The next installment of our original science fiction serial is up! See Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 6: Patient but Rough .
Need to get caught up? Start here: Silence Like Diamonds – Episode 1: Family Business
Or find all the episodes here: Faster-Than-Light Reading.
Once you're caught up, come back here and we'll talk about some of the technology and business issues behind the story.
Over on his own blog, author John Barnes is talking about the implications of one of the biggest differences between the fictional 2030 (or so) of his story and our real-world 2015. The post is here: "Episode 5 is up, so here's a "blog about robocorps, pitchforks, hairy monosyllabists, decision rules and the tenth heuristic (with a footnote about pistachios)."
One of the main characters of "Silence Like Diamonds" is a company rather than a person: NameItCorp. Barnes's narrator describes NameItCorp as being as big in 2030 as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is in 2015.
Indeed, as John's editor, I toyed with the idea of suggesting he simply make the company Google -- a fictionalized version of Google as it might exist in a possible 2030.
Unlike Google of today, however, the fictional NameItCorp has no employees whatsoever. It's all software and networks. It's one huge, world-spanning app.
This is, of course, an extension of present-day trends. Decades of increasing productivity driven by intelligent, networked computers have allowed businesses to do more and more with fewer and fewer people. Jobs that used to be done by people are now done by algorithms, and machine learning and big data will simply drive that trend further.
Consider this discussion of the classic 1960 movie The Apartment. Jack Lemmon plays CC Baxter, a clerk in a large insurance company in New York. He sits at a single, gray desk, one of rows and columns of identical desks that stretch off into the distance as far as the eye can see. It's a striking image; if you've seen the movie, you won't forget it.
In the discussion, blogger Benedict Evans explains: "In effect, every person on that floor is a cell in a spreadsheet. The floor is a worksheet and the building is an Excel file, with thousands of cells each containing a single person. CC Baxter is on the 19th floor, section W, desk 861. The links between cells are made up of a typewriter, carbon copies ('CC') and an internal mail system, and it takes days to refresh whenever someone on the top floor presses F9. (Shirley MacLaine plays an elevator attendant, so this is actually a romance between a button and a spreadsheet cell.)"
CC Baxter's job doesn't exist anymore. It's now done by a cell on a spreadsheet.
In the past, a skilled salesperson could make a nice living suggesting products you might like. ("Might I recommend these three neckties with that shirt, sir?") Amazon does that now. A skilled travel agent helped you find the right spots for your vacation. ("When I was in Paris, I found this WONDERFUL cafe -- the tourists don't know about it!") Expedia, Travelocity, TripAdvisor and Yelp do that now. And a skilled librarian helped you find just the information you're looking for (Google, Google and more Google).
Software is climbing the corporate food chain. Used to be only line employees were threatened -- those salespeople and travel agents, as well as factory workers. Now, software is doing management jobs.
This is an issue in the New IP. Network virtualization technologies such as SDN and NFV allow us to programmatically configure switches and other network equipment. No need for manual, hands-on configuration and truck rolls  to send people and equipment out to customer premises individually. That's great for the business -- but what if your job is to drive that truck and configure those switches manually? What happens to you?
The theory of automation is that automation creates wealth. Growing business creates more demand for workers. The network engineer retrains and becomes a software developer. We'll see how that works out in real life.
In the fictional 2030 world of "Silence Like Diamonds," software has eaten the entire corporation. NameItCorp has no employees: No CEO, no senior vice presidents, no directors, managers, line employees or janitors. All the work is done by machines.
Indeed, it's possible "Silence Like Diamonds" doesn't go far enough. In a passing remark, our heroine, Yip, says that computers still don't have money, so they need human beings as customers.
But Yip overlooks how much of the economy depends on business-to-business transactions. In the communications sector, we know this very well. Service providers are devoting increasing parts of their business to serving enterprise and SMB customers. And this trend is likely to increase, for economic reasons: The consumer market is tightly regulated, and consumers are resistant to price increases -- they want more bandwidth and more content delivered through that bandwidth, at the same, flat rate. Whereas the enterprise business is flexible, and enterprises are willing to pay for the service they need.
So the future may see an economy where businesses trade with each other, and humans sit on the sidelines.
But that day is not today. Today, enjoy the latest installment of "Silence Like Diamonds." And join us again Friday for Episode 7.
Kind of like the way New York is a character in Woody Allen movies. ↩
And now I regret not mentioning the idea to him. ↩
I have recent personal experience with this as a consumer. Last week, I decided I wanted to get a Chromebook. A few years ago, I would have read a lot of reviews and talked to my friends in the technology industry. A few years before that, I would have also gone into a couple of electronics stores to try them out and talk with knowledgable salespeople.
But for my Chromebook this month, I just went on Amazon and bought the first one that came up when I searched on "Chromebook." Specs look pretty good, and it gets 4.5 stars out of 665 customer reviews, so why not? ↩
I love the phrase "truck rolls." ↩