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Hypotheticals, Hype, and the Hyperloop

Traveling sizable distances can be a bother. Hours spent stuck in a car, the discomfort of a long bus ride, and the frustration of airports can all make people dream of a better, more pleasant, and less time consuming mode of transport.

While there are certainly some modest systems that are proposed – such as high speed rail – such plans easily become snarled in debates about the needed government spending and the opposition that any given mode of transit would provoke from the already established modes of transport. If the challenge seems insurmountable to some perhaps it is no surprise that some of the suggested solutions seem plucked straight out of science fiction. After all, maybe the solution is not to thing big, but to think a bit crazy: how else to explain Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.

The Hyperloop would be a feat of transit worthy of a summer blockbuster (in which it would surely either breakdown or be destroyed by a giant monster), and according to Nick Bolton’s article in the New York Times (“Elon Musk Unveils Plans for Hyperloop High-Speed Train”) this imagined train:

“would take people to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 30 minutes. That is a speed of almost 800 miles an hour.”

It is important to note that the Hyperloop is not about to start offering tickets, and those trying to get from San Francisco to LA can still expect the trip to take several hours for the foreseeable future. Indeed what Musk unveiled was a paper/proposal that – to be overly simplistic – presented the idea of the Hyperloop roughly explained how it could be done and then said: “somebody should do this, anybody? If not, I might, maybe.” As for cost, Musk suggested that the project would cost around $6 Billion to build, and eventually tickets could be as little as $20 a ride.

There are concerns to be raised about the actual physics of the project, concerns to be raised about the actual building of the project, concerns to be raised about the price (to build and to ride) of the project, but such concerns fail to raise the more important question: is this really a new technology that we want or need?

After all (the physics aspect aside) much of the way this program was unveiled makes it seem an act of libertarian techno fantasizing wherein the greatest surprise was that Musk was not immediately calling for donations to be made in Bitcoins whilst announcing that all components of the Hyperloop would actually be manufactured using 3-D printers. The Hyperloop seems more like something unveiled by an Ayn Rand protagonist than like a genuine proposal. And this is not meant as an attack on Bitcoins, 3-D printers, or on Ayn Rand; however, the Hyperloop seems primarily to be about hype not about solving a genuine societal problem. It’s a dream that some can linger on, imagining “how great it would be” if only the government (and whoever else) would get out of the way and let it be built, but how many people were clamoring madly to get from San Francisco to LA more quickly?

Indeed, it seems that a solid initial approach to the Hyperloop is to soberly apply Neil Postman’s questions for new technology to the plan (it is worth noting that in the book wherein Postman unveils those questions he uses the example of Super Sonic Jets as a technological solution people opted against). This is not to suggest that the Hyperloop does not seek to address some real challenges (the time it takes to travel), and it is not to suggest that something like the Hyperloop will never be built; however, at a moment when people are feeling justifiably frustrated with some modern technology (the smart phones that spy on us) the Hyperloop seems like techno-evangelizing.

Regardless of whether or not the Hyperloop ever gets built the momentary excitement – or at least coverage – that has arisen around the topic is indicative of the way that our society interacts with technology. Hyperloop is an interesting idea for a piece of “gee-whiz!” technology but in terms of its real world value it is worth remaining skeptical – not simply of the proposal itself, but of the motivations that might lead to a society prioritizing it over other technologies. Might widespread high-speed rail in California (and the rest of the country) be an expensive mess to develop? Certainly, but compared to a bizarre loop connecting LA to San Francisco such a move would still be more sensible – and more easily expanded.

What is also important to bear in mind is that new technologies, once introduced, have widespread societal ripples. It may well be that Musk and a host of other private investors cobble together the money to fund the project, but just because a person is wealthy and has an idea for a new technology, does this entitle them to build whatever they like? Certainly, this is a dream that seems shared by some members of the technology community (such as a certain Google executive), but it fails to recognize that as people living in a society the dreamy innovations created by those at the top may have unforeseen consequences for the rest of the population.

Despite the hype, the Hyperloop emerges not as a bold example of innovative thinking but as an example of the abandonment of serious thinking about widespread challenges for fun fantasizing about rather trifling concerns. While technologies may in and of themselves be “ambivalent” (which is not quite the same as neutral) the societal motivations that lead to one technology being advanced over another are far from neutral. Rather what the Hyperloop does is pick a minor problem for which there is a technological solution and proceed to try to advance a convincing argument that this is in fact a major problem.

Technology has the ability to alter a great deal in our lives, but sometimes it is worthwhile to pause and consider that just because a system has been worked out for getting from point A to point B at wondrous speeds does not necessarily mean that this is a technology that must be or should be pursued.

The Hyperloop seems like something pulled out of a science fiction story, and while that may be “cool” it is worth bearing in mind that “cool” is not synonymous with “a worthwhile idea.”

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on August 15, 2013 by in Government, History, People With Lots of Money, Society, Technology, The Commons and tagged , , .

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