Larry Page . CC Photo by Adam Dachis

A Utopia of One’s Own

Larry Page wants to create zones for unfettered techno-social experimentation. How would that work, exactly?

There comes a moment in the career of every mega-rich industrialist when they look around and think, “I could run a better society.”

Towards the end of the Google I/O 2013 keynote, Larry Page had his on stage. During the Q&A, one audience member asked Page how he’d make the world a more positive place for people to build weird new things. Here’s Page’s answer, as transcribed by TechCrunch.

Yeah that’s a really good question. I think people are naturally concerned about change. We’re changing quickly, but some of our institutions, like some laws, aren’t changing with that. The laws [about technology] can’t be right if it’s 50 years old — that’s before the Internet. Maybe more of us need to go into other areas to help them improve and understand technology.
We don’t want our world to change too fast. But maybe we could set apart a piece of the world .. I like going to Burning Man, for example. An environment where people can try new things. I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society. What’s the effect on people, without having to deploy it to the whole world.

There is a fantastic untested assumption in Page’s remark that laws about technology that are more than 50 years old can’t be right. It’s the remark of someone who has so thoroughly accepted the ‘this is unprecedented and revolutionary’ marketing line that accompanies every new device and piece of software’s launch event that they can’t imagine that any of the checks and balances set up prior to the thing’s introduction could be robust enough to handle this latest disruption. Still, it’s interesting so it bears some thinking.


Part 1: Containing the damage.

There is a side effect to Page’s proposal. If we’re going to have parts of the world sectioned off to allow for unfettered technological experimentation, then we’re going to need to seal them off and deny the rest of the world access to that tech for some period of time. Speeding things up in some places means slowing things down everywhere else.

After all, if the purpose of these zones would be to try things out and take risks to figure out their effects on society, then we need to prevent those things from getting out into the wild, in case the effect they have is bad. This suggests a global model of technological adoption that’s more like the Amish system.

Make no mistake, some of the experiments will go bad. If they don’t, then the experiments weren’t really all that experimental.

People will die. Dedication to the idea of communities that are free to go down rabbit holes and dead ends to see if there’s something valuable there means a dedication to allowing some of those groups to wipe themselves out. What do you do when your futurenauts end their period of experimentation maimed and traumatized because of a rampaging biotech project? How do you quarantine a group of people pushing the limits of the nuclear lifestyle?

Worse yet, what if things go well? What do you do when one of your experimentation communities cures AIDS (or seems to have) ahead of schedule. Do you let that tech back out into the world? What’s the procedure for evaluation and release? How long does the next Facebook have to stay isolated and in testing before we allow it access to the first billion users?

Dr. E. E. Peacock tells a revealing story about the ethics of running trials. (I first encountered the tale on Marginal Revolution)

One day when I was a junior medical student, a very important Boston surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on a large number of patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction.
At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly asked, “Do you have any controls?” Well, the great surgeon drew himself up to his full height, hit the desk, and said, “Do you mean did I not operate on half the patients?” The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of the room very hesitantly replied, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” Then the visitor’s fist really came down as he thundered, “Of course not. That would have doomed half of them to their death.”
God, it was quiet then, and one could scarcely hear the small voice ask, “Which half?”

Part 2: A brief history of rich people with opinions about urban planning and social design.

Page is far from the first weathly and powerful visionary to be convinced that he could make the world a better place faster if it wasn’t for all these pesky rules. He joins a long line of people who thought they had a better idea as to how to run a community and the vast wealth to possibly do something about it.

Walt Disney’s EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was meant to be a real city with the property wholly owned by Disney. The end of residents’ property rights would have allowed Disney to replace and upgrade residential infrastruture at will, much as Gmail being web software allows Google to roll out upgrades without asking permission. Celebration, Florida, a Disney-designed community is an extension of the EPCOT legacy.

Henry Ford’s effort at a perfect community, Fordlândia, was built in the Amazon rainforest. It didn’t go well. Workers lived in American-style housing, were fed hamburgers, and forced to wear ID badges at all times. The Brazilian army was called in to put down a revolt. Ford forbid women, alcohol, and tobacco. A pirate community with bars, nightclubs, and a brothel was established five miles upstream. Less than twenty years after it began, the project had been shut down entirely.

King Champ Gilette, famed for his disposable razors, was a dedicated and radical urban theorist. “Under a perfect economical system of production and distribution, and a system combining the greatest elements of progress, there can be only one city on a continent, and possibly only one in the world,” he wrote. That city would be Metropolis, built on the edge of Niagara Falls and dominated by cylindical apartment blocks arranged in hexagonal patterns. He tried to hire Theodore Roosevelt to be the president of World Corporation, the company that would oversee the city’s creation (Roosevelt declined).

Peter Thiel is trying to build Libertarian ocean colonies. “Decades from now, those looking back at the start of the century will understand that Seasteading was an obvious step towards encouraging the development of more efficient, practical public sector models around the world,” he said in a statement. Perhaps he will fare better than the long-delayed Freedom Ship or countless other forgotten seasteading dreams. Perhaps he’ll find himself floating alongside one of Blueseed’s startup incubators in international waters.

Isn’t it funny how all these attempts to make a better world turn out to be ways of making a more expedient workforce? What are Special Economic Zones and their Charter City children if not playgrounds for economic experimentation? What is the history of globalization if not the history of corporations setting up operations in territories that offer them unregulated freedom to innovate on their production practices? I hear they are doing wonderful cutting-edge work in Bangladesh around high density rapid-construction factory architecture, even if it is occasionally catastrophically buggy.

How come the innovations are all crushingly, depressingly the same? We’ve thoroughly innovated in the area of long hours, harsh work conditions, abridged employee rights, and poor safety standards. Maybe it’s time to try something else. Where are the SEZs that are collectivist utopias? Where are the SEZs that abolish paid work altogether? Why isn’t there a matriarchal SEZ?

If we’re going to have Farsight Reservations, surely we can do better.


Photo courtesy Adam Dachis, licensed under Creative Commons.