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Brave New Augmented World
Review by Ernest Lilley
*Editorial  ISBN/ITEM#: 0801ELBNAW
Date: 01 April 2008 /

In the beginning (of the Internet) cyberspace was declared to be a new world, free of the constraints and taints of the corrupted world of the atom-based version of reality, Mundane, which is where we all live physically, at least for now. But the reality, foreseen by SF writers, was that the virtual world would be incorporated into the physical world through pervasive access to information.

William Gibson is most famous for his seminal cyberpunk work, Neuromancer, which to a startling degree shaped the thinking of a generation of early Internet architects, but his 2.0 realization of the impact of persistent and pervasive data was the thrust of his Virtual Light, a later work in which people at all levels of society are coming to grips with what it means to be able to access information about where you are and what you see. In Virtual Light the technology becomes transparent (heck, it's built into a pair of sunglasses) and its impact becomes the story.

By the time I'm writing this, nearly all the technology of Virtual Light has been fully realized, from the personal navigation devices to wearable "heads up" displays. I was about to say that the ability to actually overlay information onto a display in realtime hasn't quite gotten there when a news article caught my eye (General Dynamics UK Touts Near Real-Time 3D Maps For Soldiers), though the GD product is a ways from fitting into a headset.

The two worlds of cyberspace and real space are in the process of collision, and as any good SF author knows, when worlds collide, the results are disruptive, to say the least.

Indeed, pervasive access, be it data, text, or voice, provides something similar to an older SF theme, telepathy, and ascendance to the life of pure mental energy. For seminal examples of this, you need only read E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman stories to see the myriad ways in which mind and matter can mix to affect the "real" world.

Of course, technology itself is ethically democratic. Charles Stross narrowly beat the headlines by imagining (in Halting State) a bank theft in a gaming world that drew the police in as investigators, bringing real and virtual money together nicely. Far from the distant frontier unsullied by greed, graffiti and crime, cyberspace has grown to look more like Capone's Chicago, and is looking for new non-virtual worlds to conquer.

I've been carrying a smartphone with Internet access for years, using it to tell me about my surroundings, whether that means finding my way around DC (polar-coordinate cities confuse me, I'll take cartesian NYC) or looking up the acting credits of someone who just walked onto a movie screen. I'm not an expert on wine, but often have to face down a wine list in restaurants. Google knows the grape, as it turns out.

The pieces are all in place, but the technology is still a bit clunky. I'm looking forward to my own pair of cyber sunglasses ready to tell me more about the world around me. I have to confess, though, that when everyone is an instant authority, it's going to change the authority of knowledge in ways I'm still struggling to see.

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