The Future of Business According to Vernor Vinge

Last Updated Jul 2, 2008 11:27 PM EDT

The future of business will be dominated by freelancers who affiliate with each other on a temporary basis and rarely go into an office. Why should they? The network technology will be so advanced that the real world will be largely forgotten, thanks to virtual worlds built on top of it. Networks will be so powerful that people will be able to project their images to meetings as if they were real.

That's some of the future according to Vernor Vinge's novel "Rainbows End," which I read over vacation, with an eye on what it might mean for business. That's in part because one of the blurbs on the back cover came from Thomas Malone, a professor at MIT's Sloan School and the author of "The Future of Work," who says
"Vernor Vinge has done it again: He has foreseen the human implications of new technologies long before anyone else.....the superhuman intelligence that can result from cleverly connecting vast numbers of people electronically....It had my neurons popping with new ideas every few pages."

Malone's neurons were popping because he was trying to figure out how the work in the book actually takes place. Vinge has written something of a Greek tragedy, where all the impomrtant stuff happens off stage, and he has characters tell you about it later. Some things take place before the book's 2025 setting -- at some point between now and then, someone will develop a Secure Hardware Environment that will make the Internet secure. Except for somehow hacking remains a lucrative occupation and almost everyone seems to make some money from it. The major employers are biotech, entertainment, medicine and government work, and maybe Google (search and analysis is so widespread that it isn't clear whether Google still is a profit machine). Everything else in the future appears to be done freelance (another reason Malone would like the book -- it agrees with him).

Vinge's main character, Robert Gu, is a somewhat Babbitt-like figure, though his work is poetry, not real estate. Towards the end of the book (page 351, in fact), Gu joins up with "Comms-R-Us" on a three-week consulting gig. Here's how Vinge describes the company of the future:

"In a way it was a traditional firm. It was old (five years old), and it had three full-time employees. So it wasn't as nimble as some operations, but it had managed several innovations in concurrent communications."

How's that for job security?

Marketers, meanwhile, will want to pay attention to page 15, and prepare to weep; it will be almost impossibly hard to have big impact, and much of what gets done will be done by software, not people.

Bankers and companies will like Vinge's idea of 'affiliances,' which is like Amway's sales structure on electronic steroids. Still, it provides a way to think about how to compensate users who help in designing products and services, an emerging area of value for companies. A good thumbnail of how affiliances work starts on page 56.

Most of us will wear our technology, too, and there's a good descriptor starting on page 110.

Of course, all of this stuff is just for fun. It may be that none of it emerges the way Vinge imagines. In fact, he completely ignores global warming, which could skew everything. And somehow we are able to engage in limited nuclear wars.

Readers might want to wait for the sequel Vinge will have to write (he's left too many ends loose in this one). Maybe as he's working on it, he'll give us some glimpses that will really change the way we work.

Those who want a less-businessy review might look at Stewart Brand's review: Vinge's Singular Vision, or eyrie.org's review.

And, just for kicks, here's an item about Ray Kurzweil's latest ideas about the future,
The Future is Now? Pretty soon, at least
  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.

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