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Futurism vs neo-Luddism: battle of frontiers of thought/tech

For its proximity to San Francisco, mild weather, access to the outdoors such as Tamalpais, the old hippy enclaves by the ocean like Bolinas or similar unincorporated areas, and wine country, Marin County’s tranquil towns attracted families in search of a quality of life and a less competitive environment than Silicon Valley or the city.

But the mid-age dream of moving to Marin County faded in a complex process that affects one way or another the rest of the Bay Area, California, and the United States. And so, as empty nesters began to struggle in their suddenly oversized and challenging to maintain homes, the pleasant main streets and housing communities of Mill Valley became out of reach for most buyers.

Journalists such as Conor Dougherty, who resides in the area, have explained the perfect storm exacerbating a housing crisis across California, from menacing fires to a self-inflicted housing shortage, to the conservative attitudes towards housing that have proven pervasive across suburban California.

Capturing and sharing value

A combination of factors played a role in the housing crisis and its effects: well-intentioned incentives to encourage homeownership turned perverse to the point of preventing their initial purpose; a disparage between economic activity growth and housing supply; the influx of high-skilled workers outbidding other offers in primary and second homes; and the added risk of extreme weather events in the region, from water shortage to ever-bigger fires.

The homelessness crisis, a complex problem with dynamics on its own, concerns all Californians one way or another. No journalist nor essayist has attempted yet to tackle the issue on a well-researched, multidisciplinary, non-partisan research or nonfiction book.

Not all those who don’t have an address face the same type of problems or stigma, for there’s a fruitful genealogy of the underground in connection with the American long story of itinerancy, from Frontier travelers to hobos, beatniks, or current day explorers of their own path.

California’s “invention” is strongly associated with the militant, individualistic idea of going West (on the Sunset Route) to try to push boundaries.

The dance of politics and enterprise in California

With the State’s median home price surpassing $800,000 by the end of 2021, the dream of Going West is nowadays hardly associated with the old promise of coastal California; more stringent visas for technology and academic immigrants but also for agriculture workers, as well as Covid restrictions, contribute to dissipating one of the last standing versions of an American Dream with global appeal.

Such issues are making California a less attractive place for young professionals and highly educated immigrants, some of whom are leaving the Bay Area and the State for locations in Texas, outdoorsy towns in the Rockies, a distributed office (also a post-pandemic reality), or some sort of combination on those lines.

Elon Musk —who came to Palo Alto as an immigrant from South Africa in the mid-nineties— recently announced that Tesla is moving its headquarters from the hills of Palo Alto to Austin, Texas. SpaceX, the aerospace manufacturer, transportation, and communications company Musk founded where he plays the roles of CEO and CTO, is still headquartered in Hawthorne, just south of Los Angeles.

Gavin Newson’s momentum after the failed recall materialized in SB-9, a bill making duplexes (and in some cases fourplexes) legal on any lot zoned for one house statewide. Another bill SB-10 makes it easier for cities to approve small apartment buildings in neighborhoods that had prevented such developments showing their exclusive single-family zoning.

We have commented on many local stories and news about the area while traversing San Rafael back and forth on 101 going from Kirsten’s parents’ home in Alexander Valley to San Francisco.

Explaining the Bay Area in a long stretch of “now”

I have recursively joked over the years about the bow of the area towards a long-revered figure in the English speaking world during the Age of Discovery, “Sir” Francis Drake, with a dedicated boulevard connecting San Rafael East to West and over to the ocean with the bay that bears his name, believed to be the place where he landed after circumnavigating the world in 1579, a bit over half a century after Magellan and Elcano’s trip. So each time a sign reminds us of “Sir” Francis Drake, I bring the fact that he is a mere pirate to me. Philip II can smile succinctly from his grave at El Escorial.

Both in the United States and across the Commonwealth, Francis Drake is remembered (even in controversial times for historical figures of times past) as many things, from explorer to sea captain, privateer, naval officer, politician, and slave trader. The Spanish tradition, from popular legend to regulated education, remembers him primarily as a pirate, a label that connects any high school student in Spain with long-forgotten fights between the crowns of England and Castile and later between Great Britain and Spain, and their respective allies.

We have friends in Mill Valley and are aware of the controversial legacy in the area of the way history has been explained in the area and across the Americas since the beginning of the Columbian exchange, as Charles C. Mann has explored in his essays about to moments suspended in time that changed the world: 1491, the instant before the arrival; and 1493, the often painful “discovery” of the place supposed to be somewhere in the Far East.

Image from “Gattaca” (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

Europeans would settle the area almost three centuries after, with trips from northern enclaves of New Spain (the current border across the United States’ Southwest) to the coast of the California Nueva from San Diego to the Bay Area, across a network of presidios and Franciscan missions connected by a trail initially marked by the padres with the yellow color of introduced mustard plants.

Today, as Gaspar de Portolà, Juan Bautista de Anza or father Junípero Serra become controversial in California, and the old commemoration of “discovery” is rebranded in recognition of the indigenous cultures forcibly “civilized,” any Californian (or any visitor attached to the State as me, for that matter) will mention landmarks, routes or streets with names traced back to the times of the California Nueva (or Alta) with nonchalant naturality.

A portal to and from the Golden Gate

A few Spanish and especially Portuguese families settled north of San Francisco before and after the opening of the Golden Gate, can barely relate to a mostly mythical time prior to the Gold Rush and the Mexican-American War (the times of Californios, Mexican families tracing their roots to other parts of New Spain —colonial Mexico and the US Southwest— and/or to the metropolis,) the same way any local claiming Native-American ancestry will have a hard time looking back on places such as the Salinas Valley before the ranching sagas depicted by John Steinbeck.

To some, the only story worth telling starts with the Donner Party adventure of macabre survival in the Sierras during the times of the Oregon Trail. Anything aforegoing would be disconnected from the direct story of a nation forging ahead, as well as the Protestant roots of the manifest destiny doctrine and its agrarian materialization through homesteading West of the Mississippi.

On the West Coast, “Old” is traced back to respectable families from Los Angeles or San Francisco after statehood —California entered the Union on September 9, 1850.

Half a century after, Oakland writer Jack London depicted a young and poor autodidact trying to become a writer, an alter ego named Martin Eden.

Unlike London himself, Martin Eden rejects class solidarity of the times such as workers’ unions, embracing a personal struggle that establishes the bridges between Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism and Nietzsche’s creative individualism that have defined the archetypical figure associated with those intrigued by the West —from the Frontier trapper, the Northern California gold rush miner or Southern California oil prospector, the logger from Northern California and the orange grower from Los Angeles, to talented entrepreneurs in the intangible industries of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the cinema and tech entrepreneurs, Walt Disney and Howard Hawks, or their contemporary alter-egos Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

Game of mirrors in Mill Valley

Authors and scholars have dedicated their careers to explaining the “invention” of the West, a canonic story (set amid orange groves, old adobe buildings, impossibly tall trees, and otherworldly, to-be-preserved-landscapes) that spends little to no time explaining sacred native places and their meaning, or why rushed drivers clogging the Santa Clara valley every other day go through places named after old roads, missions, and landmarks whose names (usually a mispronounced Spanish word) conceal other places’ names in extinct local tongues.

Commuting through Mill Valley as we usually do for weeks when we are in California, brings back memories that can be traced to our own shared experience in the area, but also to popular culture or to the existence of crossed references coming from books, articles, or the neural network in which we all have come to participate in different ways for decades now.

George Lucas built Skywalker Ranch, his estate not far from 101 as it crosses Mill Valley. His Nicasio ranch, in a private area secluded from visitors, comprises the headquarters of Lucasfilm, a sound mixing and special effects studio, and the artificial Ewok Lake.

Locals know that Lucas Valley Road, where the ranch sits, refers to an early 20th-century landowner. It’s not Lucas’ privacy craving that can surprise the visitor but knowing about the director’s disagreement with his neighbors regarding housing.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center building (1960); interior hall

Things began to deteriorate when Lucas canceled the expansion of a new facility in his property in 2012 due to the opposition of some neighbors. When Lucas announced he wanted to build some low-income housing in the area, neighbors and local associations agreed to oppose the plan ardently. In this story of mirrors and second intentions, the wealthy neighbor tries to ease building restrictions.

In contrast, most self-proclaimed residents shield their opposition to the plan to prevent “eyesores” or “change of character.”

Our familiar route through US-101

The Marin county locals we know like to picture themselves as relaxed and unpretentious, keeping their distinctive, at times thrifty Northern California flavor. Still, attitudes towards school districts or housing tell a less innocuous story of the area’s dynamics, which share a carefully designed friction policy towards those who don’t own a house in the area, especially lower-income candidates.

Towards the coast, the Muir Woods, Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, or the scenic drive of winding Highway 1 are also part of the shared imaginary, forever associated with scenes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a picturesque coastal car chase from Basic Instinct or, more recently, some exteriors from Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

This psychogeography where references jump from real places to the Hollywood imaginary before Netflix and the fragmentation of audiences never ceases to amaze us as we cross the area, not stopping until we reach a destination usually located south of the Bay.

It’s amid this pleasant suburban setting of flowered streets and public schools with generous sports facilities that seem to take place the disfunction of a society lacking a common project that ends up building partial versions of itself. Homeowners from Marin County are ready to fight urban densification with the same determination as they combated smart electric meters some years ago.

It seems the times of Mill Valley’s subtle blend of exclusive progressiveness, one that makes a clear distinction between homeowners from the area and the rest, are behind us. Yet there is an old public building from the area whose recognizable, the timeless design reminds us of the area’s connection with the factory of dreams of modern entertainment, from computer games to special effects and the beginnings of computer animation.

If you know which nearby hill to look to, you can see the spectacular Marin County Civic Center as you drive up or down 101 by San Rafael. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with no budget or stylistic constraints, it’s placed away from any other construction east of 101. Wright conceived two long wings departing from a dome that serves as a neuralgic center: a three-story 880-foot-long Hall of Justice; and a four-story 550-foot-long Administration Area, united by the 80-foot (24 meters) diameter dome.

Seeing Marin County Civic Center from the distance

A series of arches that decrease their span at each lower-level reveals from a distance some sort of Fibonacci Easter Egg with the circumference as a protagonist. The bright blue ceilings remind the visitor of the greenish-blue that the patina of time imprints in old copper statues and ornaments.

During one of our visits, Benjamin Berto, one of Marin’s county planners, showed us around. Thanks to him, we could appreciate the roof’s circular ornaments and a 172-foot gold tower. As light hits the surface of the building, one can only waffle about its timelessness. It could have been built by an ancient, highly sophisticated civilization and also by an equally refined community living sometime in the future.

This fact could explain why the building served as the main set of Gattaca, a 1997 science fiction film directed by Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law. Gattaca can be considered a free adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, depicting a future of genetically engineered humans where natural conception is pushed to the fringes by the social pressure of achieving genetic perfection.

A proportionality that would inspire Fibonacci; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center building (1960)

When the story’s protagonist, Ethan Hawke’s role, wants to achieve his professional dream of becoming an astronaut for Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, we enjoy the astounding Marin County Civic Center transformed into headquarters for the movie, its facade’s arches proportionally decreasing their size as they reach the building’s retro-futuristic blue roof. Those who know and have visited the building cannot help but wonder how a construction from the early 1960s, Frank Lloyd Wright’s last commission, becomes a credible portal for an aerospace company getting ready to explore and possibly colonize Saturn’s moon Titan.

It’s in this building embracing a long period and possibility that Vincent Freeman has to overcome genetic discrimination to demonstrate that genetic determinism cannot determine the complex outcome we fancy to call destiny, not even in a dystopian future at the expense of strict eugenics.

To leave for space, Vincent must prove his “validity” with constant bodily and genetic tests, which he gets from a former elite athlete paralyzed by an accident. It’s not only Jerome’s samples that will get the protagonist closer to his dream but his determination, stamina, or ability to perform under pressure and against the odds.

Bezos as a boy

All the topics being discussed in the Bay Area, from housing and inequality to the role of technology in the transformation of the region, but also of how we all work and communicate, seem to crystalize in the sprawling Marin Headlands north of the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges as if the clogged arteries of US-101 and Interstate 580 over from the city and the East Bay were a reminder of the limits of individualism in forging a future capable of avoiding the extreme outcomes of dystopia.

The zeitgeist seems to play catch up with fiction, as Seattle-based Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk push the boundaries of space travel, eyeing a future of exploration and eventual commercial exploitation in our vicinity, from satellites to extraterrestrial colonies as a primer to eventual material extraction and big scale colonization.

In 1979, George Lucas recruited Ed Catmull as head of the new Computer Division at Lucasfilm: special effects were about to transition from the analog to the digital realm; in 1984, the same company hired John Lasseter as “interface designer”; in 1986, Steve Jobs would purchase the Computer Division from George Lucas, establishing an independent company headquartered in Marin, Pixar

As we wonder what has changed up to this day from the world’s perspective of Iberian explorers from the Age of Discovery, other human frontiers considered play also the old materialistic dreams of “life extension” and “life augmentation”, euphemisms explored by prominent figures around Silicon Valley or favored by its intelligentsia such as futurist and science fiction writer Ray Kurzweil, or the Swedish-born Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom.

Defense and commercial technology development intermingle with science fiction and inspire each other since Jules Verne and H.G. Wells’ times, only the boundaries between reality and fiction leave our atmosphere for the first time. Recently, Jeff Bezos returned into space, though he decided to go with Star Trek’s William Shatner, his childhood’s inspiration as Captain James T. Kirk.

Bezos used to make Star Trek toys as a kid. In his wildest dreams, he couldn’t have probably thought that he would meet and take a psychogeography-friendly trip with his idol, helping 90-year-old Shatner not only to visit space on a suborbital flight in reality to become the oldest-ever astronaut but doing so by his side on a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket, surrounded by the toys Bezos’ mother saved from his son.

Huxley’s redux

Down on Earth, the likes of Bezos and Musk face the public relations challenge of justifying the utility of private space endeavors instead of focusing on the traditional philanthropic “second youth” of the most successful entrepreneurs of every era.

The distance from Santa Clara Valley to Mill Valley can be expressed as an everyday “event” (as a space-time unique experience that could be isolated and eventually described, compared if needed), but also as a subjective experience, becoming more speculative.

Ray Kurzweil is among those arguing that to push the boundaries of artificial intelligence, life extension, and human augmentations, some things will get broken, and some ethical barriers will need to be overridden.

Roof at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center building (1960)

The fear of Silicon Valley becoming too insular, rigid, complacent, and prohibitively expensive to the point of becoming a Père Lachaise cemetery of old tech glories too afraid of leading new research fields for the risk they represent is sinking fast. Other technology environments somewhere else in the US, in Asia, or —more plausibly— online thanks to remote collaboration, understand their opportunity to attract talent and investment will depend on their ability to put the ends before the means.

In Aldous Huxley’s time, eugenics was a pervasive and accepted field. There were active social programs inspired by eugenics in several States of the Union and several European countries. The work of Francis Galton joined dubious academic derivatives of Darwin’s evolutionism in social sciences.

Also, the popularity of some pseudo-sciences carrying a moral, racial, and social connotation such as phrenology (measuring skills with the intent of predicting crime or measuring intelligence,) instigated aggressive social interventions to “improve” populations, sometimes combining legit strategies such as an active way of life, healthier diets, and even organic farming. In the German-speaking countries, such methods carried the name of Lebensreform as early as the late nineteenth century.

The Breeders

When Nazism embraced such ideas, eugenism had been accepted and promoted as a “progressive” measure to benefit individuals, families, and society as a whole. Huxley himself was a convinced eugenist, as most intellectuals in the twenties and early thirties. The rise of the Third Reich and the application of the blood and soil racialist strategy showed the risks of scientificism when geneticism was in its early stages.

California introduced forced sterilization in 1909. When it outlawed the practice in 1979, 200,000 sterilizations had taken place. From 1970 to 1976, between 25 and 50 percent of Native Americans were sterilized.

Huxley explored the worst outcomes of a socially engineered policy combining advanced bureaucracy, genetics, and technology, a field within modernity and postmodernity French philosopher Michel Foucault would explore, calling it biopolitics.

The American public has been confronting some of the realities that shaped the socially stratified traits of its past, from phenomena such as “white flight” (“redlining” meets racist voluntaryism) and the Jim Crow laws to the forgotten activism of organizations such as the American Breeders Association, the Race Betterment Foundation (funded by John Harvey Kellogg and responsible of maintaining a “pedigree registry”), or the Eugenics Record Office.

Now, advances such as genetic editing accelerate our ethics crash course towards the moral dilemmas presented by Huxley’s Brave New World or Gattaca, from à la carte genetic treats to risk avoidance associated with epigenetics and hereditary propensity to develop severe illnesses.

About new frontiers’ ethics

Philosophers such as Martin Heidegger (who became university dean during Nazism and had to clarify for the rest of his life his ambiguous position concerning the Third Reich) warned against the rise of technological inertia propelling the world, a phenomenon without a master plan (with “no machinist”) he referred to as “technicity.”

But Heidegger’s categorical refusal of technology and the variables that could transform humans is so similar in many ways to Ted Kaczynski’s (aka “the Unabomber”) Neo-Luddism. Such withdrawal from complexity and cosmopolitanism is not an honest proposal for contemporary, highly technological societies relying on bureaucratic policies to avoid social chaos.

Our tour through the building with Benjamin Berto

Or, at least, this is what Peter Sloterdijk, one of the most influential contemporary German philosophers, thinks regarding Heidegger’s purism and opposition to any process overriding humanism and embracing some potentially positive strategies of social engineering.

In Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger Sloterdijk argues that Heidegger refuses to believe in the ability of societies and individuals to reinvent themselves and try to solve issues through conscious decisions, since humans are “anthropotechnic by nature” and depend on a hopeful projection towards the future.

Similarly, French philosopher Bruno Latour warns also about the fear of mobilization, of creating, trying, failing, and trying again. Our generation has the means and needs the attitude to become, in Latour’s terms, “a cautious Prometheus.”

His musings on “design” could also be expanded into any field poised to raise legitimate concerns, such as any advance in life expansion or, say, genetic capacity with aims to cross the ethical line that separates what today we consider legitimate (negative genetic selection, or the capacity to prevent the spread of alleles causing pernicious mutations or hereditary maladies) from what’s still out of the question (positive selection, or spread of beneficial alleles to, say, increase life expectancy.)

Checking on Prometheus

From now, it seems today’s commentators and the fragmented public opinion are more interested in considering topics such as biogenetics from the exclusive perspective of the culture wars between different types of perceived progressivism and the cacophony coming from what, until recently, we used to call conservatism.

The last figure in genetic studies propelling a rather superficial controversy is Kathryn Paige Harden, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in behavior genetics (studying the role of genes on character traits,) a discipline that a sizeable number of academics don’t consider legitimate or label as pseudo-scientific.

At a conference in Elmau, Southern Bavaria, Peter Sloterdijk dissected Martin Heidegger’s attempt to reinvigorate humanism as a response to French existentialism. Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism tries to leave Western dualism of mind and body, approaching Western thought to a concept of being that blends Nietzsche’s vitalism with Eastern thought.

Peter Sloterdijk used his 1999 conference in Elmau to vindicate some materialist principles to know better and enhance the “mind and body” construction, embracing biotechnology and controlling an open conversation about positive biotechnology. Pragmatist philosopher Jurgen Habermas rejects Sloterdijk’s optimism. Aldous Huxley wrote about positive eugenics in a similar fashion, conscious that any instrumental use of science to enhance humans could open new chapters of horror in the coming decade but also foster a new Enlightenment.

Conscious of the moment of conceptual and technical crossroads between philosophy, ethics, and biotechnology, I’ve traveled back and forth 101 by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin Civic Center building tens of times. Mill Valley seems to become the place where fire and fog meet in the summer months. Those who want things to remain the same will have difficulties coming to terms with events in the coming years.

A veteran technologist from the area Stewart Brand, who lives in Sausalito (the town Kirsten’s dad is from), explains with crude pragmatism what had been until recently the ethos of Silicon Valley when facing technological dilemmas:

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

He adds, though:

“Eventually you’re part of the road anyway.”