Hyperloop: Why can't we believe in the big ideas?

When most of the tech industry seems obsessed with finding each other at restaurants and ranking their own influence, it's exciting to hear about tech that could change the world. So why are we all so skeptical about it?

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
6 min read
Image: Hyperloop concept. Yes, please.
Hyperloop concept. Yes, please. SpaceX

I heart the Hyperloop. When I heard that Elon Musk planned to hold a press call to unveil his design and the science behind a radical new form of technology -- a pneumatic-like tube that could shoot passengers at speeds of up to 800 miles per hour between San Francisco and Los Angeles -- I was thrilled.

And I remain thrilled, despite all the Debbie Downer arguments that there are no plans to build the Hyperloop anytime soon, that no company currently exists to build such a thing, and that the usual toxic combination of politics, money, and monopoly will probably prevent such a thing from being built anytime in the next several decades, if ever. I am not even interested in hearing that from you right now, Internet.

I remain thrilled because we are actually talking about a new idea and imagining the kind of future that we can and will have thanks to technology. I'm thrilled because this is a conversation about solving big issues with big ideas and not with cautious, incremental, compromised, and cynical status quo concepts. This is unfamiliar, it's exciting, it's futuristic, it's unquestionably beneficial, and there is no technological reason that it can't work. Why tear it down? Just build it.

Neal Stephenson gave a great Solve For X talk last year on the idea of getting big things done. He talks about how, in part, the Internet and personal computers sent our inventive collective off in all kinds of inane directions, from spam filter creation to a deluge of apps that geo-locate you so companies can advertise you, apps that curate things for you to buy in exchange for your personal data, and ever-more-complex smart phones. Along the line, we stopped innovating on the grand scale -- but there's no technological reason why we stopped. The reasons have everything to do with other factors -- and when I look at the way the public tends to react to big ideas, it seems to be that those factors can usually be summarized as money and fear.

The first of the negative responses I've heard to the Hyperloop concept isn't surprising, given the human penchant for self-preservation: how many different ways will this kill me? What happens when it crashes? What if terrorists try to attack it? What if it crushes my organs with its G-forces? What if I get motion sick?

The list of things our species wouldn't have if we were only concerned about death, discomfort, or security issues is long and goes all the way back to domesticating horses or even fashioning sticks and stones that were kind of sharp. These are reasonable questions to ask, but if they're the first questions we ask, we're letting fear dictate our future, and that future will inevitably disappoint because we never tried anything. We might die, or we might not, but we shouldn't live in fear when we could first just try it.

Money and fear ... come on, Bill Nye! Don't go cynical on me now!
Money and fear ... come on, Bill Nye! Don't go cynical on me now! Twitter

The second argument is money -- isn't it always? This will never get built in California, we say, because California has already committed some $68 billion to a high-speed rail project from SF to LA that is expensive, slow to build, based on outdated technology, and will provide trains that are barely faster than driving: about 3 hours, round trip. Contractors have been hired, unions are engaged, and political gauntlets have been thrown. This train will never come off its tracks, because politics always wins. Even Bill Nye the Science Guy tweeted regretfully that the Hyperloop might happen "someday" because of land rights and governmental objections.

I refuse to keep accepting that until our cynically imagined dystopian future comes to pass. As just one alternative to the essentially already-failed high speed rail project, we now have a detailed plan for a high-speed transit system that could cost as little as $6 billion to build and, by the way, would be solar powered and infinitely more environmentally friendly than the dirty, diesel-powered rail project. It seems obvious that Musk is unveiling this plan ahead of the ground-breaking for the rail project in what is hopefully a successful attempt to stop the monster from ever being born. So get over the sunk cost fallacy of the California "high speed rail" and move on to a better solution.

All we citizens of California, and the Internet, and the world, have to do is believe that this technology is possible. Then those of us with the lucky happenstance of representative government should use it like it's supposed to be used, and demand better. Instead we tend to give up and talk about great ideas that will never happen -- or worse, tear those ideas down as silly, unrealistic, or impossible.

It's tempting to blame "Internet culture" for the creeping negativity and cynicism that stops us from ever imagining more, but I believe that the chorus of "no's" from Twitter and the comments section only amplifies a depressing point of view that's infected America since the 1970s. We're afraid. We hate science. We have no heroes. We don't believe that we are capable of more. All the "disruptive" technologies I ever hear about seem to be smart watches and better ways to track every individual movement we ever make and better ways to make it seem like we're better photographers than we are. Wait, get out, the phone can see my hand waving in front of it and then answer the incoming call!? You're kidding me.

Look at what technology has already done. We can fly. We can access all the information ever recorded in seconds, virtually anywhere we are. We can bio-print organs with 3D printers (not to mention food, drone parts, and, thank goodness, iPhone cases). We've mapped the human genome, implanted memories in mice, created technology that allows quadriplegics to move prosthetic limbs with their minds. We have robots that can teach themselves to make human expressions. Oh, yeah: we can fly.

But somehow, when faced with truly big ideas -- that is, ideas that occur or are implemented on a grand scale, as public works projects, or that happen out in the light rather than in quiet, under-the-radar labs, we balk. That just doesn't seem possible. It's laughable, even, to hope that such world-changing ideas could actually happen in this permanently hopeless condition in which we reluctantly reside.

That's ... sad.

I have no religion but technology anymore. I am starving for big ideas, and I'm not the only one. You don't always hear it from me, I know, but I believe that we live at the dawn of one of the most amazing time in human history. Technology has the power to transform health, energy, food, the environment, and transportation, and improve the quality of life of every human on this planet and not just a few animals, too. Of course there are problems, and practical concerns, and land rights issues, and politics. But every problem has a solution if you want it badly enough and if you believe that you deserve it. Every problem has a solution if you start by looking for the solutions rather than the problems.

Could I be disappointed by the Hyperloop? Could it turn out to be "another Segway" or Google Glass or CableCard? Sure. Anything is possible. But I'm willing to get excited, to open my heart, and to fall in love all over again precisely because anything is possible. I do not believe that the iPhone is the best we can do as a species. I'm a California voter and I plan to do everything possible to do my part to get the Hyperloop built. We deserve better, and technology can give it to us. Just believe.