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, Essays

The First Terraforming

Author: Venkatesh Rao

A technological sublime for the Anthropocene.

This text was originally published by Venkatesh Rao on Ribbonfarm Studio. Rao is a faculty member of The Terraforming. Learn more about the program and apply by November 7.

We seem to have arrived at the start of a technological grand cycle comprising Web3 (née blockchain/crypto), machine learning, metaverse¹ (née VR/AR/XR/MR²), and climate tech, with robotics (née IoT) and a renewed commercial space sector gearing up to join the party in a few more years. It seems like a grab-bag of unrelated things, but a blurry larger logic is starting to take shape.

It feels like 1994: a lot of technology action, no validated business models for anything, and overbuilding of certain kinds of infrastructure capacity getting underway.

One thing that is different is the dark earnestness of the revolutionary fervor in the air, especially in the Web3 corner, where the slightest expression of doubt will draw the ire of multiple cults of true believers. While there was some of that in 1994, much of it was a sort of milquetoast late-modern hippie utopianism that mainly resulted in manifestos, not mad crowds. What we have today, especially for the Web3 crowd, coming on the heels of the Great Weirding, is a kind of fiery burn-it-all-down postmodern techno-passion that will I think hit far harder. Arguably, the revolutionary fervor of 1994 was basically all talk. This time it might get real. I’ve started to think of the Web3 crowd as the Tea Party of tech, and I fully expect to see a Trump-like figure to emerge from it within the decade, to take on the Silicon Valley “technological deep state.”

I last checked in on this nascent grand cycle four years ago (see the April 14, 2017 issue, “The Anatomy of the Future Fly”), and the picture has become much clearer since then.

I’ll define a technological grand cycle as a set of waves of technology that share an overall cultural DNA, and induce a particular kind of society. So “industrial era” is a technological grand cycle, but “PC era” is not. A grand cycle is about three to four of Carlota Perez’s technological cycles,³ which each last about 70-80 years. A Perez cycle corresponds roughly to one of the conventional numbered (first, second, third…) industrial sub-revolutions.

The McKinsey-Davos crowd appears to be pumping “fourth industrial revolution” hard as a name for what’s going on right now. See for example Klaus Schwab’s 2016 stake in the ground.

It’s not a terrible name. There is a certain amount of substance there. The first three industrial revolutions (basically steam, electricity, and computers) shared a certain cumulative evolutionary logic, which manifested as (for example) impersonal institutions, a strong middle class, industrial schooling, and urbanism. So “fourth industrial revolution” may turn out to be a reasonable candidate depending on how strongly the logic of industrialization continues to shape history.

But I think a better name is the first terraforming. A lot of people have been converging on the term “terraforming” for rather cynical reasons. They are reaching for it as a way to reframe climate action and win over climate skeptics. This is, I think, a silly reason, and it won’t work anyway. Climate skeptics are not dumb, but this sort of transparent noble-lying is very dumb, as we’ve discovered repeatedly through Covid.

But there are better reasons to talk terraforming. It is simply a more powerful frame. Terraforming broadens and deepens the idea of “climate action” intellectually and emotionally in ways that allow it to serve as the cultural scaffolding of an entire technological grand cycle. More importantly, it recenters the call to climate action in a useful way, which may inspire oblique approaches to climate action that are more effective than on-the-nose approaches that are currently largely failing worldwide (see John Kay’s great little book Obliquity, for more on this principle).

Benjamin Bratton has written a good short, dense little book titled The Terraforming that is part of the course material for the eponymous five-month program he runs at the Strelka Institute. It could be considered prolegomena for the general idea of terraforming, with a particular emphasis on urbanism as a locus of action. I’ll review it in a future newsletter. I did a guest lecture for the program earlier this year, and will be participating more fully in the 2022 offering, which will be the last time the program runs. If you’re interested you may want to apply—the deadline is November 7. The program itself is tuition-free.

But why bother with competing for naming rights, besides memetic vanity? Does anything of consequence hinge on whether you call it fourth industrial revolution or first terraforming or whatever term finally wins the underlying meme competition?

I think the answer is yes. The right name foregrounds and prioritizes the right questions and problems, which drives capital movements, policy-making, and institutional designs. The future may end up surprisingly different based on what we call it.

So the question of whether we’re at the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution or the first terraforming is a question about whether or not you expect radical cultural shifts on par with the shift from agrarian to industrial economies. This means radical shifts in governance models, corporate models, economic structures, population distributions, religious tendencies, and so on.

I don’t know about you, but I think I do expect all that within my lifetime. I think much of the logic of the industrial revolution (all 250 years and four Perez cycles of it) will unravel and either reverse or be displaced by an alternative logic. For example, centralizing tendencies will reverse into decentralizing tendencies.

And much of the cultural logic of terraforming will be driven by the boundary conditions of climate change, but importantly, will not be reducible to just “climate response.”

Terraforming is a bigger idea than climate response. One that basically takes responsibility for human agency in the Anthropocene, at the largest and most sophisticated scales at which it can be exercised. This includes taking responsibility for the fact that this agency cannot be ceded, because even if that were a good idea (which it isn’t) there’s no way to engineer a global, consensual ceding. Expecting all humans to cede the power to terraform earth is about as realistic as expecting everyone to turn Amish.

In many ways, this means calling it terraforming is actually more of a provocation than calling it “climate response.” A way to piss off more people, not less. To call it terraforming is to burn big civilization-scale bridges to the past.

The frame openly challenges not just climate skeptics, but also several of the most fervent kinds of climate-action advocates, thanks to the philosophical commitment to large-scale designed intervention in, and interference with, the earth’s natural dynamics, and efforts to reboot wealth and growth processes in new ways.

  • Old-school environmentalists already don’t like any of this. Their resistance to nuclear power, which to many is an unavoidable part of climate response, is an early example of resistance to terraforming frames.

  • The degrowth crowd will hate it (but then, they hate everything).

  • Statists who want “massive state action” for climate change will dislike it because it adopts a planetary perspective that is willing, even eager, to give up on the state as the right locus of action, without giving up on the requisite scale.

  • The diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) crowd will hate it because it requires investing in very high-tech modes of action within which DEI objectives are harder to pursue, not easier.

  • The environmental justice (EJ) crowd will hate it because it contemplates more interference in the already besieged parts of the world where the least privileged live, not less.

  • Ethno-nationalists will hate it because it ignores the sacredness of their preferred boundaries.

  • To the extent a new private space sector plays both a direct role (Starlink WiFi, satellite-based blockchains) and a philosophical framing role (terraforming is an idea grounded in designs for other planets), many will be in deadly opposition. Legitimate narrow concerns, such as the contribution of space launches to greenhouse gas emissions, will turn into vehicles for broader opposition to terraforming as a pattern of climate response.

  • Free marketers will view terraforming as a nefarious neo-communist plot, while actual neo-communists will view it as an attempt to sell the entire planet to large corporations.

  • Reactionaries of all stripes will view, and resist, terraforming as an open threat to their historicist narratives, and attempts to return to various idealized historical states.

Perhaps worst of all, the terraforming frame provokes what some would view as entirely unnecessary new battles that take attention away from the core immediate concern of decarbonization.

Do we really need to be building a metaverse right now? Hell yeah, if we’re talking terraforming. Hell no, if we’re talking climate response.

Working with the terraforming frame, as opposed to the narrower climate-response frame, is almost all downsides, with no upsides except for one big one.

Terraforming is an inspirational frame.

It has an aspect of the sublime to it. It’s not just a fearful and focused effort to address only the most urgent and scariest problems, but a generative effort to expand and enrich the human condition by pursuing its most alluring opportunities. It’s a posture of advancement rather than retreat. A reshaping of existential risks rather than mere mitigation. An attempt to reboot history rather than a defeated acceptance of the end of history. A genuine response to the meaning crisis, to the extent one exists. An attempt to renegotiate the idea of progress with ourselves rather than simply give up on it.

All major concerns and criticisms of terraforming as a frame have a core of validity to them, but the important thing is that the One Big Upside of terraforming is, in my opinion, big enough to overwhelm all of them. So no none of the concerns are strong enough to justify not terraforming.

As far as I’m concerned, if there isn’t an inspiring way to contemplate the human condition and participate in evolving it, there’s not much point to anything else.

Does my individual opinion matter? No.

But the fact that enough people think like me matters, because technological grand cycles are kicked off by a few people doing things simply because they can, and because nobody can realistically stop them, unleashing new kinds of ungovernable forces. They are not—and fundamentally cannot be—democratic choices by all of humanity to steer history in a certain direction.

And truth be told, the first terraforming has already begun. All important threads of activity are already underway. All are rapidly outgrowing anybody’s ability to stop. Everything I’ve included under the umbrella concept is already a live, kicking, Promethean thing.

And none of it was the result of a democratic vote by all humans.

There’s already a new private space sector. There’s already a huge Web3 economy. There’s already vast installed capacity for solar and wind. There’s already probably a Nigeria’s worth of electricity consumption driving machine learning computations around the world (for those who came in late, a “Nigeria” is the unit of electricity consumption required to drive an outrage cycle).

Covid has been a first experiment in a minimum-viable terraforming project. Almost overnight, in historical terms, we’ve accomplished a vast virtual population movement, comparable to the rural-to-urban migration of the industrial era, via the work-from-home shift. We’ve already dismantled industrial schooling in deep ways. We’ve already started ripping out HVAC systems, to address contamination, in ways that will segue naturally into climate response retrofits. For better and worse, we’ve deployed a vast global disease surveillance system, and a new kind of vaccine technology to police the microbial frontier better.

The First Terraforming is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.

Cover image courtesy of ESA Earth Observation

Venkatesh Rao

Venkatesh Rao is a writer and consultant. He is the author of Tempo (2011), a book on decision-making, and the founder and editor of the influential longform blog Ribbonfarm. He holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering (2003) from the University of Michigan. His current research focuses on the changing relationship between time perception and the human condition, with particular focus on the hypothesis that a century-old culture based on universally shared objective clock time is giving way to a condition of multitemporality—a human condition based on a fragmented landscape of subjective time cultures.

1 — If you’re new to the metaverse discourse, Matthew Ball’s Metaverse Primer is where you want to start. Facebook and Microsoft have both been using the term, and Nvidia was calling it the omniverse for a while, but metaverse appears to have stuck. At the aspirational level of description, it is vaporware, but one level below there’s plenty of real hardware and software. But there is a genuine new element to the vision; it is not a shallow update to Second Life. The metaverse is best understood as a sort of “open internet of digital theme parks.”

2 — One reason the term metaverse has caught on at all is because of the ridiculous proliferation of acronyms based on device-level distinctions that don’t really matter much. Whether virtual, augmented, extended, or mixed, it’s all distortions of naturally experienced reality.

3 — Ben Thompson had a nice review of Perez’ model and her latest thinking last week. These cyclical models are to some extent a matter of taste and emphasis, and Perez, who emphasizes financial capital, thinks we’re hitting the back half of the computerization technological cycle. Her view is not exactly in conflict with mine, but is one harmonic higher, and I think she’s missing a grand cycle boundary.

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