The Future of Education According to Rainbows End

I’m continuing to participate (if you use participate with the loosest possible definition) in Bryan Alexander’s reading group, and this time around we’re reading a near future science fiction novel, Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge, to take a look at how education might look in the future.  We’re two thirds of the way through the book, and can read the first week discussion and second week discussion if you’d like.  Here are some of my thoughts so far.

It Really is the Near Future

The book was written in 2006 and is set in 2029.  We’re just over half way between those two dates, and I think there are a number of things mentioned for which I see the early genesis in the real world and at least one that’s actually here.

Augmented Reality, Virtual Presence, and the Back Channel

A very significant plot mechanism in the book is the near constant use of augmented reality through wearables.  Vinge describes a world where people can pick how they want the world around them to look at even how they look to other people.  Vast amounts of information is available at a glance, so much so that high school students (and senior citizens, more on that later) take a course on data mining and analysis.  Attending school, though, need not be a physical exercise.  Vinge describes students as both physically truant (not in the room but attending virtually) and mentally truant (in the room but paying attention to other things via their wearables).  One thing missing from Vinge’s world is asynchronous learning.  Even the virtually present students are attending and participating in real time.  There’s even back channel capacity built into the wearable technology described in the form of silent messaging (messages between two or more people sent and received via small gestures that nobody else notices).

While we clearly do not have the level of sophistication described, education today certainly includes both face-to-face and online experiences, there are certainly students who fit into both the physically and mentally truant categories, and the back channel is a reality (as you might have experienced if at a conference with active Twitter users).  The struggle we face today is multifaceted:

  1. How do we make virtual experiences meaningful to students and provide real connections (i.e. how do we humanize online education)?
  2. How do we engage students in face-to-face activities that will capture their attention and keep them present mentally?
  3. How can we use the back channel to enhance the learning experience?

Vinge provides no meaningful insights here and, in fact, hints that the schooling he describes is remedial in nature.  It comes up in passing that the grand daughter of the central character doesn’t go to school and leaves me with the impression that only students who can’t learn on their own attend classes.  Does that mean in Vinge’s world personalized learning has won out as the primary mode of education for the “smart” students?

Life Long and Experiential Learning

Vinge presents a world where ongoing learning is necessary to keep up.  One character describes her brother saying:

My brother is all unemployed and depressed, and he’s only twenty. It’s hard to keep up.

Combined that with a central character (and 80 year-old who has just been cured of Alzheimer’s disease after almost 20 years) who goes back to school and finds other older people in the class trying to learn new skills to stay employable, and you start to get a glimpse of a society that provides life long learning.  Intergenerational learning has a place in Vinge’s world as well, described as adults and high school students learning and working together (apparently with age based cliques to go with it).  Experiential learning also makes an appearance in Rainbows End.  “Shop” class – which has more the feel of a dedicated Makerspace – is a prominent part of the school experience for our central character.

As I mentioned above though, the sense I’m left with is that this formal education is meant to be remedial – for the “stupid” kids and older folks that couldn’t keep learning on their own.  In fact, the book perpetuates the false idea that “kids today” don’t really need to be taught the technology tools.  They just know everything automatically because they grew up with it (I will absolutely not call them digital natives).  I like the idea of the kind of learning environments described, and it’s disappointing that it’s portrayed as a “less than” choice for kids that don’t somehow magically just know it.  But attempting to ignore that, how might we design educational experiences and environments that would encourage the kinds of things described in Rainbows End?

Surveillance Society

Vinge describes a society that has gotten comfortable with almost constant surveillance in exchange for a perception of security.  In school, remote proctoring services are the norm, with one student saying:

The school uses a real good proctor service. Maybe there are some kids who can fool it, but there’s a lot more who only think they can.

Even your toys and gadgets are not immune, with forced upgrades the norm.  One character had his friends show him how to hack his bike to avoid the latest safety upgrade, presumably so the bike would still be fun to ride.  This, to me, is one of the most dystopian aspects of Vinge’s world, but one I can, unfortunately, see the beginnings of in our world today.

Some Other Random Things

There are a number of other things mentioned in passing that are mostly both interesting and kind of terrifying at the same time, including:

  • higher education running charter schools
  • companies “investing” in students by paying their tuition and then taking a portion of their earnings for life
  • the rise of the amateur scientist as equal to those formally trained
  • fully (and violently) virtualized libraries

And, a little oddly, this gem:

In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.

At this point in my reading, I’m left torn about the world Vinge has built.  It’s a technological marvel, but somehow I feel his society made all the wrong choices about how to use technology in education, even with the laudable goal of an educated population.

Some Quick Thoughts about the Book

Before wrapping up, I wanted to give a bit of a review of the book so far.  Overall it’s not a book I’d recommend for pleasure reading.  I’ve found the characters very hard to relate to.  The “main” character is a down right mean old man, all the kids read like cyberpunk wannabes, and the adults are very thin caricatures of real people.  Perhaps all those things are intentional, but for me it’s a turn off.  I also found the representation of minorities and women in the book disappointing.  The main “evil” character is east Indian, and the only specifically non-white characters are sideshows without much page time.  If you’re looking for books with very well written, strong minority and women characters, you’d be much better off spending your time with The Broken Earth Trilogy or The Craft Sequence. The former has one of the strongest, best written central woman of color I have ever read in fantasy/sci-fi, and the latter has a great mix minority and female characters in central or strong supporting roles throughout the books.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

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4 Responses

  1. Fantastic observations and reflections! What a rich post. Sharing this on Monday.

    One question: “the only specifically non-white characters are sideshows without much page time.” Isn’t the Gu family one half East Asian?

    • Kyle Johnson says:

      That’s a fair and interesting point. With both Alice and Mimi having anglicized first names, I almost never think of that unless I see their last name too. Maybe I’m asking too much of the book, but after reading The Broken Earth Series (the two out anyway) it’s hard to say a character is a well written minority just because they have a “minority name” attached to them. Mimi is a central character, but she feels to me like just a kid. The heritage doesn’t play in. And Alice is, to me, a background character without much to add. That could obviously change in the last third though.

  2. wendy says:

    online v f2f education
    synchronus v asynchronus
    recreating a learning environment made of <15 students and 1 experienced faculty facilitator and virtualizing that entire experience for all 16 individuals. What is the scalability of that endeavor, and what is the payout? Obvs the gains are an expanded range of student participation, but the cons, the lack of eye contact, office hours where a student can plop down in a cushy chair to vent, attend a study session/pizza party fail to compete with the live experience. Even the halfway point, the "blended model" takes careful consideration of what already exists, attitudes, culture, expectations, and the ever-present "get-your-checkbook-out" how much will it cost in stipend/course redesign grant funding. If you're prepared for the resistance with a solid mission/vision battlecry/ROI, the sea change may be embraced. It's not a OSFA model and what works here may not work there, and vice versa.

  3. Yacon Root says:

    Fantastic Site. Very much enjoyed reading.

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