2014-03-28

Co.Labs

A Futuristic Look At The Nation Of San Francisco

What would life be like in an experimental nation driven by technology, progress, and big capital?




"The best part is this, the people who think this is weird, the people who sneer at the frontier, who hate technology, won't follow you there... We need to run the experiment, to show what a society run by Silicon Valley looks like without affecting anyone who wants to live under the Paper Belt... We need to build opt­-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.” Balaji Srinivasan, Stanford lecturer and cofounder of genetics startup Counsyl, in a talk at Y Combinator. [Source]


The word around the Bay Area is that it's impossible to build a "real" technology company anywhere else. They say the talent, the culture, and the money are all here.

Some people think it's such a perfect incubator for new, progressive industries and lifestyles that it should be designated a kind of experimental, low-regulation zone overseen by a CEO-type political official.

Now--don't get us wrong--this is an experiment we'd love to see executed. The world is dying to know what life is like when all the coffee shops are cashless, all the mail is reverse-delivered, and people actually use Path.

This has always been the Bay Area's thing. The Yellow Cab Co-Op in San Francisco got efficient computerized dispatch way back in 1989--the first in the country. Technology has long been equated with a rising tide here.

But you know that attitude is changing when technology "thinkers" call the rest of the country “the Paper Belt.” Or publicly advocate for secession from the United States. Or say that California should be broken up into six states so they can start over with new Constitutions, even as other Californians plead for tech workers to be more active in communities already "constituted." Some of the language of today's tech acolytes sounds so brainwashy that it's just too easy to satirize.

And it leaves us here in New York speculating about whether we want this kind of place anymore. So we set out to see it: the Bay Area as its own unencumbered, progressive (if slightly plutocratic) nation with San Francisco as its capital. We trolled for inspiration in the news and sent our ideas to Matthew Rosenberg at M-Rad, a Los Angeles design and architecture firm, who rendered the scenes. We'd visit. --Ed.


“Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, whose vision is to network all of mankind online, has commissioned the equally famous architect Frank Gehry to create a new headquarters for his company. Of course this is not just any building. It's "the largest open office space in the world," as Zuckerberg says, an enormous room for 3,400 Facebook employees. The building itself will be covered with trees and meadows, allowing it to merge with the landscape. 'From the outside it will appear as if you're looking at a hill in nature,' Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook timeline.” [Source]


Welcome to the experimental prefecture of the Bay Area. It's changed a lot since you last visited. Major companies have solidified their headquarters here in San Francisco ever since the Bay Area became a reduced-regulation zone. In easy reach of mass transit, cultural events, and city living, companies from all over the West Coast have consolidated here, bringing an influx of young, educated, and wealthy workers.

Nine different cryptocurrencies are accepted by retailers here alongside the U.S. dollar. Efficient hyperloop lines run between different regions of the Bay Area but don’t travel outside it yet; plans are underway for a hyperloop going cross-country to New York by way of the southern route, passing through Austin, Texas, rather than the historical waypoint of Chicago, Illinois, which still has no interactive, music, and film conferences.

Jeff Bezos’s dome-shaped Amazon headquarters has relocated here, filling dozens of city blocks and replacing the company's original domed headquarters in Seattle, where the State of Washington attempted to limited Bezos to an unreasonably small number of biospheres within city limits.

Other tech headquarters with limited real estate footprints have opted to build enormous mushroom-shaped podiums to act as platforms for their sprawling, grassy, all-inclusive corporate campuses, modeled to look like natural landscapes floating hundreds of feet above the street, complete with their own enclosed ecosystems, hydroponic vegetable gardens, and shopping outlets.

Power is supplied by massive wind turbines lining the Bay, as well as solar installations on rooftops, rendering the cost of energy nearly to a low monthly subscription price which is structured in a freemium plan. Citizens that use less than a certain number of kilowatt hours of electricity don’t pay anything at all, but can earn free kilowatt hours for suggesting smart home appliances to their friends, provided they convert to becoming paying users for those appliances.

In many ways, this experimental nation is both more platform-like and less so. On one hand, completely modular systems exist for starting, growing, and building new business and parts of businesses. If you want something and it doesn’t exist, you can network easily with other consumers who would buy that thing, and then coordinate quickly with local experts to form an ad hoc company. A first production run determines whether this business is scalable and profitable; if it is, it’s added to your portfolio of projects. There is no fiat money, so the diversity of currencies has made room for new financial instruments; not all these products are physical or 3-D printed.

But certain infrastructure is so complex that--as with railroad networks and broadcast operators--some monopolies have been granted. Twitter has benefitted most, becoming an official replacement for municipal 911 and information services like school closings, weather warnings, earthquake response, and other urgent city affairs.

Politically, parties have become so sensitive to social network sentiment that they eventually become indistinguishable from one another, balkanized into sub-groups that mostly reflects the structure of political Reddit discussion boards.


"There are many, many exciting and important things we can do but we can't do because they're illegal or not allowed by regulations," Page said. "As technologists we should have safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society and people without having to deploy into the normal world. People who like those kind of things can go there and experiment.” Larry Page at last year's Google I/O. [Source]


Most citizens hold economically libertarian but socially progressive beliefs, and these don’t contradict. Economies of scale in the software business have created incredible wealth from growing markets in Asia and Africa, making it possible for a flourishing new movement toward socially-sustainable low-profit limited-liability corporations.

Recreation has changed, too. Growing concern over head injuries long ago eliminated school football programs and slowly dismantled football as a regional pastime. Arena video game matches have cropped up to replace them, featuring combatants wearing virtual reality masks and using real body motion to compete in a virtual world.

The most popular event is the annual Madden NFL Xbox Super Bowl, where the nation’s top two players coach their computerized teams on large screens in front of crowds of tens of thousands. Enthusiasts and legal gamblers play alongside in fantasy leagues based on the virtual game.

Not every stadium seat is occupied by a human being, however. The explosion in telepresence drones has made it possible for a drone owner to be in several places at once, using a flying device or humanoid robot to act like your very own remote head, taking you virtually to meetings, concerts, polling stations, and maybe even your kid’s cake-day party.

Drones don’t just represent people physically; they take them to places as well. Uber now offers Uber Body-X, a drone pre-programmed with your destination which picks up your slow-moving body and moves it by air to the location you choose. Uber Body-X drones come with integrated noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones so you can listen to your own tunes on the way and not be bothered by the high-decibel whine of the six-to-eight electric rotors. Pedestrians once grateful for the quiet of electric cars now complain about drone-whine.

It’s not as if Bay Area residents are slothful, however. In fact, they are some of the healthiest people in the world, thanks to tracked health metrics that monitor their every move as they transition from sleeping to coding to jogging and back to sleep again, sending data passively to doctors who monitor and alert their patients when abnormalities pop up.

There’s no shortage of places to go for a run since the old highways were decommissioned when the hyperloop system came online; they’re now pedestrian and cyclist routes. Taxi-goers are greeted by autonomous vehicles that take local roads, rendered traffic-free by synchronized driving and stoplight systems. Visitors to the area who come by car are required to park outside the country’s limits and hyperloop in. Alternatively, they can pay a $250 toll for one-day access. Commercial vehicles pay $150.

As we leave the central technology district we come to an average neighborhood thoroughfare. Gone are the rows of Paper Belt stores like you find in the United States and a lot of the vestigal public art. There are no fast-food shops here (except Chipotle and Quizno’s, which according to local laws “don’t count”) and no hole-in-the-wall businesses; those have been relegated to cart- and truck-based businesses by soaring rent prices. Former parking lots have earned the name “Taco Hoovervilles” for all the truck vendors who dwell there, turning the lots effectively into modular strip malls.

These days, most main streets are full boutique retail operations and pop-up stores held by companies testing new brands, which require constant piloting and data collection before they receive capital investment. Starbucks remains unseated as a neighborhood fixture, and its stores have actually proliferated since an entrance into the marijuana-infused coffee-and-pastry business made it the most valuable corporation in the world after Apple. (Yes, in the future, weed is legal.) Customers come for the coffee and stay for the fiber-optic Wi-Fi connection. And because they are too high to give up their customizable, massage-equipped seating, which bills them via NFC transaction at $12 an hour.

Gone are supermarkets and other high-inventory retail stores, replaced by same-day delivery services and at-home 3-D printing, which even allows doctors to send skin grafts and other minor physical treatments to patients electronically.

But contrary to what you may expect, the future isn't sterile. Citizens still compost. Many grow their own food. They use and preserve their natural resources like water, and insert them artificially where there are scarcities; where bees are scarce, small bee drones are being used to ensure regular pollination. Where bird populations suffer, larger flying poaching-prevention drones armed with tasers are permitted to punish local felines for entering the crouch-and-wiggle position that indicates an intent to hunt. Complaints about cat-tasing have led some affluent activist citizens to equip their cats with body-sensing collars that tweet complaints upon tasing. Cognitive testing indicates most cats may not actually be aware of being tased or of any other human activity of the last seven millennia.

Alamo Park is a great example of how the new city has left room for the old. It’s a great place for a jog, or for tourists to take photos. Good “selfie spots” are indicated by Bluetooth-equipped signs that can insert friends or family members into the frame, photobomb style, so you can create a digital artifact of that fleeting moment in your imagination.

Education in this country is opt-in. Open education platforms have given way to a cottage industry of “education playlist” makers--algorithmic services which will custom-assemble a daily curriculum for you based on the things you read, bookmarked, Liked, and shared to friends on prior days like today. Degrees are awarded when you complete enough coursework that the algorithm can no longer find new coursework that prior performance indicates you can’t easily master.

Prizes for degrees (which are free) can be redeemed in Amazon Rewards points, iTunes gift certificates, or Facecash, a semi-popular cryptocurrency that Mark Zuckerberg acquired and rebranded on a whim while sitting on his Facetoilet in 2015.

But the real question is: are people happier? Social network activity indicates yes, actually, they are.




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3 Comments

  • The worst kind of lazy speculative fiction. A melange of present-day technologies and gee-whiz maybes with no hard thought given to the real hows and whys of a situation like this.

    Just a simple example - where did all the poor people go, and what happened to Oakland?

  • You do realize that San Francisco is a peninsula, and not a very big one at that. The kind of development you're describing would take up almost all of the remaining open space in the city--and that wouldn't fly. The hyperloops throughout the Bay Area don't make a lot of sense, either--it takes time for the cars in that system to get up to full speed, so they would be running at a fraction of their capability. The city, as pictured, seems like the worst possible combination of the Bay Area's prevailing libertarian and progressive ideas. Cats being tasered? That should be reserved for editors with too much time on their hands.