Additional libraries cannot be launched

Monday, 16 November 2009 — 8:07pm | Computing, Video games

Shortly before I sauntered across the Atlantic, I remarked to an old friend of mine that moving would be far more convenient with the aid of extradimensional portals. The concept I had in mind comes from role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (and its many derivatives in the digital age) where players bear containers of fantastical capacity to keep their inventory of material possessions close at hand, but I envisioned it as something like an improved Swiss bank, where you pass through security, deposit your goods in the vault, and pick them up at the same vault at a different branch anywhere else in the world. The vault would therefore be a material analogue to the “cloud” that you hear about in computing these days, a singular storage space with unlimited access points. Not even Gringotts thought of that.

There are a number of considerations that become quickly problematic, though, even if you dismiss the obvious practical obstacles and take for granted that we have the technology to build such a thing. In the legal sphere, what do you do about territorial sovereignty or customs law? And then there’s the basic hygienic objection—what about the risk of contamination and the transcontinental spread of airborne disease? Then again, chances are that by the time humanity is advanced enough that something like this becomes feasible, we will have undergone so radical a social transformation that the policy issues are moot.

In any case, the advent of cloud computing urges us to revisit that old sci-fi pipe dream of the Enterprise transporter: the conception of matter as data. Note that this isn’t the same thing as digitization. What I am speaking of is not the representation of matter as information, but the harnessing of matter in the same ways we harness information.

I thought of this today in the library whilst awaiting an order of rare books. Libraries are socially fascinating spaces: patrons share communal resources, but under a mutual agreement to behave in such a manner that everyone feels the library is his or her private space. People work and study in the library with the expectation that everyone else is silent and effectively invisible. Like car parks and highways in the age of the automobile, the major obstacle to the smooth operation of libraries (from the client’s point of view) is the conflicting presence of others, whether they are typing obnoxiously on clackety keyboards or requesting the same books.

In the world of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, the solution to the overexploitation of shared spaces comes in the form of instances—private copies of dungeons for individuals and small groups to slay beasts and loot sparkling purple treasures without any strangers in the way. The content in the shared world outside of instances often suffers from a tragedy of the commons, where you might be on a quest to kill ten boars only to find that somebody minutes ahead of you has already brought home the bacon. Instanced dungeons ensure that everyone gets a crack at the most rewarding content day to day, week to week.

Should we ever be able to harness matter-as-data—a holy grail of science fiction as unattainable, but arguably more consequential, than travelling faster than the speed of light—libraries would seem to be the perfect candidate for an instanced space. You wouldn’t disturb anybody, and nobody would disturb you; the library would work as designed. Granted, there might be issues with server load when entire libraries have to be copied and simulated for each individual who walks in the door. But the bigger problem is that in the absence of the social and institutional deterrence that others create, nothing stops you from disturbing the books.

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3 rejoinders to “Additional libraries cannot be launched”

  1. You may find that this article can help visualize a “realistic” teleportation paradigm.

    http://snowmit.livejournal.com/250685.html

    Tuesday, 17 November 2009 at 3:35pm

  2. Isn’t this a bit like wishing for an MP3 player that will play vinyls? Given the extraordinary set of technological and social circumstances required for the scenario you describe, wouldn’t the whole idea of a library (a physical location where you go in order to use computers and receive physical books) be somewhat antiquated? I would imagine that digitized books-on-demand could be streamed right to your computer (or, if you’re reading a Charles Stross novel, right to your glasses).

    Tuesday, 17 November 2009 at 3:37pm

  3. It is exactly like wishing for an MP3 player that will play vinyls… though (while we’re talking about fantasy matter manipulation) what would be even better is a “reprogrammable” vinyl record where you have a single master record with a reconfigurable surface, like a CD-RW for analog data.

    The part of the library I’m trying to capture isn’t only the look, feel, and smell of old books (especially really old books, which feel like museum pieces and are often exhibited as such), but its function as a quiet and contemplative physical space where many people gather in one place to have a solitary experience. This is a really strange idea if you stop to think about it. While we’re relating this to music, think about how headphones have transformed the way we listen to music in public as we immerse ourselves in sound without interfering with the soundtracks of those around us (assuming we’re not those boisterous head-bobbing juveniles with their thumping hip-hop turned up all the way).

    Wednesday, 18 November 2009 at 1:04pm

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