A radical dream for making techno utopias a reality

At Y Combinator, Balaji Srinivasan, a Stanford lecturer and co-founder of genetics startup Counsyl, lays out his proposal for creating opt-in societies where government can't meddle.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read
Balaji Srinivasan speaks to the crowd at Y Combinator's annual startup school at De Anza College's Flint Auditorium in Cupertino, Calif., on Saturday, October 19. Nick Statt/CNET

CUPERTINO Calif. -- Balaji Srinivasan opened his Y Combinator startup school talk with a joke: Is the US the Microsoft of nations? The question was received warmly by the crowd of more than 1,700 and did in fact have a logical conclusion: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, were exactly what Bill Gates feared when he said in 1998 that two people in a garage working on something new was Microsoft's biggest threat.

What ties those two seams together? The idea of techno-utopian spaces -- new countries even -- that could operate beyond the bureaucracy and inefficiency of government. It's a decision that hinges on exiting the current system, as Srinivasan terms it from the realm of political science, instead of using one's voice to reform from within, the very way Page and Brin decided to found their search giant instead of seek out ways in which the then-current tech titans could solve new problems.

Calling his radical-sounding proposal "Silicon Valley's Ultimate Exit," Srinivasan thinks that these limitless spaces, popularly postulated by Page at this year's Google I/O, are already being created, thanks to technology and a desire to exit. Ultimately, the Stanford lecturer and co-founder of Counsyl, a genetics startup, thinks Silicon Valley could lead the charge in exiting en masse because, eventually, "they are going to try and blame the economy on Silicon Valley."

"We didn't securitize mortgages, order bailouts, start wars, or refuse to write movies or articles on this until too late," read one of Srinivasan's slides on where the blame lies and what the real problems are that are holding technology back.

Srinivasan sees exiting happening all the time, thanks to the Internet. "Simply going on Reddit instead of watching television is a version of opting out," he said. Elsewhere, new industries are simultaneously disrupting existing ones while also exiting the system entirely, he says.

With 3D printing, regulation is being turned into DRM. With quantified self, medicine is going mobile. With Bitcoin, capital control becomes packet filtering. All of these examples, Srinivasan says, are ways in which technology is allowing people to exit current systems like physical product production and distribution; personal health; and finance in favor of spaces of their own creation.

"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," he said. "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," he added, using the term "paper belt" to refer to the environments currently governed by pre-existing systems like the US government.

It sounds crazy, and it kind of is. Srinivasan even went so far as to point out -- perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheekiness -- that Silicon Valley, including the up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the Y Combinator crowd, must design these processes for exit peacefully, as combating current systems like the US government would result in violent failure.

"We need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology," Srinivasan said, often reading from the slides he presented onstage with an authoritarian tone. But his words had an air of forced evangelism, much in the way a professor often probes students on the merit of wild ideas by taking on the persona of a radical who truly believes in them.

And as a Stanford lecturer teaching a MOOC, or massive open online course, through the school's partnership with Coursera, on this very subject, Srinivasan is very much presenting the idea as a way to open it up to skepticism and analysis.

Still, Srinivasan thinks Peter Thiel's proposed floating tech incubator and Elon Musk's plans for a Mars colony are good starts. "Silicon valley itself is shaped by exit," he said definitively, halfway through the presentation.

By the time he finished, a slide showing an artist's rendition of what a techno-utopia might look like if it were blossoming in the ocean off the coast of what could only be Northern California evoked his vision nicely. But it still looked eerily like the floating space station in Neill Blomkamp's dystopian commentary Elysium.