The Adventure of Many Lifetimes: Open Source Planet

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.

$36 trillion worth of dirt
You weren’t thinking real estate? Start. Virgle's costs will be considerable -- we're planning on up-front investments of $10-15 billion in the first two decades –- but so too will the colony's long-term earnings. Whatever one's interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty, for instance, it seems clear that the initial explorers and developers will be able to claim ownership of some significant portion of 143 million square kilometers of Martian real estate, which, sold (or traded as open-source sweat equity) at an average value of $10 per acre, would be worth a cool $358 billion. Multiply that by 100x for its post-terraforming value and you get a figure of $36 trillion. Clearly, whatever model of real estate distribution our emerging society adopts, its worth will exceed the investments likely to be required to unlock that value.

Our civilization's most valuable export, meanwhile, will be intellectual property. The problems our Pioneers solve in the course of their world-building enterprise will represent an engine of invention in dozens of lucrative areas, from biotechnology to geology, physics to agriculture. We see the community’s system of intellectual property development evolving from a community open source model to commercial open source (or perhaps we mean that the other way around?). We can imagine that commons-based peer production model -- in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated into large, meaningful projects, mostly without traditional hierarchical organization or direct financial compensation -- extending to almost every imaginable aspect of Martian life.

Open Innovation
In a world of distributed knowledge, companies cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research, but should instead buy or license processes or inventions from other companies. The flow of intellectual property between Earth and Mars will not be unidirectional; we should profit from others' use of our innovations, and we should buy or lease others' intellectual property whenever it advances our own goals. Not all smart people work on Earth anymore; just as "globalization" led American companies to start working with talented people all over the world, "Solar Systemization" will lead Earthside companies to start working with talented individuals who chose to move to Mars because of its open source nature, low gravity, cheap real estate, fabulous sunsets and other attractions.

This dynamic offers a practical opening for a vibrant open source network. For example, pharmaceutical scientists need to develop and test many new compounds, but the restrictive competition that occurs in the Earthside drug industry due to patent law throws a wrench in the capitalist model; it currently costs north of $1 billion to bring a new drug to market. Virgle, Inc., by contrast, could initially maintain the enterprise license for the intellectual property, then grant a manufacturing license to pharmaceutical companies on Earth. The largest part of the proceeds would go to the Mars settlement, and a smaller part would be redistributed among the particular s participants based on peer-based contribution assessments.

Making excuses, soliciting help
That's just one initial example of the way we're trying to envision the New New World. On Mars, the gardens we plant, the habs we build, the networks we lay, the societal structures we improvise -– all will be radically decentralized, non-hierarchical and, you know, perfect and cool and groundbreaking and innovative in every way...and uh, yeah, of course we recognize that this essay is pretty breathy and sketchy; we think we might be able to get away with claiming that we intended it that way all along, that everything you've read here in this Virgle presentation is just us laying down a quick framework, some cognitive scaffolding whose beams and drywall and primer and paint will have to come from, well, not to put too fine a point on it, you. A quick sampling of intriguing open-source-related questions to which we hope our burgeoning community of interested users might offers answers could include:

  • How should an open source planetary development project interact with existing companies and markets?
  • What's the right time for Virgle Inc. hold its initial public offering? When the first spaceship lands? When the first Pioneers stake their claim to Martian property? When the settlement is self-sustained from Mars alone? Tomorrow?
  • At what point should Martian property move from being distributed solely among Pioneers and open source investors to being traded to outside investors?
  • How should a civilian Martian government be developed independent of our private company?
  • How would peer to peer project reviews work and what would be the principles behind triggering escalations and balancing communication and development while staying away from hierarchical viscosity?

Got questions of your own? Answers to propose? Data to disseminate? Insults to hurl? We hope you'll visit Mission Control and join the ongoing discussion of our venture. See you there.