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We Had to Destroy the Library in Order To Save It

Let's take a look into the near future and see who wins the race to digitize "the record of humanity up through 2000. The whole premodern world." The current frontrunner is Google, of course, with its Google Library Project. Since I live and work next to the campus of the University of Michigan, I am aware that one answer U-M has to the early Internet issue of people not coming to the library is taking the library to people. All 8 million of the U-M's books are part of Google's project.

But the winner, in the race to put "the record of humanity up to 2000" into digital form, able to be stored on a single 128 Petabyte storage card for $19.99 will be the Informagical Coalition backed by Chinese dollars.

What? Well, yeah, that's according to one of my favorite science fiction authors, Vernor Vinge.

Vinge is a not-so-prolific writer, one whose new works I seek out as soon as I am aware of them. One of his more interesting ideas is one that becomes more solid as a possible future, in my mind at least, with every new technological advance. He first posited a coming Technological Singularity in his 1993 essay, "The Coming Technological Singularity" (hereafter "Singularity"). His argument, which underlies the stories in many of his books, is that technology growth is so exponential that we will eventually reach a singularity point beyond which we cannot even currently reasonable speculate about the future of humanity. It's an analogy to the event horizon of black holes, among other things.

This new novel is set in a near enough future that the singularity has not yet occurred, but the edginess of the lives of the individual humans in the story--almost like a society of adolescents in light of the technology being applied by them--creates an underlying feeling throughout the novel that really questions, "Who's in charge of all this stuff?" (Warning: I'm about to give away pieces of a couple of subplots, but there are so many subplots that you'll likely get more out of the book and not mind.)

Much of the action takes place in and around the campus, specifically the library and research park, of the University of California, San Diego, of 2025. The main protagonist is a former famous poet who is a cynical bastard, basically, but who has recently been given both his youth and his memories back by modern medical technology after he barely survived years of end-stage Altzheimer's disease.

He interacts with colleagues (not friends, as he really was a bastard to people pre-Altzheimers) and descendants in ways that emphasize his own attempt to learn to handle current information technology. The contrasts of the various ways in which others his age but who have evolved through the past couple of decades interacting with the technology are using it and how the youngsters who have grown up with it use it are analogous to the current situation with Boomers and ‘Net Generation folks, but extended to a technology situation advanced a couple of decades from now.

There are many subplots, one of which is the effort by a handful of old fashioned people to protest or sabotage the work of creating a "librareome" from the collection of the Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego. The librareome is being created by the physical destruction of the collection:

In fact this business was the ultimate in deconstruction: First one and then the other would pull books off the racks and toss them into the shredder's maw. The maintenance labels made calm phrases of the horror: The raging maw was a "NaviCloud custom debinder." The fabric tunnel that stretched out behind it was a "camera tunnel...." The shredded fragments of books and magazine flew down the tunnel like leaves in tornado, twisting and tumbling. The inside of the fabric was stitched with thousands of tiny cameras. The shreds were being photographed again and again, from every angle and orientation, till finally the torn leaves dropped into a bin just in front of Robert. Rescued data. BRRRRAP! The monster advanced another foot into the stacks, leaving another foot of empty shelves behind it.

The library itself has recently been rebuilt after the Rose Canyon Earthquake, and one of the more fantastical scenes in the book has the library itself physically moving, walking, sort of, using the various flexibilities and motors of the earthquake-proof new construction.

In the end, the library's contents are destroyed, but the Huertas Librareome Project is defeated (as are plans to rule the earth and control people's thoughts via nanotechnology by a US-centric secret agent, using other people's laboratory space in UCSD's research park to develop a mind-control-like "You Gotta Believe Me" [YGBM] technology). The UCSD library is digitized, but the protesters have slowed the project down enough that a Chinese-backed coalition has managed to use the same technology to put the entire British Library and Museum onto that 128 Petabyte storage card that I mentioned at the beginning.

Ah. Robert peeked at the top directory. It was a little like standing on a very high mountaintop. "So this is...?"

"The British Museum and Library, as digitized and databased by the Chinese Informagical Coalition. The haptics and artifact data are lo-res, to make it all fit on one data card. But the library section is twenty times as big as what Max Huertas sucked out of UCSD. Leaving aside things that never got into a library, that's essentially the record of humanity up through 2000. The whole premodern world."

Robert hefted the plastic card. "It doesn't seem like much."

Tommie laughed. "Well, it's not."

It's not "much," but it is. The book leaves the reader in an interesting place. Looking down into all that data, the history of humanity, seems like standing on a mountaintop, which is a tribute to where we all stand right now as we move into the future. But it's not "much" in light of a rapidly expanding technology that's bringing us to a Technological Singularity with so many questions about what it means and will mean to be a human being.

At least we Boomers can rest assured that Vernor Vinge, that in this world view, college and university campuses are still places that not only exist in 2025, but continue to matter. On the other side of that Singularity, who knows?

Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP).

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