APRIL 17, 2014
RATHER THAN MONOLITHIC iPhones or bulky portable computers, people now wear their information processing devices — as jackets lined with circuitry that learns its wearer’s cues, and as contact lenses that act like antiquated LCDs of yore. Why look at information drawn on a screen, when it can be projected (via the specialty contacts) onto to your field of vision? Ubiquitous internet connectivity comes through network nodes scattered about the urban environment as densely as dog feces in Paris or pigeon droppings in La Piazza di San Marco. Need a lift? Just use your wearable to summon an autonomous vehicle (sans that pink Lyft mustache) that can take you anywhere on the map and in full compliance with traffic regulations. Need to learn a new skill, just get some Just in Time Training (JITT) and have the knowledge downloaded directly into your wetware, I mean, brain. Want to create a bioweapon? Just partner with the relevant experts on the Answer Boards and then contract with the automated bio-labs in San Diego to produce the bioterror package. You’ll have to hope, of course, that the omnipresent Department of Homeland Security doesn’t see through your elaborate digital camouflage as it continuously monitors all data traffic.
While my examples become more farfetched (except for that last one — thank you Edward Snowden), the world depicted is eerily plausible and even makes recent trends (like Google Glass) seem strangely reminiscent despite their novelty. Vernor Vinge’s novel Rainbows End (2006) — winner of the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Novel — unfolds in just that world. While the notion of information projected onto eyewear is not novel (William Gibson’s Virtual Light (1993), the first installment of the Bridge Trilogy, comes to mind), Vinge’s contact lenses are the first instance I’ve encountered that imagines such wearables as helping to merge the real and virtual worlds, that is, to make vast, distributed databases parts of the built environment in which we mere flesh and blood mortals act.
Rainbows End opens with former Stanford professor and lauded poet Robert Gu emerging from an Alzheimer’s induced cognitive fog thanks to new neuro-regeneration techniques. Having been a proud Luddite, Robert shockingly awakens, like Rip Van Winkle, to a world saturated with information technology, where virtual and real environments merge. Even the physician overseeing his treatment does so remotely by projecting her presence onto various screens, the home aid’s contact lenses, and by monitoring Robert’s progress via networked sensors. Robert struggles to regain his poetic abilities, his trenchant tongue, and his former status, but quickly discovers only his gift for cruelty, not poetry, has returned. Ironically, the technologically adverse, former poet discovers a talent for engineering, a talent that serves him well when he returns to school with other rejuvenated old people (or “retrends”) to learn the skills necessary for success in this new information economy where knowledge is cheap. Everyone wears the means to immediately query online databases, so the ability to collaborate, or form “alliances”, with other knowledge domain experts is the most important skill. He begrudgingly accepts fellow classmate Juan Orozco—a young student in Robert’s class—and his granddaughter Miri Gu as partners for what will be the novel’s grand adventure.
Part of that quest follows several intelligence/spy agents from the Indo-European Alliance as they try to foil what they mistakenly believe is an American attempt at subverting the international balance of power. Both story lines become entangled with an emergent artificial intelligence called variously Mr. Rabbit (because he sometimes appears as a carrot chewing bunny) and the Mysterious Stranger. As Rabbit, the AI pretends to help the intelligence agents, and as the Mysterious Stranger, it promises to return Robert’s poetic skills in return for him betraying his daughter-in-law. Because all the characters are accustomed to interacting telematically with other humans through their wearable computers, they do not seriously consider the possibility that Rabbit/the Mysterious Stranger is an emergent, artificial intelligence. Only some of the intelligence agents suspect Rabbit’s true nature, though they remain unable to prove it.
These wearable computers also allow their users to message with similarly equipped wearers and to record those communication. They can even record what they see and hear, and store it for later evaluation — much in the way we assiduously bookmark or save pages to read-it-later lists — without any concern for the privacy of the people being recorded or even their permission: “[Xiang] walked along beside Gu, her head tilted to get a look at the wrecked transport tray. ‘But there’s no way to use that mechanical advantage with just the batteries it’s rated for—’ The rest of what she said was mathematical; Juan just saved it.” Similar concerns have already surfaced with Google Glass, even though they’ve yet to arrive on the market.
Privacy, however, is an afterthought in Rainbows End, because the users/characters have already given up any semblance of it for the immense benefits that the merging of the virtual and the real worlds brings. Indeed, in Vinge’s novel there is no longer any meaningful distinction between the two:
Yup. Unless you take off your contacts or declare a 911, you can’t see what’s really here. And that’s another reason for not using Epiphany.” Tommie waved his open laptop like some talisman. “I can see the illusions, but only when I want them.” The little guy walked down another side path, here poking at a book that lay groaning on the floor, there stepping into an alcove to look at what the patrons were doing. “This place is so cool!
Bob walked around the bunker, transformed the green plastic walls into windows on the Southern California night. The air filled with abstractions, the status of his people and his equipment, the reorganization of his share of the analyst pool. He grabbed some coffee from the machine by the door and settled down at a very ordinary desk just a few feet from the launch area.
Nothing can happen in the novel’s world without the intervention or collaboration of a so-called virtual entity. Reality is made to conform more and more to its digital representation, rather than the other way around. The notion of cyberspace, of a separate universe generated and controlled by the computer has dissolved only to be revived as a reality that is thoroughly suffused with digital information, alive with code, if you will. This ubiquitous merging of the real and virtual was a development that William Gibson could not predict when he imagined cyberspace as an alternate universe in his Sprawl trilogy that one accessed by plugging in. We no longer need the plug in the world of wireless, pervasive computing. Things have turned out stranger than Gibson imagined.
Perhaps in recognition of that strangeness, Gibson’s fiction has steadily inched closer to the present as it abandons the remote, weird future for the even more peculiar and unpredictable present. Rainbows End represents a similar drift toward the present for Vinge. His 1981 novella True Names follows computers hackers called “warlocks” who adopt a new immersive virtual reality environment called the “Other Plane,” which is remarkably similar to the cyberspace Gibson would introduce in his short story “Burning Chrome” (1982) and bring to a wider audience with Neuromancer (1984). Vinge’s Realtime series is set in the far future after a means of stopping time inside a specific region, or “bobble,” is discovered — eventually the time travelers discover they have missed the technological singularity while bobbled and must figure out a way to reach the singularity themselves. The “Zones of Thought” universe of Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky also takes place millennia in the future after humanity has stumbled into a region of space that allows for intelligent machinery, faster-than-light travel, and other sci-fi, space-opera standards.
The setting of some science fiction in the present could be, as far as Vinge or, in its more Pollyanna-ish vein, the techno-guru Ray Kurzweil are concerned, a sign that the Technological Singularity is nigh. For that singularity, like the singularity of a black hole, is that future point we cannot see or estimate, much less understand. The weirdness or science-fictional character of the present is simply our ineluctable approach toward the event horizon. Vinge defined the Technological Singularity in his short report “The Coming Technological Singularity” as the moment we humans create synthetic entities whose intelligence exceeds our own. They in turn will create still more intelligent creatures, and so on. Life after this event will be so different from what came before that those of mere human intellect will not be able to understand, to see what is happening. Hence the analogy with the singularity of a black hole — it is the point at which our knowledge breaks down, no longer applies, and we cease to see and understand the world we once built.
The Technological Singularity may occur, according to Vinge, via four routes: 1) we devise “computers that are ‘awake’ and superhumanly intelligent” like Winter Mute at the end of Gibson’s Neuromancer; 2) computer networks suddenly awaken as an intelligent entity — think Skynet of The Terminator movie franchise; 3) human and computer interfaces become so seamless that where we end and the machine begins would be a useless distinction and we therefore augment ourselves into superhuman intelligence — think of the eponymous character of Brett Leonard’s 1992 film The Lawnmower Man who makes every phone on earth ring simultaneously to announce his so-called birth; or 4) through biological enhancement, like Khan of the Star Trek universe.
The notion that humans might transcend their fragile, decaying bodies and become something more durable or transcendent is hardly a unique idea, as Vinge and other Singularity proponents will admit. Besides older sci-fi authors such as Olaf Stapledon, Poul Anderson, and John W. Campbell Jr., Vinge also credits Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985) with exposing the possibilities that a freak technological discovery could transform human civilization. The prospect that human civilization is zooming toward a terminal point, a cataclysm is also the stuff of many a dystopian philosophy or fiction from St. John’s “Revelation” to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. What remains intriguing about the singularity is the casual indifference these superhuman intelligences may have toward their human creators. In an interview Vinge clarifies that “after the technological singularity, you’re dealing with creatures that are smarter than we are. And in that case, for them to explain to us what’s going on would be a little bit like a human trying to explain to a goldfish what is going on.”
If there is any clue that our primitive reptilian brains cannot fully process and therefore fear the technologies that herald the singularity’s coming, it is the government’s and other institution’s attempts to lock down, monitor, and otherwise exploit these technologies for non-superhuman intelligence purposes. The above quotation from Vinge that suggests humans will be to post-singularity intelligences what goldfish are to us comes at the conclusion of a longer conversation about Google Glass. Indeed, the editor titled the piece “Author Vernor Vinge Predicted Google Glasses.” He dedicates Rainbow’s End “To the Net-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives — Wikipedia, Google, and the others of their kind, now and in the future” precisely because these information services are already transforming our cognitive abilities. Augmenting human intelligence is one path to singularity, but other all too human actors could leverage those technological additions to better monitor or control people. Vinge’s fear is then not that these cognitive technologies allow humans to abdicate their role as the rational animal — e.g. Nicholas Carr’s article on Google’s cognitive side effects, and Plato’s fear that writing would make us forgetful — but that they deprive us of liberty while seeming to enable ever greater degrees of freedom.
Rainbows End and some of Vinge’s other novels such as A Deepness in the Sky, therefore, do not imagine that the path to the singularity as a necessarily joyous celebration of unleashed human potential and newfound freedom — they also highlight this new automated technology’s potential for oppression. Shortly after publishing Rainbows End, Vinge’s closing keynote at the 2006 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference in Washington DC addressed how new communications technology were ushering in an age of surveillance far more invasive than anything Orwell imagined in 1984. His novel takes place in precisely such a universe. Security from the “Next Big Thing” has been bought with constant, ubiquitous surveillance of all information exchange, and when people wear their computers, project data onto the environment via contact lenses, and even summon their self-driving cars via the Internet, they open every aspect of their lives to remote scrutiny — either individually or in the statistical aggregate.
Robert Gu has to travel well into the desert in order to escape the network, driving until the car refuses to go any further (no road information is available), and he has to walk into the dark. Even then, he still has low bandwidth, emergency communications: “A little voice spoke in his ear, announcing that he was leaving the tagged section of the park. Beyond this point, only ‘low-rate emergency wireless’ was guaranteed. Robert walked on, across the unlabeled wilderness. So this is the closest thing to being alone these days. It felt good. A cold, clean purity.”
The world’s governments go beyond simply intercepting data already sent, as the NSA and GCHQ (among others) do now, but have mandated that all computer hardware includes the Secure Hardware Environment (SHE): “Not because we’re that much smarter than a billion teenagers, but because we have the Secure Hardware Environment. Down at the bottom we control all the hardware.” SHE allows the Department of Homeland Security (of all agencies) to monitor and, if necessary, commandeer any processor. If you’re trying to use your self-driving car to escape the scene of the bank robbery you just committed, for example, DHS can simply tap into the car’s SHE and shut the vehicle down, or, better yet, lock you in and redirect it to the nearest law enforcement officers.
If he blocked out all the tourism fantasy, he could see the freight harbor almost two hundred meters below and a kilometer away. The place was an immensity of freight containers rambling this way and that, chaos. If he invoked his government powers, he could see the flow of cargo, even see the security certificates that proclaimed — in ways that were validated by a combination of physical and cryptographic security — that none of the 10-meter boxes contained a nuke or a plague or a garden-variety radiation bomb. The system was very good, the same as you would find for heavy freight anywhere in the civilized world. It had been the result of decades of fear, of changing attitudes about privacy and liberty, of technological progress. Modern security actually worked most of the time. There hadn’t been a city lost in more than five years. Every year, the civilized world grew and the reach of lawlessness and poverty shrank. Many people thought that the world was becoming a safer place.
Technological innovations have brought more powerful computing to individuals and small groups along with the knowledge (or recipes) to devastate civilization, and the only apparent answer is constant surveillance. Thanks to SHE surveillance easily becomes control over the hardware itself. All that remains is to gain similar control of the human machine.
Here we arrive at the novel’s other major plot thread that follows a cabal of intelligence and security experts within the Indo-European Alliance — Günberk Braun (the European Union), Keiko Mitsuri (Japan), and Alfred Vaz (India). They task themselves with investigating a new threat to world order — You-Gotta-Believe-Me (YGBM) technology. Using a modified plague virus from a previous biological attack, someone managed to infect people at a soccer match and then send them subliminal instructions via a honeyed nougat ad to buy that product. The intelligence officers suspect the Americans are developing YGBM to give themselves political leverage and upset the grand international alliance.
Unbeknownst to Braun and Mitsuri, Vaz has been developing the YGBM technology to take SHE a step further, because control over hardware and software is insufficient to ensure peace and prosperity; one also needs control over people’s wetware. Mr. Rabbit — the sign of Singularity— discovers Vaz’s plot and wants YGBM for itself, so that it can extend its capabilities beyond the information networks and into the broader built environment. At the end a motley crew of teenagers, geriatrics, and military officers foil Vaz’s and Rabbit’s plan, thanks to the free sharing of information, interconnectivity, and ubiquitous networking that Vaz so fears and that makes Rabbit possible.
The happy conclusion reflects Vinge’s professed optimism in the face of increasing state and corporate surveillance of our daily lives. His reasons for such hope veer toward the Libertarian and may seem as plausible as that political philosophy. While some may argue that the freedom information technologies have given us are illusory considering the increased monitoring, invasions of privacy, and monetizing of personal data, Vinge nevertheless sees this illusion of freedom as nevertheless productive, because people need the illusion to be “happy and creative to make the economy go.” Much like the illusions projected by the contact lenses in Rainbows End transform how people interact with and understand their world, this illusion of freedom is just as effective. It’s like, naturally, the illusion of the so-called “Free Market”, which despite its unreality is a productive fiction.
In the end that illusion of freedom may have to be more like the real thing than any society has ever achieved in the past, something that could satisfy a new kind of populism, a populism powered by deep knowledge, self-interest so broad as to reasonably be called tolerance, and an automatic, preternatural vigilance.
With automated tools to negotiate the processing, transfer, and storage of information, people are free to self-organize, to structure their own worlds as they see fit without the need for government or other overweening organizations to interfere. It also supposes that people are fundamentally good in the aggregate — something we should not bank on. Vinge’s Utopia is one where every citizen actively participates in the process of governing and policing their fellow citizens, where people organize themselves into groups to complete projects. It’s effectively an intellectual’s version of industrial capitalism — people come together (i.e., incorporate) not to make money but to generate a product, which may be a device or information.
Like so many Utopian projects, it’s a somewhat appealing vision—one that shares some similarities with Frithjof Bergmann’s New Work program. Under New Work, people only spend a fraction of their week performing various types of corporate labor to make money, but devote the majority of their time to pursuing projects about which they are passionate, or at least interested. We therefore avoid the soul-crushing boredom of tedious white and blue collar work. Since no one works full-time and therefore has a lower income, they make up for the difference by using high-tech tools (e.g. 3D printers) and community projects (e.g. a garden) to provide basic necessities. Vinge’s version is similar, except that automated devices perform all the labor, allowing humans time to think and create.
We can see why that ethos would resonate with tech entrepreneurs and young programmers — they may be working on the means by which the world’s information networks wake up. After that, the new intelligence may solve all our problems, assimilate us into something like the Star Trek Borg, or simply wipe us out given how irrational, erratic, and wasteful we are. Regardless of whether the much-touted Singularity happens or not, computer engineers may at least create tools that make government and corporations more transparent, give us new ways to collaborate, and whatever else. Perhaps these promises will come to nothing, perhaps they will resolve what ails us and the planet. With no viable political answers to our problems on the horizon, we can at least understand why the prospect of a post-Singularity intelligence offers hope that something can save the planet from humanity and humans from themselves.