Star Trek vs. Mad Max

Will Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Be a Race Toward Utopia?


In a talk at MIT, Elon Musk admitted to being a Star Trek fan because of its optimistic view of the future: “There are so many post-apocalyptic futures, it’s like, can we have one that’s nice.” Musk has a point, from social engineering in young adult fantasies the Hunger Games and Divergent series, machines taking over in Avengers and art crowd versions Her and Ex Machina, or the reboot versions of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes, the rise of dystopia in popular media, especially film, suggests that, well, we’re just a little worried where this is all heading.

While these films haul us from our lives to meditate on soul extinguishing issues like economic, social, and technological ruin, often they offer no solutions or little consolation. (Schimdt, 2014) This is where Elon Musk is different, not through any engineering wizardry, but by his huckster ability to tell a better world-changing story where robots don’t kill us all. Two years ago in a white paper for the Hyperloop, Musk outlined the concept and vision for a low-pressure tube transportation system that will make a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than half an hour (Musk, 2013). This vision, told and retold through interviews and by others who joined the open source movement to create it, sounds a lot like a utopian future from the likes of Star Trek. Is Musk, a geek at heart who grew up during the era of the Cold War and the Apartheid, subconsciously selling a utopian fantasy? If so, is this a good strategy for an age so stuck on dystopia? If Star Trek offers a higher moral compass for us, why is it the machines, the ruckus, and the Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road that thrill us?

We’re just a little worried where this is all heading.

First, let’s look at the similarities. The Hyperloop is designed for post-scarcity. Musk proclaims it as “a fifth mode” of transportation after planes, trains, cars, and boats. This is achieved through propelling a steel capsule by air bearing inside a low-pressure tube much like a combination of “a Concorde, railgun and an air hockey table.” (Leber 2013) The Hyperloop will run on renewable energy, specifically solar power through panels above the tubes suspended on pylons. Shervin Pishivar, a Venture Capitalist behind one of the teams pushing the concept forward, see the Hyperloop as “…the end of one civilization and the beginning of another… This transportation infrastructure we’re building is the beginning of that new lattice. There’s no turning back.” (Upbin, 2015)

While pneumatic tubes have been used to transport things since the 19th century and Star Trek has indeed visualized it, Pishivar’s statement is more like a cleaver right down the timeline. Before, we were dependent on petrol. Years spent fighting for resources have led to environmental destruction, political fractions and war, but humanity has chosen convenience over responsibility until we reach the brink. After, humanity has grown out of her infancy empowered by unlimited, clean energy begotten through technology. The self-powered Hyperloop is the first step to lifting ourselves from oil dependency and its social, political and ecological repercussions that have beset our last century. This is also precisely why Musk has called out to leapfrog existing models for high-speed train travel. As in the case of the high-speed rail proposal from Los Angeles to San Francisco, current proven solutions are not only costly, only incrementally faster, and while running on electricity, are still dependent on fossil fuel for the power plants (Tutton, M). In other words, existing solutions do not fundamentally change the energy equation, and therefore our model for consumption.

Pneumatic tubes have been used to transport things since the 19th century. Here on display is Alfred Ely Beach’s Beach Pneumatic Transit, the first attempt to build an underground public transit system in New York City using air pressure in the tube to push the cars (1869).

The Hyperloop is different because of its commitment to the post-scarcity model. It operates under the assumption that there is plenty of energy, or as Musk noted when unveiling SolarCity’s home battery, “We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky, called the sun. You don’t have to do anything: it just works.” (Chappell, 2015) The post-scarcity model depends on harnessing this unlimited source of energy.

In some ways, this step is similar to the evolution of mankind in Star Trek. After conflicts over issues including genetic manipulation, a nuclear cataclysm resulted in World War III that took 600 million lives from 2026 through 2053. Shortly after, warp drive (space travel at faster-than-light speeds) was achieved and Earth made First Contact with an advanced Alien race the Vulcans, subsequently harnessed technologies such as the replicator (machine capable of creating and recycling objects such as food). These technologies allowed humans to emerge from post-atomic horror, eventually leading to the elimination of poverty, disease and war. Unlimited source of energy also led to a non-currency based New World Economy, where acquisition of wealth was no longer the primary driving force in the lives of many Humans, and emphasis was instead placed on the importance of continued social and personal development. The Hyperloop, much like powerful technologies that appear in Star Trek, is an agent that could fundamentally disrupt our culture of consumption with its commitment to renewable energy. In this view, teams working on the Hyperloop contend that the Hyperloop may be free for passengers, finding “other ways to make money” (Collins, 2015) in an attempt to reexamine our value system.

The replicator, a machine capable of creating and recycling.

The Hyperloop is also designed for post-tribalism. Musk’s white paper was an open source design and call to arms from the start. So far multiple teams have signed up. Musk himself is set to fund a short track for any group that wants to test out their design. The best example might be Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), one of the teams building a test track in California comprising of some 200 engineers, designers, and enthusiasts moonlighting for the project. (Upbin, 2015) The teams are competitive with each other in a way that is reminiscent of the Space Race, minus all the bad feelings. Each team iterates on others’ results with an understanding of the complexity of modern day problems. Today design no longer exists on a singular plane, but a web of interactions between individuals, communities, government and more. HTT’s division into federation of teams crowd-storming different aspects of the Hyperloop includes financial models, route optimization, cabin and station design, capsule engineering is a great example of this. Sharing and working with people from different backgrounds, not patent hogging, become the source of power.

This spirit of collaboration is fundamental in the Star Trek universe, which adheres to the philosophy of Infinite Diversity Infinite Combinations, or IDIC (Kozinets, 2001). This philosophy resulted in real life the most multi-racial cast on television at the time, and inside the universe, extended to alien species. It is also embodied in the United Federation of Planets, an interspecies and interplanet governing body based on the principles of universal liberty, rights, and equality, and to share their knowledge in peaceful cooperation and space exploration. In short, while diversity exists and is celebrated, tribalism, which is defined a “strong loyalty” to a group, is largely diminished under Federation guiding principles. Once a Starfleet uniform is don, it’s Federation first.

But perfection is difficult to maintain, because “the idea of utopia is frequently intertwined with notions of dystopia” (Greene, 2011). This is seen in many aspects of Star Trek. In fact, the premise of the show, which sends diplomatic missions to explore deep space and make contact with alien species, is problematic. Even with the Prime Directive of non-interference with alien species, the Starfleet nonetheless frequently breaches this, and transforms into a force for imperialism. Frankly, we wouldn’t have a show otherwise. Exceptions are what drives the narrative. In a more prescient example, the greatest antagonists of the show is an advanced pseudo-species of cybernetic beings called The Borg. The Borg are linked into a hive mind with the goal of attaining “perfection” through assimilation. They are smart as super machines and even Star Trek couldn’t find a way to truly defeat them (time travel had to be used).

Musk’s white paper was an open source design and call to arms from the start. So far multiple teams have signed up, including Argo Design, pictured here, with their concept drawing design of the Hyperloop transporting materials and people.

Similarly, the number of superlatives being used to describe the Hyperloop can also be dangerous. Not only is it a transportation system, the Hyperloop seeks to create a ecosystem that, with a click of a button, self-driving cars will take the user from point A to a mini-loop station then finally to the Hyperloop and their point B. In other words, it is the first step to surrendering ourselves to a more perfect world of autonomous experiences and convenience. We must be aware of a gradual evolution toward thinking machines as not just robots, but the tracks paved for our day-to-day existence. Within the narrative of “faster, safer, and cheaper,” are we on our way to hover chairs in Wall-E?

What then, do we possibly gain from dystopia? Tribalism and scarcity appears tantalizingly in the latest Mad Max: Fury Road. In this world, we glean into a “what if” future of oil dependency and havoc, the exact opposite of Star Trek. Yet within the bleak is beauty, audiences worldwide are spellbound watching the tribes interact without so much as a word, but simply through their rituals and violence. Fury Road is a minimalist story told through conflicts between each tribe, with Immortan Joe as the symbol for patriarchy, and protagonists Imperator Furiosa and Max the liberators. In what is essentially a classic western narrative (Maher, 2015), The Breeders escape The Citadel with the liberators, facing Rock Riders, Buzzards, and War Boys, joins the Many Mothers and ultimately make it back to The Citadel to liberate the Wretched to create a new world order.

The fascination with certain elements of tribalism stems from an instinctual need for emotion. Tribalism enriches an otherwise barren landscape. Similar to Futurism, an avant-garde art movement of the 20th century that celebrated the beauty of the machines, speed, and violence and were against museums, conventions, and politeness, Fury Road stirs our inner need for identity. The subculture of cars, bikes, and dieselpunk is unabashedly on display. The Bullet Farmer wears a bullet headdress, has bullets grafted into his teeth and wears clothes largely consisting of ammunition pouches. The Doof Warrior’s metal sound system serves no artillery purpose, but emphasizes the importance of the battle ritual. The War Boys’ cultish prayers, their customized steering wheels, their chrome spray before ascending to Valhalla. The steel chastity belts of the Wives. The embrace Furiosa shares with the Many Mothers.

Fury Road stirs our inner need for identity

The visual aesthetic of Mad Max benefits from the powerful images of tribalism, which are stepped in ritual, custom, and symbols. They provide an emotional thread through the post-apocalyptic narrative. What we take from dystopia, in essence, is humanity’s intense need for expression and intensity. But too much of this is not good either. The tribal elements, when viewed individually are fascinating, but when viewed collectively, are denounced by the film. The excessive violence, aggression, and patriarchy made the Mad Max world untenable and hence verging near extinction, just as the Furturist movement grew to misogyny and fascism, and proclamations of “war as hygiene ” by founder F.T. Marinetti.

Elon Musk’s world-changing narrative of the Hyperloop is highly effective, especially when viewed through the lens of utopian science fictions like Star Trek. The great irony of our generation is that while the theory of technological singularity foresees the next five years developing at the recursive and compounding speed of fifty years, we shy away from this precipice of possibilities. Peter Thiel is right when he observed: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

As one of the bold voices in Silicon Valley taking on big ideas and the narrative of a more accountable and “nice” future, Musk should be applauded. The Hyperloop will indeed be step toward a future of post-scarcity (renewable energy, convenience, non-currency) and post-tribalism (collaborative and open source). At the same time, it could benefit from the strong emotional identities that emerge in the scarce and tribal world. Tech companies frequently employ a utopian vision of the future when launching an idea, but we might all gain from adopting design fiction that considers the future is mediocre and we should imagine it more honestly (Pavlus, 2015), and that we remember humanity lies somewhere in between the pristine and the messy, the perfect and rebellious, the holodeck and a bullet headdress.

— Qing Qing Chen, June 2015
Hyper Island Digital Media Management Crew 6
Originally posted http://www.7nationarmy.uk/qing-qing/

Reflection

Design Fiction is a powerful tool for designing for the future. As we have seen from group workshop and futureproof exercises during the Digital Technology module, the future is difficult to predict and full of pros and cons. “Poetics” of design fiction incorporates literary tools to properly explore a more honest future, so it might help us to create better designs for tomorrow. (Markussen T. & Knutz E., 2013). This article investigates one of the greatest optimistic storytellers of our time, Elon Musk, whose persona heavily relies on an utopian streak. I’ve borrowed literary tools within two film classics known for their sophisticated universes — Star Trek and Mad Max — to untangle and better understand his narrative. What works, what needs more buffering, and what can be made better? Tech companies tend to have a we’re going to change the world, don’t be evil stance toward their work, but at the same time, recent flocks to Silicon Valley from Wall Street, the increasing tech divide in the San Francisco all highlight problems in a wold painted by glorious narratives. While Elon Musk should be applauded for his big visions, it is time for the tech world to show more vulnerability in their world. It is fine to acknowledge the bigger problems humanity will face in the realms of privacy and automation, with each advancement we make we need to be more mindful. Our own literary and film “futureproofing” could teach us a thing or two, and we should find ways to apply this more smartly, more nuanced, and with the understanding that the answer is always messy and somewhere in between.

Bibliography

Chappell, B. [2015] Tesla CEO Elon Musk Unveils Home Battery; Is $3,000 Cheap Enough? [Online] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/05/01/403529202/tesla-ceo-elon-musk-unveils-home-battery-is-3-000-cheap-enough [Accessed 15 June 2015]

Collins, K. [2015] Elon Musk’s Hyperloop ‘might be free to passengers’. [Online] Available from: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-05/28/elon-musk-hyperloop-might-be-free-breaking-ground-in-2016 [Accessed 15 June 2015]

Greene, Vivien. (2011) Utopia/Dystopia. American Art, 25(2), pp.2–7.

Hon, A. (2013) A History of the Future in 100 Objects. Amazon Digital Services.

Kozinets, R. (2001) Utopian Enterprise: Articulating the Meanings of Star Trek’s Culture of Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 28(1), pp. 67–88.

Leber, J. [2013] Why The Hyperloop Is A Great Idea That Won’t Ever Be Built. [Online] http://www.fastcoexist.com/1682849/why-the-hyperloop-is-a-great-idea-that-won-t-ever-be-built [Accessed 15 June 2015]

Maher, S. [2015] Mad Max and the End of the World. [Online] Available from: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/mad-max-fury-road-review/ [Accessed 15 June 2015]

Markussen T. & Knutz E. (2013) The poetics of design fiction. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces, pp. 231–240.

Musk, E. [2013] Hyperloop Alpha. [Online] Available from: http://www.teslamotors.com/sites/default/files/blog_attachments/hyperloop_alpha3.pdf [Accessed 15 June 2015]

Pavlus, J. [2014] The Future of Design, Imagined Honestly. [Online] Available from: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3025269/the-future-of-design-imagined-honestly [Accessed 15 June 2015]

Schmidt, C. [2014] Why Are Dystopian Films on the Rise Again? [Online] Available from: http://daily.jstor.org/why-are-dystopian-films-on-the-rise-again/[Accessed 15 June 2015]

Tutton, M. [2015] How Green Is High-Speed Rail? [Online] Available from: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/11/18/world/how-green-is-hsr/ [Accessed 15 June 2015[

Upbin, B. [2015] Hyperloop Is Real: Meet the Startups Selling Supersonic Travel. Forbes, March.

Images (in order)

  1. Header: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies concept image
  2. Ex Machina, A24Films
  3. Alfred Ely Beach — “The Pneumatic Dispatch” (pamphlet), American News Co. via Google Books
  4. Star Trek, Paramount Pictures
  5. Argo Design Hyperloop concept sketch
  6. Mad Max: Fury Road, Warner Bros Pictures
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