Written by Alexandra McCarthy
The Hyperloop undoubtedly sparks intrigue in our imaginations. With its promise of a faster, sleeker, cheaper, and more error-free ride, it represents an exciting new frontier in transportation technology.
We can feel this excitement by meeting the all-star team of technologists leading its development in a March 2015 Forbes . With names that seem to match their seemingly blockbuster sci-fi vision, Elon (Musk), Dirk (Ahlborg), and Brogan (BamBrogan—yes, that is his real name) share a common conviction, which BamBrogan articulates: “We have the team, the tools and the technology. We can do this.”
Adds the article’s author Bruce Upbin: “The 21st-century space race is on.”
Yet, these pioneering engineers reiterate that many challenges and unknowns lie ahead in the sociotechnical system in which it hopes to exist. These include its proposed cost, its energy use and the viability of attaining the rights-of-way, among others.
In order to better understand this tension between hope and hurdles at the center of the Hyperloop concept, we must consider its effect on society. We can do this best through Marshal McLuhan’s tetrad, a concept explaining the interlocking ways that technology and society shape each other.
We engage the tetrad by asking four questions rooted in our historical, social and technological knowledge of the subject at hand:
- What does the artifact enhance?
- What does it erode or obsolesce?
- What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
- What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?
Enhance: Mr. Upbin sums it up: the Hyperloop “would be as fast as a plane, cheaper than a train and continuously available in any weather while emitting no carbon from the tailpipe.” Connecting LA and San Francisco in 35 minutes? An undoubted enhancement over the current 8 hour slog along Route 1.
Obsolesce: By its promised enhancements, the Hyperloop would certainly render obsolete the planned California High Speed Rail, and may do the same to plane travel as well.
Retrieve: The Hyperloop would connect far-away cities with a short ride. For instance, via Hyperloop, a San Franciscan could shoot down to LA for a quick lunch meeting. The ease of travel would retrieve a sense of connectedness within the state of California that those who drew its borderlines originally envisioned.
Reverse: The possibilities for what the Hyperloop will reverse are many. For instance, while a train, with many strategically placed stops along its path, could revitalize areas or disburse population growth, the Hyperloop would reinforce already concentrated population growth around large urban areas.
In applying the tetrad to the Hyperloop, we see that, though shiny with intrigue in its speed and technological feats, it may simply serve to reinforce existing boundaries, trends and patterns of movement. We are left with the question for the Dream Team: what, if any, real, transformative newness will the Hyperloop bring to us?