Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Project Virgle: The New New World

Earth has issues, and it's time humanity got started on a Plan B. So, starting in 2014, Virgin founder Richard Branson and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin will be leading hundreds of users on one of the grandest adventures in human history: Project Virgle, the first permanent human colony on Mars.

~Virgle: The Adventure of Many Lifetimes

Google and Virgin announce Mars expedition and colony

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. and LONDON, England (April 1st, 2008)
– Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Virgin Group today announced the launch of Virgle Inc., a jointly owned and operated venture dedicated to the establishment of a human settlement on Mars.

"Some people are calling Virgle an 'interplanetary Noah's Ark,'" said Virgin Group President and Founder Sir Richard Branson, who conceived the new venture. "I'm one of them. It's a potentially remarkable business, but more than that, it's a glorious adventure. For me, Virgle evokes the spirit of explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo, who set sail looking for the New World. I do hope we'll be a bit more efficient about actually finding it, though."

The Virgle 100 Year Plan's milestones will include Virgle Pioneer selection (2008-2010), the first manned journey to Mars (2016), a Virgle Inc. initial public offering to capitalize on the first manned journey to Mars (2016), the founding of the first permanent Martian municipality, Virgle City (2050), and the achievement of a truly self-sustaining Martian civilization with a population exceeding 100,000 (2108).

~Google Press Center, 1 April 02008

A message from Richard Branson, posted on YouTube today:

(And another from Larry Page and Sergey Brin.)

All this is a little smug, to be sure, but quite ingenious.

And a lot of work went into this effort.

Here's the colonisation "plan" laid out for the next century...
An announcement about Virgle by Branson, at the official Google Blog...
Info on the application process for would-be astronauts (wherein Google tries its hand at a little Onion-esque parody, of multi-choice questionnaires)...
The discussion board -- a google group, of course...
And perhaps my favourite part of this, the prospectus for an "Open Source Planet":

Project Virgle comprises three equal partners: Google, Virgin and a diffuse network of talented individuals who want to participate in our mission. Tapping into this global network means organizing our venture around the model that will most efficiently liberate and reward individual knowledge, effort and creativity while creating strong incentives for investing companies.

In other words, from end to end, Project Virgle will be open source.

A post-post-industrial economy

What does "open source" mean in the context of a distant, planet-wide, century-long enterprise? Today's industrialized (and post-industrialized) (and, one imagines, post-post- industrialized) economies are sustained not so much by physical wealth as by advanced systems of shared knowledge whose marginal productivity grows as more is accumulated. "Shared," however, doesn't mean valueless; we see Virgle as a decidedly for-profit venture that will develop most efficiently via decentralized models of effort, authority and reward. If the first economic revolution was agricultural, the second industrial and the third digital, the fourth will be Open Source -- the birthing of a planetary civilization whose development is driven by the unbound human imagination.

Virgle is an undertaking of almost unfathomable complexity whose success will derive to a distressingly large degree from the amount of effort that is, or isn't, put into it. So we hope we don't come off as too sweatily desperate in embracing a philosophy that we believe will invest, literally and figuratively, an exponentially larger network of individuals in our success than would a traditional corporate structure. We want to engage, one might say, the Long Tail of human creativity. Instead of 5,000 people working 12 hours a day six days a week in exchange for a full salary and benefits, imagine 5 million people working a few hours a week in exchange for contribution-based equity in the form of shares in Virgle Inc and ownership of the land of which the colony will ultimately take some form of possession.

Christian Crews, who posted this to the APF listserv earlier today, added "I love this - I wish it were real - hell, they've got the cash!"

Exactly. It's interesting how possible this feels, what with private entrepreneurs taking a renewed interest in space tourism in the last several years -- as seen in the Ansari X Prize, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and so on.

On that topic -- the power of private entities to shape our collective priorities and achievements -- it's worth noting the reach that Google's thought experiments can command. The Branson video, posted less than 24 hours ago, has accrued 244,665 views, and the Brin/Page counterpart has logged 443,771. (Google "turned the lights out" on its website last weekend -- changing its signature plain white background to black -- to support Earth Hour, an energy awareness initiative of the World Wildlife Fund. I don't know how many millions of people were exposed to this message incidentally while searching the web, but I'd bet: lots.)

Anyway, back to Virgle, which is a terrific provocative, plausible futures-esque intervention, and grist to the mill for my thinking on the relationship between hoaxes, simulations, and scenarios, which I hope will be available in human readable form sometime later this month.

It's too bad, really, that April Fool's Day comes but once a year -- we could stand to exercise our imaginations a bit more often.

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