• 08.13.13

Can Elon Musk’s Design Fiction Be Good For Innovation?

Hyperloop isn’t real and probably never will be. That doesn’t mean it’s useless.

Can Elon Musk’s Design Fiction Be Good For Innovation?

It must be hard to be a real innovator. On the one hand, the chattering classes (of which I admit to being a member) constantly moan about your ideas “not being big enough.” On the other, when you dare to let a genuinely big idea slip out before you have every possible contingency already accounted for, we chatterers respond with cheap cynicism or knee-jerk mockery. (Me: guilty.) Yesterday, Elon Musk revealed a “plan” for a futuristic mass-transit line between Los Angeles and San Francisco called Hyperloop. Is it breaking news? Is it a valid plan? Is it an epic bit of trolling?


The trouble with engaging with Musk’s document in any of those terms is that it will inevitably disappoint, and that disappointment will probably make you angry. But if you consider Hyperloop as a piece of design fiction–that is, an aspirational, exploratory “what if” creatively worked out to a degree greater than a bar-room brain fart but less than a 100% municipally/politically/empirically validated research project–then it becomes possible to appreciate what it is, and not just grouse about what it isn’t.

The term “design fiction” has a bit of musty academicism to it, like an overwrought synonym for “self-indulgent art project.” Yeah, sometimes that’s true. But design fictions can do real work, too. Consider concept cars: they’re not real, they’re never intended to go into production, they’re often wildly impractical or unrealistic. They have one purpose: to illuminate other ideas by association. To open up the adjacent possible. In a word, to inspire. And sometimes these “pointless” design fictions are powerful enough to turn entire companies around (see: Cadillac).

If Hyperloop is simply a “concept car” for public transportation–with all the pros, cons, flaws and flair that implies–then suddenly Elon Musk doesn’t have to be a dilettante, a charlatan, wasting our time, doing it wrong, failing us, hoodwinking us, disappointing us, boring us, or any other bad thing we chatterers can accuse him of. The standard of a well-wrought design fiction is at once lower and higher than an actual product or system. It doesn’t have to have all the holes plugged. It’s not meant to be production-ready. But it also should be radical, out-of-the-box, worthy of debate, larger-than-life. It should be singular, so as to spin off as many tangent, reactive ideas and conversations as possible. That’s the only way it can do any good. By that measure, Hyperloop just might be succeeding. (Too early to tell, though.)

What makes Elon Musk’s particular design fiction potentially more powerful, or at least more newsworthy, than, say, an unknown civil engineering student’s, isn’t that it’s “better.” It’s that it’s vastly more visible and credible because of Musk’s resources, and, to be frank, his track record. (Tesla and SpaceX would have surely sounded just as ludicrous on paper a decade ago as Hyperloop does now.) Sure, Hyperloop isn’t a fully worked out “X” project like Google’s Project Loon, nor is it a vast humanitarian endeavor like Bill Gates’s malaria efforts. It’s one powerful guy’s “what if” idea about how something could be better, or at least different. That’s it. Yes, ideas are cheap. But where else are we supposed to start?

[Read Hyperloop Alpha in PDF]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.