[Quick Overview - This book introduces a new economic system that aims to eliminate all of the poverty, inequality, hunger, slums and so on found on Earth today. This new system is introduced as a thought experiment within the context of the million-person Mars colony recently announced by Elon Musk. This new system will radically improve the quality of life for the vast majority of humans living on planet Earth today.]
[Feedback and suggestions on any part of this book are greatly appreciated. Contact information is here.]
How Will the Mars Colony Handle Innovation?
Have you ever thought about innovation and its importance to modern society? What causes innovation? What increases or decreases the rate of innovation? Is it possible to have too much innovation?
All of these questions are important to Elon Musk's Mars colony, because the colony will be an independent, self-sustaining instantiation of the human species on another planet. Does the Mars colony need innovation? If so, how much?
One way to examine and understand innovation is to look at what happens with human societies that never innovate. These societies seem to reach of stage – we might call this stage "good enough" – and then these societies simply stick with the status quo, sometimes for thousands of years. Here are three examples:
Native American culture. We traditionally think of Native American culture in the way it is most commonly portrayed in movies, like the movie Dances With Wolves. Native American culture did have technology. They lived in a form of housing, known as the teepee [ref]. They had a way to hunt for meat, known as the bow and arrow. They had ways to preserve meat, usually by drying it into jerky [ref]. They were able to make clothing and shoes from animal hides. They had to innovate to create teepees, arrows and moccasins, but then the innovation stopped.
Inuit culture. The Inuit live up around the Arctic circle area in what is now known as Canada. They too developed an array of technologies unique to their environment including kayaks, igloos, dog sleds, rather amazing winter clothing, sunglasses, etc. [ref]. But again they reached a certain point with their technology, and then they stopped. Kayak technology, for example, is considered to be at least 4,000 years old [ref]. This technology was good enough, the Inuit used it unchanged for thousands of years.
Afghanistan culture, aka Pashtun culture. Pashtun culture is at least 2,000 years old. It "has little outside influence, and, over the ages, has retained a great degree of purity." [ref], [ref]. They hunt with slingshots, live in mud houses [ref], etc. There are villages in Afghanistan today that are not that much different from a village from 1,000 years ago.
Australian Aboriginal culture. As described in the video, this culture basically mastered fire, and little else. This culture might be 50,000 or more years old [ref]
The strange thing, from a modern perspective, is the fact that innovation stopped in all of these cultures, and then the people continued in a stable configuration for centuries. I lived on a farm in Zebulon, North Carolina for a number of years, and on this farm I could find stone arrowheads that are 10,000 years old. The humans who created these arrowheads developed stone arrowhead technology, and then they used this same technology for thousands of years. After stone arrowheads were developed, nothing changed. Native American cultures, for example, never thought to themselves to develop guns, or lasers, or domesticated animals on farms, or glass windows for teepees, or refrigerators, or central air conditioning, or antibiotics. They arrived at a certain point where things were "good enough" to survive at some level of comfort and repeatability and, apparently, innovation simply stopped.
Even a culture like the Egyptians, who we think of as advanced because of things like the tombs and the pyramids, got to a certain point and stopped. They did figure out how to chip out stone blocks with copper chisels, move the blocks, and stack them in interesting ways. But then they stopped advancing. The Great Pyramid was built in 2600 BCE, and the Rosetta stone was created almost 3,000 years later [ref]. Hardly any real advancement occurred in this society for thousands of years.
We can all understand that "modern technology", as expressed in the developed nations on planet Earth today, is nothing like this. Modern technology is constantly inventing, constantly improving, constantly searching for the next new thing. If we look at the 20th century, the number of innovations that started from zero and then advanced to widespread adoption is astonishing. Here are the top 20 technologies of the 20th century according to the National Academy of Engineering:
Here is another take on the same idea that is a little broader: The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel. There was no such thing as airplanes in 1900. Now we can fly anywhere in the world at 500 MPH. And to make this possible, humans had to also create the supply chain of aluminum to build the airplanes, create a reliable worldwide supply chain for jet fuel, invent jet engines, develop air traffic control systems so the planes don't crash into each other, build thousands of modern airports... The amount of innovation in modern society is unbelievable.
What does a society need in order for this kind of advancement to occur?
At the most fundamental level, the society needs to be "civilized". Civilization means, among other things, that everyone in the society has agreed to follow and enforce a set of laws so that advancement can occur. The simplest example: If a farmer plants a field and then a horde of people trample the field before the seeds can sprout, or a horde descends and steals the crop when it ripens, then there is no hope. In a situation like this, of course, there are not going to be any seeds to begin with, because they will be stolen as well. No one is going to have a farm without some base level of civilization that can create and enforce laws and rules for acceptable behavior. Societal collapse can and does happen, and is increasingly common in Venezuela as starvation becomes a real threat. The whole idea of "civilization" breaks down:
The society as a whole needs to understand that advancement is possible; That there is a systematic way to understand nature and derive more and more things from nature, and that there is value in new ideas. We generally think of this way of thinking under banners like "science" and "engineering" and "mathematics".
There needs to be a group of people – we call them scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc. today – who are good at thinking, inventing, creating and innovating. They are able to do both fundamental research and more nuts and bolts development. It turns out that the kind of people who enjoy science and engineering are not extremely common. Right now in the United States there are only 6.2 million practicing scientists and engineers [ref], meaning that they make up only about 2% of the population. These folks need to be protected, funded and encouraged so they are free to do their thing.
It is easy to imagine why human cultures, in general, existed for tens of thousands of years before science really took off. Just think about it: If you are a smart kid living in a typical tribal village of 200 people, there are only 3 or 4 of these kids in the whole tribe... and there is no such thing as writing yet... and there is no such thing as math yet... and there is no such thing as education yet... and there is no such thing as eyeglasses yet... and the general tendency is toward "might makes right", where the bigger, stronger (and often less intelligent) males are running the show because they beat up or kill anyone who doesn't lick their boots... you are never going to get a scientific culture to arise in a tribe like that. It is impossible.
Finally, there needs to be a way to mass produce and distribute the inventions of the smart kids.
It is surprising that science and technology ever became a thing. Somehow a human culture has to grow large enough that there can be a sizable group of smart kids, and writing + education needs to become a thing, and there needs to be a set of laws enforced so the jocks do not harass and kill the smart kids, and then the inventions that the smart kids create need to be celebrated and deployed. When all of this happens, we call it "modern civilization". But that whole sequence of events seems to be extremely rare.
Imagine if Egypt had had an enlightenment and an industrial revolution in 2600 BC. We might all be flying around in our own personal spaceships today. Mars might have been colonized 3,000 years ago, theoretically.
What will innovation look like on Mars?
But Egypt did not have its act together. It only took technology and innovation so far, and then Egyptian culture stopped advancing. And now here we are merely contemplating the possible colonization of Mars. We are trying to understand how innovation will work on the first planet humans might colonize, so that the Mars colony can avoid this kind of stagnation.
To understand how innovation can work on Mars, it might be helpful to think about this question as a starting point: What was the greatest period of innovation ever in the history of human beings on Earth? I would like to argue that it was the period of 20 years between 1950 or so and 1970 or so. During this 20 year period, humans went from "we have never had anything at all in space, and therefore we are not even exactly sure what 'space' is" to "We have human beings walking on the moon". The timeline of firsts went something like this:
1949 – First human object ever to reach space [ref]
All of these technologies also had to operate perfectly together, down to the tiniest details. This became especially evident in Apollo 13, when a single little electronic component caused a chain of events that caused a catastrophe [ref]. On the Apollo 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 missions, millions of components (or their redundant backups) all worked perfectly. The whole program is stunning in this respect.
Only about 400,000 people worked on the Apollo missions [ref], and yet they were able to accomplish all of this innovation (plus launch and support all of the missions) in an amazingly short time period. If that team of people, with that kind of momentum, purpose and drive, had been given the funding, there is no question that Americans would be living on both the moon and Mars today.
This same level of innovation and progress seen in the Apollo program will be wired into the Mars colony. Technology on Mars can advance on the medical front, the electronics front, the space travel front, the consumer product front, the housing front, and so on, simply by giving scientists and engineers the time and space to do their thing, and pointing them in the right directions. The Apollo mission had a specific goal – put men on the moon – but a million sub-goals under that umbrella had to mesh together perfectly. The same kind of coordination can occur among the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers working on Mars. On the medical front, the overarching goal is to cure all human diseases. Underneath that umbrella there can be thousands of sub-goals. If we look back at Chapter 10, we set aside millions of hours per year for research and development. Perhaps we should increase the number of people in the colony and set aside more.
There is an amazing graph that is relevant to the conversation here. It shows that we could have fusuion power working today, if we had funded the research:
Fusion power research in the United States was given very little funding, and as we would expect, progress has been slow. [ref]
In the Mars colony, the colony will pick a set of things that are important to the colony, and "fund them" sufficiently – dedicate human time to them – in the same way the Apollo missions were funded.
Will there be monster trucks on Mars?
Will there be monster trucks on Mars? It seems like a strange question, but have you ever thought about where the monster truck craze came from in America? It turns out that there are many different ways that innovation occurs on Earth, and these techniques will work just as well on Mars. As an example, consider Monster Trucks.
Where did monster trucks come from? One day there were no such things as monster trucks, or monster truck shows in sports arenas. Then these monster trucks, starting with a truck called "Big Foot", appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The whole craze started with a person named Bob Chandler.
He thought it would be fun/cool to build a truck with huge tires, and as he describes it, he came at the whole thing incrementally over the course of a decade or so. Eventually he had created the truck called Big Foot. Once he started "car crushing" with Big Foot, the whole phenomenon exploded. Millions of people wanted to see monster trucks in action. Monster trucks and monster truck shows took off from there.
If you think about nearly every huge company in existence today, they all started as tiny little projects with one or two or three people who were trying to do something that they felt would be cool and interesting to try. Here are a dozen examples:
Google started with two guys and a couple of computers at Stanford University [ref]
Amazon.com started with one guy and a business plan - "Within two months, Amazon's sales were up to $20,000/week" [ref]
Facebook started as a tiny project developed by a sophomore at Harvard University [ref]
FedEx started with one guy who wrote a paper in college about his idea. [ref]
McDonald's started with one restaurant owned by two brothers. [ref]
"Nike, originally known as Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), was founded by University of Oregon track athlete Phil Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman in January 1964. The company initially operated as a distributor for Japanese shoe maker Onitsuka Tiger (now ASICS), making most sales at track meets out of Knight's automobile." The book "Shoe Dog" written by Knight is amazing. [ref]
Apple computer started with Steve Wozniak and a very simple home computer in a wooden case [ref]
Walmart started with Sam Walton and a single store he bought in Arkansas [ref]
"The Papa John's restaurant was founded in 1984 when "Papa" John Schnatter knocked out a broom closet in the back of his father's tavern, Mick's Lounge, in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He then sold his 1971 Camaro Z28 to purchase US$1,600 worth of used pizza equipment and began selling pizzas to the tavern's customers out of the converted closet. His pizzas proved so popular that one year later he was able to move into an adjoining space." [ref]
The story of Dominos Pizza is similar. Two brothers purchased an existing restaurant called Dominick's. One brother dropped out of the business, and Tom Monaghan made it a big deal. [ref]
Two friends named Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started Bend and Jerry's Ice Cream. "In 1977, Cohen and Greenfield completed a correspondence course on ice cream making from The Pennsylvania State University's Creamery. Cohen has severe anosmia, a lack of a sense of smell or taste, and so relied on "mouth feel" and texture to provide variety in his diet. This led to the company's trademark chunks being mixed in with their ice cream. On May 5, 1978, with a $12,000 investment, the two business partners opened an ice cream parlor in a renovated gas station in downtown Burlington, Vermont." [ref]
I started HowStffWorks.com as a hobby, writing articles at my kitchen table on weekends. People enjoyed the articles and told their friends. See also Chapter 18 for more information.
The point is that there are people in modern societies who say to themselves, "I would like to try ______." So they go out and try it. They cobble together a modest amount of time and they give it a shot. In the case of the Mars colony, they might say to themselves, "I think the Mars colony would be better if we had _______." They could use the kickstarter-like system described in Chapter 18 to get started. Or they might simply give things a try in their abundant spare time.
One thing to understand is the importance of failure in all of this. The 12 examples above are all nice, but there were probably 10X as many people who had ideas that failed. This is fine. It is part of the process. We should not look down on ideas that don't go anywhere. We should celebrate and encourage people who give things a try.
How Corporations Slow Innovation Down on Earth
It is important to recognize one other factor that influences innovation and progress on Earth. It goes like this: An established corporation making billions of dollars and with a big market share often has little or no interest in innovating itself out of existence. Just think about it from a corporation's perspective:
Do the established "big oil" companies have any interest in "clean energy" initiatives that will put them out of business? Not when they are making billions of dollars off of petroleum products and fossil fuels.
Do the established cable companies have any interest in finding new, inexpensive ways to deliver internet to homes and businesses? Not when they are making billions of dollars through their established monopoly pricing techniques.
Does a big pharma company making billions of dollars off of diabetes drugs really have an incentive to cure diabetes, or to watch some other company cure diabetes?
And so on...
Big corporations have a tendency to slow innovation down. As this article points out:
Economists are increasingly turning their attention to the problem of monopoly. This doesn’t mean literal monopoly, like when one utility company provides all the power in a city. It refers to market concentration in general -- when an industry goes from having 20 players to having only 10, or when the four biggest companies in an industry start taking a bigger and bigger share of sales. This sort of creeping oligopoly acts much like a literal monopoly -- it raises prices, limits market size and tends to make the economy less efficient.
Here’s a story about the U.S. economy that more people are telling these days. Since the 1980s, antitrust enforcement has gotten weaker. As a result, a few big companies have managed to capture a much bigger share of the market in various industries. Technology may have helped too, by letting big companies spread their geographic reach, and by creating network effects that keep customers locked in to platforms like Facebook. Anyway, as a result of this increased market power, the big superstar companies have been raising their prices and cutting their wages. This has lifted profits and boosted the stock market, but it has also held down real wages, diverted more of the nation’s income to business owners, and increased inequality. It has also held back productivity, since raising prices restricts economic output.
The implications of this are profound. Many of the assumptions about market economies are based on acceptance of the competitive model, with marginal returns commensurate with social contributions. This view has led to hesitancy about official intervention: If markets are fundamentally efficient and fair, there is little that even the best of governments could do to improve matters.
But if markets are based on exploitation, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears. Indeed, in that case, the battle against entrenched power is not only a battle for democracy; it is also a battle for efficiency and shared prosperity.
This decline in dynamism has coincided with the rise of extraordinarily large and profitable firms that look discomfortingly like the monopolies and oligopolies of the 19th century. American strip malls and yellow pages used to brim with new small businesses. But today, in a lot where several mom-and-pop shops might once have opened, Walmart spawns another superstore. In almost every sector of the economy—including manufacturing, construction, retail, and the entire service sector—the big companies are getting bigger. The share of all businesses that are new firms, meanwhile, has fallen by 50 percent since 1978. According to the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank dedicated to advancing the ideals of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, “markets are now more concentrated and less competitive than at any point since the Gilded Age.”
Big Corporations are very difficult to compete with, they can put up roadblocks to innovation, they have huge ad budgets, they have huge teams of lawyers and lobbyists, they can stifle competition to keep prices high, etc. There are many examples through history.
As described throughout this book, the new economy for the Mars colony will instead embrace technology and innovation. Each new innovation will reduce the amount of human time needed to do the work of the colony, and everyone in the colony will benefit. Once Mars engineers invent the robot that completely automates dishwashing, no one in the Mars colony will ever wash dishes again. All of the human hours spent on dishwashing will disappear, and everyone in the colony will have less work to do. See Chapter 5 in particular for details.
Putting it all together – The Level of innovation on Mars
If you look at the discussion above, and combine it with similar discussions in Chapter 18, Chapter 10, Chapter 10, and Chapter 6, you can see that the Mars colony will be an incredibly innovative place:
The colony as a whole can prioritize big research projects. Things like a space program, fusion power, space elevators, superconducting supercolliders, new kinds of medicines and medical techniques, new kinds of housing, etc., etc. can all be supported in this way.
Individual people can create kickstarter-like projects as described in Chapter 18.
Individual people can start projects in their spare time.
Individuals can suggest new types of foods, beverages, clothing, etc. and they can be made as a part of the normal manufacturing process.
And so on.
In these ways, innovation on Mars will proceed at a more rapid pace than on Earth.