossomed into an all-encompassing connected environment that people access by “wearing” – which involves a combination of technologically-implanted clothes and contact lenses that allow you to access the ever-present web of information at all times. When someone is “wearing” they can activate different visual overlays on the physical environment around them, project a 3-D version of themselves anywhere on Earth, and sort through megabytes of data, opinions, and information at the drop of a hat.
Naturally, in a world such as this, the younger generation doesn’t have much use for physical books. In fact, using their “wearable” net is so ingrained in their idea of learning, research, and communication, that books or journals that haven’t been digitized may as well never have existed.
Since this takes place in San Diego, Vinge nicely sets much of the library end of the plot at the Giesel Library on the UCSD campus. Here we have a semi-well-intentioned, but evilish project in which a big company is basically shredding all the books in the library as part of a fast-track digitization scheme. See, by shredding the books and comparing the scanned and shredded bits with other shredded copies, computers put together all the pieces into a totally searchable, integrated, digital product. The only problem is that the books are destroyed (gasp!). They are saving the shreds, though, in case future researchers want to take a look at them. (Shreddy Archives!)
Beyond the shredding project, Vinge explores the possibility of layering very detailed virtual reality skins over the gutted library (so users can experience the act of doing research as if they were in some Terry-Pratchett-like world – physical “virtual” books are delivered to them in a sort of Medieval D&D setting with changing content depending on their research interests), and the climactic scene of the book involves a library riot between competing fan groups that want control of the virtual way in which the library is presented.
There’s a lot more to it, but I think this should give you the general idea. In reading some reviews online, the consensus seems to be that this is not one of Vinge’s best books, but if you are a librarian or information-enthusiast who is interested in some not-so-distant-future technology ideas, I say: check it out.