Excerpt from Trees on Mars — Chapter 3

Chapter 3: The Group Just Slows Us Down
Future vs. Institution

As I write this, there are 306 teams vying to be the first in the world to build a working tricorder. If you’re thinking Star Trek’s Spock rubbing a device emitting a sound like a transistor radio stuck between AM channels over the red uniformed chest of a prone Enterprise minion, you are on the right track. That’s pretty much the thing teams from the US and all over the world are competing against each other to build. It’s a device “designed for consumers that would provide the ability to capture information on about 15 different health conditions and also be able to interpret that information for consumers plus be able to capture vital signs in real time and be able to stream those wirelessly.” Whoever builds this thing first is the winner of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize and a purse of $10 million.

The XPrize Foundation was officially launched in 1994, then made its mark in 1996 when its founder, tech entrepreneur, and futurist utopian Peter Diamandis announced a $10 million prize to be awarded to the first group to build a private spaceship capable of carrying three people and flying two times within two weeks to the open space frontier. This prize was awarded in 2004 to a team funded by former Microsoft CEO Paul Allen. The fanfare of giving out the first prize was a public relations bonanza to Diamandis and his XPrize. Corporations lined up to sponsor further prizes including the 2007–2010 Progressive Insurance Automotive XPrize, the 2010–2011 Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE, and the ongoing 2007 Google Lunar XPrize.

Since then, prizes are coming at a furious pace. Among them include three new ocean-related XPrizes to be launched before 2020, whose goals, apparently, will be determined by crowdsourcing public opinion. The message of the XPrize Foundation is as unambiguous as its crowdsourcing marketing exercises: this is how you get to the future. Ten years ago, we might have dismissed the XPrize as an outsized personal obsession, an outlier that doesn’t actually represent any kind of systemic change in how we think about future collectively and individually. After all, XPrize founder Diamandis is a pundit, speaker, TED Talk regular, and author of iconic Silicon Valley text Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. In other words, he’s a professional future-first prophet—someone who has made a career out of preaching that creativity leashed to science and technology will solve our problems. (I get his mass e-mails for “abundance-minded thinkers” complete with pithy zingers like “Women, we’re entering your age of abundance. Men, it’s time to join the movement.”) Once upon a time, his entire line of thinking—not to mention his organization—would have been dismissed as fringe. But the profusion of admirers, copy-cat visionaries, and similar approaches to fostering technological research clearly shows how the message of rapid-fire tech solutions to overarching global problems is one we very much want to hear.

As a result, the XPrize Foundation, located in Southern California, is the leader in what is becoming the increasingly more common practice of offering large cash prizes to the first team to achieve a technological goal on a relatively short timeline. (In the case of the Tricorder XPrize, the teams have about one-and-a-half years to build their devices.) But on a deeper level, the XPrize Foundation’s efforts are evidence of the way the thought process of permanent future is becoming embedded in the systems and institutions of society on many levels. That is, the Tricorder XPrize is further evidence for the increasing prevalence of the cultural idea that we need new institutions and systems whose explicit and even only mission is to intervene as directly as possible in the future with the ultimate goal being domination over the what-comes-next. What we see when we look at the XPrize is, again, the philosophy of future first embodied in real life, and altering our institutions on the most elemental level. If institutions ranging from colleges to governments can’t get us to the future fast enough, then we need to replace them with newer, better institutions. Or maybe, we don’t need institutions at all.

 

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