Should there be a ceiling to the ambitions of Silicon Valley? It seems like a decisive “no,” according to the people who want to build new societies online, atop the ocean, and on Mars.
Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, an early 20th-century architect and visionary, believed it was possible to build floating cities called “Cloud Nines.” The cities would be contained within geodesic domes — huge, spherical objects — and they'd be able to float by carefully adjusting the temperature of the interior air. Was it just fantasy? Perhaps. Even though he patented some of the technology and claimed in earnest that building such cities was possible, construction never broke ground (or air).
But what if “Bucky” had access to the Silicon Valley of today — to its startup accelerators, angel investors, and relentless drive to optimize? Could he at least have gotten a decent Kickstarter off the ground?
Today, similarly ambitious plans to transform societies are being dreamt up in Silicon Valley. The main difference is that the gap between fantasy and reality is closing, faster than you may realize.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in September that he wants to render all of his company’s vehicles — the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon spacecraft — obsolete. Why? So he can build the BFR (Big Fucking Rocket), more politely known as Interplanetary Transport System.
“All our resources will turn toward building BFR,” Musk said at the International Astronautical Congress. “And we believe we can do this with the revenue we receive from launching satellites and servicing the space station.”
Artist's rendering of Mars colony for SpaceX
The BFR is intended to transport people to mars, where Musk hopes to build a permanent colony of more than 1 million inhabitants. He thinks the red planet could serve as a “backup drive” for Earth at the cost of $100,000 or $200,000 per person, all of whom would live in an (almost) self-sustaining city.
But exactly how people will survive there over the long term remains unclear. The main thing the SpaceX plan lacks, according to some spaceflight experts, is bioregenerative life support technology, which would take colonists’ breath, liquid waste, and solid waste, and use plants to convert these into food, water, and air.
20th Century Fox's "The Martian"
SpaceX hopes to put people on Mars by 2024. But while you have to respect Musk’s superhero-style goals, it’s worth noting that SpaceX has a history of missing its own deadlines.
“Silicon Valley is both a place and an idea,” said Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen.
Imagine if that idea — along with its institution-busting creations like Bitcoin and Uber — spread around the world and gave rise to new Silicon Valleys, creating online societies composed of and run by those with technological know-how.
— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) August 22, 2017
By 2030, two thirds of the world will live in cities. Silicon Valley is anticipating that massive, creeping influx by looking into designing "smart cities" that would optimize everything from housing to transportation.
Tech accelerator Y Combinator published a blog post detailing its smart city research project:
The first phase of this will be a YC Research project. We’ll publicly share our results, and at the end of the process, we’ll decide if it’s something we should pursue and at what exact locations. We’re seriously interested in building new cities and we think we know how to finance it if everything else makes sense.
The post went on to list the tactical questions that need to be answered:
Some features of a smart city include fleets of driver-less cars (meaning no traffic jams or huge, expensive parking garages), seamless security through facial recognition, interconnected hospitals with shared patient records, and public broadband, to name just a few possibilities.
It'd be a massive undertaking. But given that many cities worldwide are threatened by environmental changes, some might benefit from having Silicon Valley put its city-planning ideas to the test, as Ariel Schwartz writes for Business Insider:
So many of the world's greatest existing cities will have to consider moving inland in the coming years as they're overtaken by water. There will be so much room for new and better infrastructure to be built... Overly ambitious ideas are welcome.
Silicon Valley's New Socialism
Every robot added to the U.S. economy reduces employment by 5.6 workers, and each robot that is added to the workforce per 1,000 human workers causes wages to drop by as much as 0.25 to 0.5 percent, according to research published at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
In short, the robots are coming for our jobs and we haven't yet ironed out a plan for how we're going to accommodate all the displaced workers. One of the most discussed solutions is universal basic income (UBI), an economic plan that would guarantee every citizen a minimum income no matter what.
— Scott Santens (@scottsantens) February 17, 2017
Skepticism has a place, but it's optimists who decide the future, says Kevin Kelly.
The news certainly doesn't portray it this way, but every year the world becomes a better place, says Kevin Kelly. There is currently an imbalance in our optimism and pessimism levels, because we feel that things are catastrophic, despite most scientific evidence pointing the other direction. In this inspiring stream of thought, Kelly reminds us that society is constantly making progress, and that innovation is the direct result of optimism. Civilization is not a sweeping, heroic enterprise, he says, it’s a constant creep forward, and you only have to look behind you to see how far we've come.
This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.
Kevin Kelly's most recent book is The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.