Rapidly approaching Rainbows End

Rainbows End is a really awesome novel by Vernor Vinge, set in a near-future world "where almost every object is networked and mediated-reality technology is commonplace." Reading the first part of "The street as platform" felt a lot like being back in the fictional world of Rainbows End, but it is entirely realistic. It may also seem either really really really cool, or give you the creeping horrors. Or possibly a little of both, if, like me, you are both fascinated with information infrastructures and horrified by the vast volumes of data we send out about ourselves, often unknowingly.

Horrified because 1) privacy issues! What is actually happening with all this data indicating what we are up to? Is it only being picked up by the services we believe are getting it? How is it getting correlated with other information? And what is being done with it? How many spam emails will I get because Service A sold my info to Service B? What if I wind up, as so many other innocents have, on the TSA's watch list, and they run my name through their magic set of correlated data, and freak out because I read a book that they think means I'm a terrorist For Sure, and then the next time I go to the airport I find out what happens to the Presumed Guilty?

And also 2) HOLY SINGLE POINT OF FAILURE, BATMAN! Er, I mean: Look how dependent everything we do is on the wireless and the electricity! One good electromagnetic pulse (or one bad move with a backhoe), and we are in a world of hurt (this reminds me of another SF novel, encoded here in rot13 to prevent spoilers: Pelfgny Enva, ol Gbovnf Ohpxryy). And yet how easy it makes so many things; reverting to a less technological way of doing things is nearly unimaginable. But on the "really really really cool" side, there is one datastream in particular that I would really love to see more widely implemented:

At another building on the street, a new four-storey commercial office block inhabited by five different companies, the building information modelling systems, left running after construction, convey real-time performance data on the building’s heating, plumbing, lighting and electrical systems back to the facilities management database operated by the company responsible for running and servicing the building. It also triggers entries in the database of both the architect and engineering firms who designed and built the office block, and are running post-occupancy evaluations on the building in order to learn from its performance once inhabited.

This would be wonderful, to have loads of data on building performance! Lack of data on building performance is a major criticism of LEED in particular, and many aspects of sustainable design in general; how do you know it's worth it without sufficient evidence? And do we have enough baseline data of "traditional" ways of building?

The second part of the article is a really excellent overview and analysis of these aspects of our world, which rarely seem to get any attention until they go wrong. The author poses dozens of thoughtful, critical questions about these layers of informational infrastructure, raising issues that often go unexamined, but are very important, because:

. . . the patterns of data in the streets, the systems that enable and carry them, the quality of those connections, their various levels of openness or privacy, will all affect the way the street feels rather more than street furniture or road signs.

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