Who doesn’t want to be free? Free from rules, from constraints, from doubts or worry. Free from what is holding you back from being truly happy. Free just to be.
It’s one of America’s founding impulses, and it’s shaping our lives now maybe more then ever thanks to freedom-seeking tech companies. In 1999, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel co-founded PayPal to free up financial transactions and allow people to fluidly exchange money online around the world. Almost 20 years later, the two are now leading tech’s charge to build cities and colonize spaces where corporations can innovate without pesky government regulation.
Thiel, a vocal libertarian who endorsed Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, has tried to build a city on an island in international waters where a tribe of techies would be free to experiment without oversight or pessimism. Musk, a more moderate type, is instead leading Silicon Valley’s flight into space while also trying to make domestic solar power feasible to liberate customers from fossil fuels (and government-controlled power grids). They, like many of tech’s most famous figures, have gone from humble programmers who brilliantly solved early problems of the internet to polished, color-corrected captains of industry, dictating their visions on everything from education to health care to architecture.
Peter Thiel and Elon Musk; photo courtesy AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Musk and Thiel have become the two paradigmatic figures of tech in the post–Steve Jobs world. Musk has taken up Jobs’s oracular showmanship, and Thiel, his irascible contrarianism. Whether others are following their lead or are just more reticent about the ambitions Musk and Thiel flagrantly advertise is up for debate, but what is clear is that they both give a taste of tech’s future.
Peter Thiel came to national attention by supporting Trump at the Republican National Convention, but he’s turned heads before by funding the suit that bankrupted Gawker and by advocating retrograde political positions like saying that it is impossible to be optimistic about politics when women have the right to vote. But he has architectural ambitions, too. The HBO series “Silicon Valley” lampooned his vision for ‘seasteading,’ an idea for a libertarian island paradise on a platform in the open ocean. Fans of the show will remember it as where Jared ended up when he was trapped inside Peter Gregory’s self-driving car. Neurotic investor Peter Gregory is supposedly based on Thiel, although the character is a restrained version of the divisive figure Thiel has become.
Seasteading; image courtesy The Seasteading Institute
Thiel first proposed seasteading in his 2009 essay ‘The Education of a Libertarian’ as a way to establish a libertarian paradise where inventors could develop new technologies without pesky bureaucrats trying to ruin their fun. Thiel argued that there were three possible domains for libertarian freedom: The first, the internet, was already over-regulated; the second, space, was still too hard to get to; which left the third, the open ocean, where no government had jurisdiction and a free life would be possible.
Thiel has since shied away from the idea, deeming it too expensive, and his focus seems to have returned back to the shore, where he has become an advisor, and hand-holder, to Trump. Thiel believes America can start over after Trump clears out the establishment, presumably leaving tech’s great genius businessmen free to usher in a new world order — and build floating cities. He has recently helped to orchestrate a meeting between Trump and various Silicon Valley CEOs, perhaps signaling both a thaw between the president and a sector that heavily opposed him during the election and a place of privilege for Thiel in Trump’s America.
Donald Trump and Peter Thiel; photo courtesy Inverse.com
Elon Musk, Thiel’s PayPal co-founder, did not give up on outer space as quickly as his former colleague. The spectacle-loving, real-life Tony Stark founded SpaceX with the goal of sending colonists to Mars. Another tech billionaire, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, has joined in this dream with his own company Blue Origin, setting off an unexpected space race between people who owe their fortunes to making it easier to order bric-a-brac online.
While neither has publicly espoused Thiel’s vision for a libertarian extraterrestrial society, such a dream is a plausible explanation for why these people should take on such an incredibly expensive and risky project that may not generate profit for decades. Even if Musk says that he wants to colonize Mars for nothing more than to "save humanity" (thanks!), it’s hard not to see the parallels between his work and Thiel’s words.
SpaceX; photo courtesy NASA
Back on the ground, Musk has developed the two most architecturally significant products to come out of Silicon Valley: the Powerwall and the Solar Roof. The two are meant to make solar power efficient for single-family homes. One of the biggest drawbacks of solar power is that it generates electricity inconsistently. It works great on a sunny day, but at night or in bad weather, there’s no spark.
The Powerwall is a battery adapted from Tesla’s electric cars that lets customers store power from peak generation times so that it can be used whenever, making it possible that millions of homes could generate all of their own electricity, should they have the proper solar panels. The Solar Roof aims to make that a reality by installing solar cells in what appear to be typical roof shingles. The two products together could, hypothetically, liberate customers from the national power monopolies and fossil fuels; a win for freedom and the ice caps that would radically change electrical infrastructure around the world.
Tesla’s Powerwall; image courtesy Inside EVs
How do these two compare to the rest of Silicon Valley? It looks like the other tech billionaires are starting to catch up to them. Larry Page, Alphabet CEO, has talked about setting aside a part of the world for free experimentation, and Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary, is now in the business of building a ‘smart city’ that would be a showcase of digital urban infrastructure. True to Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil,” this Sidewalk city seems to have a better intention than Thiel’s, or at least a better pitch. It’s a place where technologies could be perfected before being unleashed into the world, a sort of beta lab rather than an alternate reality.
Musk showing off a Solar Roof tile; photo courtesy Tesla
Obviously cities and buildings of the future will incorporate technology that will make our lives better, and we will owe much to these billionaires and their companies for introducing innovations like driverless cars or totally clean electricity. But right now, our future homes are being shaped by a handful of iconoclasts who want to operate outside of government oversight. Why should the inventors of PayPal, of all things, be the ones to decide how our homes will get power or how we will live in space?
Architects and urbanists may be the public’s best hope for presenting a humane and socially responsible vision for tomorrow’s technologies. Now they just need to do it.