“If we don’t improve our pace of progress, I’m definitely going to be dead before we go to Mars… If it’s taken us 18 years just to get ready to get the first people to orbit, we’ve got to improve our rate of innovation or, based on past trends, I am definitely going to be dead before Mars.”
― Elon Musk
In the late 1940s, a schoolteacher and self-taught engineer named John Reber designed and proposed a vast terraforming scheme that would transform the San Francisco Bay Area. By building two dams in the bay, he said, over 20,000 acres of land could be reclaimed for development and massive freshwater reservoirs could be created.
Despite his lack of official credentials and traditional schooling, John Reber’s plan was taken seriously by many. It received several endorsements from newspapers, and the Army Corps of Engineers even built a to-scale replica of the Bay to test the project’s feasibility.
Today, it’s unlikely that such a plan would receive a second glance, much less official attention. But why is this the case?
In his book Zero to One, PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel chalks it up to a difference in cultural outlook.
In today’s world, we have a general expectation that things will improve over time, but precious few concrete ideas and plans. Thiel terms this outlook “indefinite optimism”:
In middle school, we’re encouraged to begin hoarding “extracurricular activities”. In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omnicompetent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready – for nothing in particular.”
Indefinite optimism, Thiel argues, is a recipe for stagnation. A vague belief that the “markets will go up” and “growth will continue” is no substitute for actual innovation and wealth creation. Indefinite optimists are content with incremental improvements, and are wary of major innovations and new ways of doing things.
Thiel argues that the responsibility for innovation rests on the shoulders of the entrepreneurs and startups who are actively attempting to shape the future. These people are “definite optimists”: people with an optimistic and concrete vision of the future.
Two examples of definite optimists are Bill Gates (who founded Microsoft and is spending his retirement eradicating polio) and Elon Musk (who co-founded PayPal and currently heads Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company, and others). Both of these individuals have made multiple world-changing contributions within their lifetime, and both have the attitude that the future is something we can shape.
What is Spacepunk?
Spacepunk is an attitude and aesthetic that I have observed taking shape over the past couple years. The first major theme is space, including space exploration. The second theme is “punk”, which is a literary genre that is concerned with how individuals set themselves against society.
Spacepunk isn’t mainstream – I’d argue it’s more of a counterculture than anything else. Themes include the pursuit of technological competence and mastery, space-themed apparel, a definite optimist outlook, and a strong desire to make the world a better place.
Fashion critics have noted that the NASA logo has been sported by celebrities intermittently over the last couple decades, and some have been quick to dismiss the current popularity of NASA apparel as just another fad.
However, the space industry is experiencing a surge of interest, driven by superstar innovator Elon Musk, science education celebrities like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and a very strong social media presence on the part of NASA itself.
I suspect that the popularity of NASA apparel runs a bit deeper than “nostalgia”, and reflects a deeper yearning for exploration and achievement that NASA represents.
"The overall nomadic stance is this: I need to carry little to nothing because the environment will provide all I need. I will grab a stick to make a tool and once used, I discard it. If I need the tool again, I’ll get another stick. I consume on demand. I leave behind the unneeded. There is a lesson here about our collective digital future. Obviously we aren’t headed to a time when we sleep on the floor of a tent under hand-wrung felt blankets (except at Burning Man), but we are headed to a future where we may own and carry less while depending on the environment to provide more. I think we’ll cruise through the future with empty pockets. I won’t need to carry my phone because I should be able to lift up any screen anywhere and have it immediately became my tool, my screen. It recognizes me from my face, voice, heartbeat, and transforms itself into my phone interface. When I am done, I leave that screen where it was. To read a book I pick up any screen. To travel, I pick any car. To use a power tool, I summon it online and it’s in my hand within 30 minutes. And when I travel, why should I drag clothes around? In a nomadix future, the hotel or Airbnb will provide my favorite clothes when I arrive and recycle them when I depart. The environment, if it is rich and well-cared for and understood, shall provide."
The digital nomad:
Various trends in business and technology have created a unique class of entrepreneur – the “Digital Nomad”. These are people who work in digital occupations (website building, marketing) that travel the world while working from their laptop. This new form of work/life balance is a negotiated form of escape made popular after Tim Ferriss’ book “The 4-Hour Workweek”.
A growing number of people have a strong interest in computers and technology, either as a career or as a side-project. Many professionals and have learned the basics of web design in order to build their own businesses.
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and angel investor in Facebook (among many other companies), defines definite optimism as a sense of optimism with agency – that is, we feel good about the future and we believe that we can shape it. Indefinite optimism, by contrast, would be like a general belief in “the markets” – that they will go up steadily for the next 50 years. People with a sense of definite optimism believe they can change the world.