Apple, Google, NASA, and the Rainbow connection
Roger Penrose's Silicon Valley crash pad
When Sir Roger Penrose visited Silicon Valley this spring, he stopped off at Google, NASA, and the Rainbow Mansion. But he spent most of his time at Rainbow, Silicon Valley's answer to the 17th-century French salon.
Penrose — the English mathematical physicist renowned for his work on general relativity and cosmology — gave a talk in the Rainbow library, touching on black holes, Hawking radiation, and the unitarity principle. And he spent the night in a Rainbow guest room, leaving plenty time for the lighter side of theoretical physics.
That evening, Penrose and his hosts watched Contact, the 1997 film based on the Carl Sagan bestseller, in which Jodie Foster discovers intelligent life beyond earth. "One of the central plot points is that the protagonist goes through a worm hole," says David Weekly, a former Rainbow Mansion resident and the founder of online collaboration start-up PBWorks. "I heard some soft chuckles on the couch next to me."
Rainbow Mansion is a place, a house in Cupertino, California, not far from Apple headquarters. But it's also a community, a kind of science and tech society. It was founded four years ago by current NASA chief technology officer Chris Kemp and four other Young NASA Turks, and it soon embraced other like-minded locals, from former Google senior product manager Jessica Ewing to Sebastian Stadil, CEO of open source cloud computing startup Scalr and the founder of the Silicon Valley Cloud Computing Group, to various other Googlers and, yes, a few members of Steve Jobs' top secret Apple army.
The mansion has a communal library, and every few weeks, it hosts what residents call, yes, a salon. The last was entitled: "This house believes that in the future the benefits of openness will outweigh those of privacy." The next: "This house believes that Nationalism is an Infantile Disease." Guest speakers range from Penrose to Lawrence Lessig to Steve Wozniak. One Rainbow founder — Will Marshall, who worked on the NASA LCROSS project, the mission that discovered water on the moon — counted Penrose as a PhD adviser.
Rainbow was founded out of necessity. In 2006, several new NASA employees needed a place to live, and communal living was the cheapest option. It's a common story in Silicon Valley, where rents are high and house prices are higher. But this story is a bit different — if only because the people are different.
In 2006, Pete Worden took charge of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, and he made a point of bringing in fresh blood. "It was a time of change at NASA," Chris Kemp tells The Reg. "[Worden] was intent on bringing in some folks that had different backgrounds and diverse views on space policy." As a college intern at SGI in the 90s, Kemp had worked at a field center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. But he'd also made a name in the dot.com world, serving a chief architect of that late 90s icon Classmates.com.
It was Kemp who eventually negotiated NASA's partnership with Google, which led to the online image services Google Moon and Google Mars — and saw Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt use AMES as their own private airport. Later, he founded Nebula — the NASA IT infrastructure cloud, designed to host web services across NASA and various other parts of the federal government — and this spring, after serving as CTO at Ames, he assumed the same role for all of NASA.
Will Marshall was hired by NASA at about the same time as Kemp, and the two spearheaded the creation of Rainbow. Kemp wrote the first check. Originally, all the residents worked for NASA, and most were PhDs who knew each other from past lives.
"We're all connected by friendships that go back many years, mostly back to our days as undergrads and various space-centric conferences," says Kemp. "But none of us had lived in Silicon Valley before, and the one thing we could agree on is that it was really expensive to live here, so we wanted to find a place where we could figure things out together. But it actually turned into something more."
Next page: The first rule of Rainbow is...
"...what's wrong with working to make the world a better place?"
Plenty. There's a level of arrogance to believing that your vision would indeed make the world as a whole a better place. Other people are not you; what changes you sew could be cause others to reap a bitter harvest. Ambitions to alter the world without through consideration of the effects can be dangerous. Improper use of power/influence can (and quite often does) result in larger negative consequences than the benefits wrought.
One example I have to offer is that of the concept that “openness outweighs privacy.” While I have not been party to this debate, indeed as a blue collar shmoe I would not likely be welcome, my initial impression is fear. This is not an instinctual reaction. Rather it is one that has grown slowly over time as I have observed the actions of various Silicon Valley corporations, and the results of those actions upon society at large.
When privacy is gone, those who control the flow of information, (those who can alter its accuracy,) wield unimaginable power for good or evil. Even if the current crop of folks in charge of these Silicon Valley corporations are “good at heart,” the next batch may well not be. These are publically traded corporations after all; there is more chance of obtaining a good quarterly profit by harming people than by helping them.
The issue with the above mentioned concept is that all their ideas rely heavily, (tragically, naively,) on trust. It requires individuals to trust one another, to trust their governments and most especially to trust in the benevolence of corporations. The unfortunate part is that history has repeatedly shown that only in exceptional circumstances is trust of any kind warranted.
Basically, the world envisioned here is one in which everyone does the “right thing” (as defined by the majority) all the time. The alternative is to be instantly found out. Being found out is to be ridiculed, ostracised and perhaps even jailed. This has implications for ingenuity, social development, and too many other related topics to delineate in an already too long comment. The world in question has the potential to either be a culture of carbon-copy automatons or perhaps more terrifyingly one where obtaining privacy to indulge in anything against the mores and norms of society becomes a black market.
Imagine a world where the prevailing social opinion of the day says “grilled meat will give you cancer, thus all of society will shun any who partake in such activities.” (See how we treat smokers in our societies today.) Individuals who wish to indulge in this socially questionable activity that has no harm to anyone but themselves now have to go to the black market to find a place where they don’t feel judged for something simple like eating a BBQed steak.
Perhaps that future culture feels that being a “geek” is negative. Finding out who is watching science fiction is easy, as there is no privacy, and these individuals are persona non grata simply for enjoying something deemed bizarre by the hive mind.
We see the thin edge of this wedge today in the UK. It is illegal to possess certain images; including those which are cartoons causing no harm to anyone. What images make it into this list of socially unacceptable items is defined entirely by whomever happens to bray the loudest and offer up the fattest calf to those who make law.
Is this the future? Entire societies run as though they were high schools? Popularity and conformity to be the only thing that matters? It seems to me this would breed an entire race of sycophants; something I cannot abide when many of the greatest discoveries of all time have come from those individuals who defied the established beliefs and practices of their day.
What’s wrong with trying to make a better world? Plenty, if the scope of your vision is too narrow. The people in that house quite literally have the power to shape the future of all societies that comprise the totality of our species for generations to come. To see the effects of their actions upon the world over the past several decades, I can only come to the conclusion that they treat this power with no real responsibility. Experimenting blithely with the denizens of this world; imposing their vision on us all.
For reasons as very briefly discussed in the example above I can only think of children playing with matches in a tinderbox. The tinder in question is you, me, and everyone else who is or may ever be.
I know it is easy to dismiss me as paranoid, a fear monger, or many other things. It is easy to look at my education and say that my opinion is irrelevant because I lack the appropriate letters behind my name. There are certainly always going to be reasons to disregard my opinion or those of anyone else who disagrees. I wish I could alter that; instead my influence is largely limited to that which the written word can convey. So that said, I will attempt to rise above my own insignificance for a brief instant to make my impassioned plea:
If you yourself are among these people or you know them personally, then as a representative of the hoi polloi I ask of you a boon:
Please sirs and madams; as you set about to make the world a better place according to your personal visions, tread carefully upon my future. It is the only one I have.
"Nationalism is an Infantile Disease"
Good to know that we will soon get rid of egoism, since it is also a mere infantile disease... Will Apple start licensing its patents for free, too?
Always nice to see that people with so much money are so high-minded about the moral failings of others...
"We Want to Change the World"
NASA, Google, Apple?
All you need is someone from Microsoft and you've got representatives of all four horsemen
Maybe their mission statement should be "We want to rule the world" or "We want to copyright the world". This all sounds incredibly pretentious and self serving.