The Unilever Series: Dominique Gonzales Foerster - TH.2058


Port-forwarding the library

By Sam Pablo Kuper

“But I Googled everything!” Lena cried.

“Google doesn’t know everything, though,” said Tom. “It doesn’t know what you had for breakfast this morning, for instance.”

“If we had a holobot, it would!” retorted Lena. “It could watch me eat, semrec me doing it, upload that to Google and then everyone in my filter would be able to find out.”

What Lena said was true. If they had a holobot in their dorm – or, better still, a holobot each, like the Ivy League students got – Lena would have been able to semantically record her breakfast for the world to see. And if she didn’t want the whole world knowing, she could restrict the information to people she chose to select in her privacy filter.

But holobots weren’t legal in the UK yet, and were still only experimental technology in the US. Lena’s experience of them had come in her early teens, as her parents were developers on the project and had brought four holobots home, one for each member of the household. So even Lena’s baby brother had one: a hovering, bright white orb which followed him everywhere, octoscopically semreccing his every breath and all that he saw.

Tom tried a different tack.

“Look,” he said, “Your relgrade was a B, right? So why complain? You’ve passed the module, and you’ve aced pretty much everything else this year, so as long as you don’t stiff in the exams next month, you’re almost sure to get a distinction. What’s more, you’ve learned something valuable for next time.”

“I know,” said Lena, “But I thought I’d done everything I needed to. I looked everything up, I interpread all the primary and secondary sources…”

“Not all the primary sources,” interrupted Tom.

“Jeez, why d’you have to rub it in? Anyway, I thought I had interpread them all. And than Alicia beats me to the punch and gets the top relgrade, by going to the library! Ugh! That’s, like…”
words failed her temporarily. “… like, it shouldn’t be needed any more. I should be able to do the work no matter where I’m located, and still get an A. It’s Cooper’s first principle of information technology: ‘the physical location of data should be transparent to the end-user’. But it wasn’t. Cambridge’s IT systems suck.”

They may not be perfect, thought Tom, but she’s passing the buck.

“We’re not in Cooper’s future yet,” he said.
“He was a visionary, but there are other principles working against his. The privacy laws here are important to a lot of people, and the filters haven’t been evaluated fully yet. Remember, a couple of decades ago, there was a glut of problems with the first ID cards, and people in the UK aren’t so trusting any more.”

“If the filters pass the tests then maybe we’ll get holobots in Cambridge, but until then, Cooper’s fourth principle won’t be fulfilled here, and you’ve just got to accept it. A bit like the hundreds of generations of scholars who’ve studied here before you,” he added.

Lena was scowling at him, but he pressed on.

“Anyway, I think it’s great Alicia found the new manuscript. That’s valuable for everyone, because now it will be semrecced, and people all over the world will be able to use it. So she’s done a service for the community, not just for herself. Besides, everyone knows she’s a luddite, so you should hardly be surprised she wanted to visit the archive in person. She got enough stick for that side of her personality in the HC class, so maybe it’s only fair she gets one up on the rest of us this time. And most of us didn’t even interpread as many of the recommended sources as you did. In fact, besides you and Alicia, I don’t thing anyone got a relgrade higher than a C.”

“Damn it,” Lena swore, “It’s just not the world my parents prepared me for – at least, not yet. I don’t want to accept that, but maybe I have to.”

* * *

The primary sources module Tom, Lena and Alicia had been attending was a compulsory part of the History and Philosophy of Science degree they were studying for. Other modules, especially the humanities computing module, tended to be more suited to the modern temperament, which viewed information as being necessarily comprehensible to computers, and assumed that everything from the past that was important had already been digitised, transcribed and semantically interpreted:
semrecced. The students were used to comparing philosophical interpretations much as accountants compare balance sheets: an excess of anti-realism here, an obvious case of whiggism there. The tools they used to ‘interpread’ their sources drew out linguistic subtleties that were too painstaking for the previous centuries’ scholars to process in toto.

But Alicia harkened to a different age. She used paper whenever she could, and practically had a fetish for pens and ink. Unlike the rest of the class, when she had seen the assignment for the primary sources module, instead of using the semrecced manuscripts online, she made her way to manuscripts reading room at the university library. Like all the reading rooms it was small and on the ground floor near the library entrance, the vaulted reading rooms of old having been given over to storage and semrec stations in the previous decade. But it was secure, climate controlled, and had a helpful caretaker staff who were surprised and happy to see an undergraduate coming in.

Alicia requested the box containing the manuscripts whose classmarks were on the module’s reading list. She’d read somewhere, once, that this was acceptable practice if you didn’t know precisely which sheets you needed. So she bluffed, and the staff were happy to oblige.

It was only while she was fingering a corner of the slim box, made of acid-free cardboard, that she noticed something sticking out gently from within its folded corner-leaves. A sliver of paper. She eased it out delicately, her back to the staff desk, and tried not to shriek with delight.

There was no number on it! That meant it hadn’t been catalogued. And if it hadn’t been catalogued, it probably hadn’t been semrecced during the mass-semreccing the library had undertaken at the end of the national digital switch-over.

The hand-writing was hard to make out, but she mimicked the letters with her fingertip on the desk, and gradually they became comprehensible to her. Quietly, ecstatically, she picked up her silver pencil and began to resume her essay.

There was a minor furore afterwards. A decade before, the library staff had supposedly semrecced the entire collection, and now questions were being asked at the university’s senate house about the cost of having all the archive boxes examined for missed sheets. What’s more, with the aid of her find, Alicia had been able to show that some of the secondary sources were wrong. There was a silver lining, though: Prof Schuman, who ran the primary sources course, had given her an A and, out of sight of the rest of the class, a bottle of vintage port and a box of chocolates.

His eccentric relative grading system came into its own in odd situations like these. A student who had submitted essays at the highest expected quality received a B, and everyone else was likewise downgraded by one letter; Alicia got an A, and Prof Schuman gained the cachet of having a student who had usurped some of the accepted knowledge of the discipline.

The Ivy League universities might have holobots, Prof Schuman had thought as he finished marking the essays, but a holobot wouldn’t have been able to spot that crucial manuscript sheet. Alicia had assured him in the email to which her essay had been attached that it was only the subtle change in texture that had given away the hidden manuscript’s position. Unless it had been instructed to spread them, even a holobot – with all its hi-res holographic cameras – wouldn’t have distinguished the infinitesimal protrusion of the manuscript from the edges of the cardboard leaves either side of it.

Perhaps, he thought to himself, the Americans would begin adding feelers and sniffers, and maybe even tongues, to the next generation of holobots. Why not? The aim was to port-forward as many senses as possible. “That’s the future,” he mused to himself, “But in the present, we still can’t even port-forward a library.”

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One Response to “Port-forwarding the library”
  1. Kirsten Says:

    I enjoyed the exploration of the divide between the digital and the “real”. It’s something that really fascinates me.