Highsnobiety Q1 is the first in a series of quarterly insights weeks dedicated to the business behind youth culture and what makes our market tick. For full Q1 coverage, head over to our Q1 hub.
While many people’s first impression of Covid-19 was something like a medieval plague, the pandemic has reorganized our idea of the future overnight. The self-isolation that we once saw as a major drawback of our futuristic digital lives is now not only an encouraged reality, but a civic duty. Meanwhile, “the future” itself — a once euphoric thing looming over the horizon — has never felt darker and further out of reach.
There’s no better place to go hunting for the future than Silicon Valley, the California enclave famously dotted with the campuses of Apple, Google, and Facebook, as well as countless smaller offices housing businesses ranging from the obscure to the known, the broke to the obscenely well-funded, the promising to the half-baked. Among its many endeavors, the area and its residents serve as a type of spin cycle for lifestyle trends, from biohacking to microdosing and space tourism.
But as out-there as Silicon Valley seems, the harder you look, the more it resembles classic American capitalist values. Tech entrepreneurs are the traveling salespeople of the digital age, endlessly throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. And in a world where trickle-down economics doesn’t work, trickle-down culture does. So while many of the activities one spots in the wild in Silicon Valley seem ostentatious and bizarre, it remains a looking glass for what will seem mainstream (think smartphones) and what will seem comically misguided (think Google Glass) in the near future.
So what future is there for the world’s most forward-thinking former orange grove? To find out, we spoke to the C-suiters, microdosers, journalists, spa owners, gaming magnates, and scooter mongers residing at the frontline of our brave new world.
DAVE ASPREY - Author and Founder of Bulletproof 360, Inc.
Few people embody Silicon Valley like Dave Asprey. The five-finger-shoe-wearing biohacker is known mostly for creating Bulletproof Coffee and publicly claiming that he’s going to live to be at least 180 years old (and claiming that you can, too, if you read his book).
"We’ve always upgraded all of our stuff, whether it's cell phones, cars, or computers. So what’s left now is to upgrade yourself. Part of that is wanting to live longer. Banking your stem cells is something that’s absolutely worth doing, and today it’s just emerging that you can grow a new kind of stem cell from using some skin as the seed. You know, in the past when you made more money than you knew what to do with, you’d say, “Ok I’m going to go buy some high-end sports car.” But today, there are an increasing number of people like me. Today, if I had a spare $100,000, I would put it into making myself younger, smarter, faster. I’ve spent more on stem cells than I have on performance cars."
GERRY POWELL - Founder of Rythmia Wellness Center
Down at his compound in Costa Rica, Gerry Powell offers a guaranteed spiritual enlightenment for the price tag of $2,000 a week. By Powell’s own admission, most of the tech world clients who partake in his curated “plant medicine” journeys are entrepreneurs and business people who’ve suffered one too many downturns or disappointments.
"For certain segments of the population, the use of plant medicine is going to become more widespread. Because actually, if you do plant medicine, you can find a way to be a businessman and not commit suicide. We get a lot of CEOs coming here who are in the process of selling a company. Making a bunch of money wasn’t what it was cracked up to be, and they don’t know what to do. By the end of the week, after the end of four plant medicine journeys, about nine classes, two breath work journeys, two edition journeys, a bunch of yoga, and other shit in-between, they realize that they’ve been on the wrong course."
ERIK FINMAN - Bitcoin millionaire
Silicon Valley lives on the idea that we are constantly in the throes of a revolution-in-waiting. While most of these revolutions have been buried under the slog of government contracts and controversies, cryptocurrency — and its newfound class of young millionaires, like Erik Finman — is still going strong.
"We’ve had the industrial revolution, the internet revolution, and now there’s going to be the blockchain revolution. Blockchain will have an application for every existing industry. For example, IBM is already working on putting medical records on the blockchain. Then there’s all the new industries blockchain will create. We’ll have decentralized self-driving cars and decentralized power grids where you don’t have a big government or massive corporation managing it. The really innovative thing about blockchain is that it eliminates the need for a central entity like a corporation. It’s kind of Anarcho-communist and Anarcho-capitalist at the same time."
CRISTINA BONDOLOWSKI - Global Head of Marketing at Hewlett Packard
Hewlett Packard represents a lot of firsts in the Valley: the first startup, the first company started in a garage. What does a company with such a hold on the past make of the future?
"There’s about to be a revolution in the way we live. Technology will make you feel that you’re anywhere you want to be, anytime. Companies are already designing avatars that can speak for you, and it’s almost scary how realistic they are. Driverless cars won’t look like cars as we think of them — they’ll have dining rooms, sofas, and big screens. If you have to spend time being transported from one point to the next, why not watch a film together as a family, or use the car as a moving meeting room?"
DUKE STUMP – Chief Marketing Officer of Lime
One lesson of Silicon Valley is that public perception often doesn’t match their capital gains. Companies like Facebook and Lime can be lambasted in the press as enemies of the public, and continue to expand and make bank. Lime has survived against the naysayer's wishes, and their micro-mobility agenda will continue to change the makeup of urban spaces, even if in minor ways.
"The possibilities of transportation in the future are infinite, so much so that there are future forms that we cannot currently imagine. The key is to stay deeply attuned to how cities are evolving and more importantly how urban living is evolving. Hannah Beachler — the set designer for Wakanda in the movie Black Panther — speaks eloquently for how mobility has a domino effect, and at the end of those dominos are human lives. Micro-mobility serves a larger ecosystem of thought around making cities more livable by offering everyone equal access to transit and clean air and turning cities into places where we can all revel in the gift of time. Perhaps Shakespeare said it best when he asked, 'What is the city but the people?'"
JESSICA APPELGREN – VP of Communications at Impossible Foods
More often than not, the future is advertised as something beyond our imaginative grasp. But by creating a high-tech version of an American staple — in this case, a burger — Impossible Foods represents a pivot that can bring the principles of tech into a Burger King Whopper.
"We’re just starting to understand the plant kingdom and its potential. Like, if you pick a soy plant and you burst the root, you’ll see some of this red stuff come out, which is called heme. It’s essentially plant blood, and it’s the key to our metallically-tasting meat flavor. You can also take elements of a plant that are useful, and not take the others. We take the protein from the potato, but we don’t take the starch. There’s no reason why someone with these ingredients couldn’t create facsímiles of any kind of food at home, with a machine that you have in your house that mixes the ingredients together for you. As long as you have the ingredients, you’ll be able to combine them to make whatever food you want."
YVES BÉHAR - Founder, Fuseproject
For every startup that succeeds, hundreds fail, and for every product that sells, thousands don’t. Among the ruins, few companies have failed as gloriously as Juicero, the multi-million dollar startup that folded after people realized you don’t need a four hundred dollar machine to make juice. Despite this, Yves Béhar, the guy who designed Juicero, has been an overall success story in the Valley.
"The role of the designer is to edit technology so that it’s nearly invisible — to hide it in plain sight. In the future, I hope there will be a renewed consciousness that allows us to mature away from our current levels of distraction, without assuming that people will go away from technology. We want the awareness, control, the information that tech brings us, but we don’t want to be utilized by it, or let it distract us from our short time on this planet."
JON SPECTOR – VP of Overwatch League Business Operations and Product Strategy at Blizzard
Gaming is a form of the future that 70 percent of Americans already participate in. In just the past decade, eSports has gone from a cottage industry to the fastest growing entertainment sector. So, will we reach a point where the most popular form of entertainment is watching two computers fight each other?
"The progress of AI has been staggering. We actually have a partnership with the DeepMind AI for playing and testing some of our games like Starcraft, and that AI has gotten really really good at Starcraft. In general, digital sports generate untold amounts of data for every second of professional gameplay ever. Eventually, AI and machine learning tools will be broadly used for scouting opponents and identifying player tendencies and patterns that are exploitable in their gameplay. AI will also help these players hone skills such as aiming accuracy, response time, and situational awareness. But ultimately, eSports is exciting because eAthletes are people like you and I who just happen to be incredibly talented gamers. It's just not compelling to watch computers play games against each other. Even in chess today, despite computers being better at chess than all of the grandmasters out there, what people still wanna see is who’s the best chess player, not what's the best AI at playing chess."
REBECCA VAN DYCK – Chief Marketing Officer of AR/VR at Facebook
Virtual Reality remains one of those technologies that feels groundbreaking and campy at the same time. Will it be a disruptive force that updends lived spaces itself and the way we interact with machines? Or will it just be a new way to watch porn?
"We don’t want to just bring the world closer, we want it to feel closer and create a sense of presence. Right now, we’re chained by our desktop and our phones. We’re constrained by these formats. Going forward, we’ll be using our voice and fingers to use computing platforms and we won’t be able to tell when someone is interacting with a display. Displays will either disappear or they’ll be in my glasses. Over time, that will become normalized. Google Glass may have just been too early."
PAUL AUSTIN - CEO at The Third Wave
In Silicon Valley, psychedelics are the drug of choice, with thought leaders from Steve Jobs to Stewart Brand proselytizing about LSD and Psilocybin. For the past few years, people like Paul Austin have been pushing the fad of microdosing, the process of taking minuscule amounts of psychedelics to get the positive mental effects.
"Micorodosing will be the medicine of the future. It’s a plant, it’s not in the hands of pharmaceutical companies, you don’t have any withdrawals, it's nourishing to the body, it helps with brain and gut functioning. This morning I got up, took a cold shower while doing a little bit of breath work, did some yoga, and drank a mineral cocktail of Himalayan salt, creatine, water, and lemon. Then I took a microdose of psilocybin mushrooms with lion's mane and niacin. This is what’s called the Paul Stamets stack. When it comes to psilocybin-infused nutraceuticals, they will be just as widespread as cannabis edibles are within five to seven years. It will be a multi-billion dollar industry."
BRAD BURGE - Director of Strategic Communications, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS)
Besides helping wire leaders to create billion dollar companies, how can formerly-illegal drugs improve the lives of everyday people like veterans or healthcare workers? The institute MAPS has been working on the legal and clinical framework of actually getting once-outcasted drugs back into the hands of people who could benefit from them the most.
"By early 2022, we expect to have FDA approval for MDMA-assisted therapy. By 2023, psilocybin assisted therapy, and maybe even some ceremonial ayahuasca uses, will be approved for the treatment of depression. We don’t think psychedelics should replace existing pharmacology, simply that they should be an existing tool-kit. Just like we have anesthesiologists, or cardiologists, or neurologists, we think there should be a specialist in psychedelic therapy who can work with you for emotional issues. So you’d go to a psychedelic therapist just like you’d go to any other specialist."
JOHN MARKOFF - Author, former reporter at The New York Times
John Markoff is one of the few people who can say he’s written the book on Silicon Valley. Having been covering the area since 1977, mostly for The New York Times, Markoff has been writing about venture capitalists, hackers, and artificial intelligence since before most of this generation of entrepreneurs were born.
"Covid-19 is definitely feeding into Silicon Valley’s savior mentality. This notion in general is a big part of the modern ideology of that world. People like Douglas Engelbart really did think that he could improve humanity by offering these new intellectual tools, like the CPU or even the mouse and keyboard. Then Steve Jobs carried that torch with personal computing. And today you have people working around the clock to find more solutions for Covid-19, even if it's just something as simple as trying to jump-start the availability of surgical masks by creating new supply chain connections to China."
JANE METCALFE - Founder of Wired magazine, Founder and CEO of NEO.LIFE
WIRED Magazine was founded by Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto in 1993, and marked the beginning of an epoch in Silicon Valley. Whatever happened there for the next two decades would be told through its lens. In the face of a world turned upside-down by Covid-19, what was Jane working on now and what future did she envision, if any?
"The Neobiological Revolution is the new way in which we are approaching biology using an engineering mindset. It’s what happens when you have large data sets being picked up by sensors that we’re placing all over our body — like on our rings, on our watches, our shirts, and even in our poo. We’re collecting all of this data and processing it with machine learning, AI, and neural networks to give us new insights into how the body works and how we can, in turn, start to impact that. Since Covid-19, we’ve seen people at the forefront of the Neobiological Revolution rushing to come up with new solutions, like creating faster novel testing times. I think right now, people are pretty freaked out by biology, but the revolution offers us a future that we can look forward to. Because right now, we’re just stuck in fear mode."
JOHN SEABROOK - Author, Staff Writer at The New Yorker
How we respond to the technologies coming out of Silicon Valley today will shape our future for decades to come, and Covid-19 has only made that fact more pressing. John Seabrook’s coverage of technology over the years, from the early days of the internet to AI, makes him one of the most relevant voices to speak with on the long curve of where this crisis will lead us.
"From the Cambridge Analytica scandal up until Covid-19, there was this growing awareness among Americans that these big tech companies might not be our friends, and in fact might be selling off our privacy to make money. People were becoming more weary of the fact that if something is free, you are the product. It seems like we’ve entered a different era overnight. Now it's a dream time for companies that want to roll out these mass surveillance technologies, like facial recognition, and don’t want the kind of pushback from the public that — up until Covid-19 — they were really starting to get more and more. Now people are basically willing to say, “If this stuff can keep me from getting infected, then yeah, we’ll take it.” But people don’t realize that once it’s installed, it's there for good."
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