For the first time in memory, adults in the United States under age forty are now expected to be poorer than their parents. This is the kind of grim reality that in other times and places spurred young people to look abroad for opportunity. Indeed, it is similar to the factors that once pushed millions of people to emigrate from their home countries to make their home in America. Our nation of immigrants is, tautologically, a nation of emigrants.
These emigrants, our ancestors, didn't bear enmity towards the countries they left—quite the contrary. They weren't "Going Galt" or being "unpatriotic" by leaving, as they often left out of sadness and melancholy, not anger. In many cases they remained homesick for the rest of their lives, leaving only because they had to, not because they wanted to.
These emigrants weren’t Going Galt or being unpatriotic by leaving.
Yet while our ancestors had America as their ultimate destination, it is not immediately obvious where those seeking opportunity might head today. Every square foot of earth is already spoken for by one (or more) nation states, every physical frontier long since closed.
With our bodies hemmed in, our minds have only the cloud—and it is the cloud that has become the destination for an extraordinary mental exodus. Hundreds of millions of people have now migrated to the cloud, spending hours per day working, playing, chatting, and laughing in real-time HD resolution with people thousands of miles away ... without knowing their next-door neighbors.
The concept of migrating our lives to the cloud is much more than a picturesque metaphor, and actually amenable to quantitative study. Though the separation between our bodies is still best characterized by the geographical distance between points on the surface of the earth, the distance between our minds is increasingly characterized by a completely different metric: the geodesic distance, the number of degrees of separation between two nodes in a social network. Importantly, this geodesic distance is just as valid a mathematical metric as the geographical. In fact, there are entire conferences devoted to cloud cartography, in which research groups from Stanford to Carnegie Mellon to MIT present the first maps of online social networks—mapping not nation states but states of mind.
The concept of migrating our lives to the cloud is much more than a picturesque metaphor.
Perhaps the single most important feature of these states of mind is the increasing divergence between our social and geographic neighbors, between the cloud formations of our heads and the physical communities surrounding our bodies. An infinity of subcultures outside the mainstream now blossoms on the Internet—vegans, body modifiers, CrossFitters, Wiccans, DIYers, Pinners, and support groups of all forms. Millions of people are finding their true peers in the cloud, a remedy for the isolation imposed by the anonymous apartment complex or the remote rural location.
Yet this discrepancy between our cloud subculture and our physical surroundings will not endure indefinitely. Because the latest wave of technology is not just connecting us intellectually and emotionally with remote peers: it is also making us ever more mobile, ever more able to meet our peers in person.
And so these cloud formations of mind are beginning to take physical shape, driving the reorganization of bodies. In the technology space, we have already seen this transpire at small scale: a cloud formation of 2 people coming together for 10 years facilitated by Match.com, a formation of 10 people for a year in a hacker house, a formation of 100 people for a few months at a startup incubator, and a formation of 1000 people for a few days at an open-source gathering like RailsConf. More recently we saw the thousands that occupied Wall Street for a month, the ten thousand Redditors involved in Jon Stewart's Rally, and the tens of thousands that took Tahrir Square at the height of the Arab Spring. Those trivial photo-sharing apps seem far less trivial in this light.
Balaji S. Srinivasan holds a BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University. He taught data mining, statistics, and computational biology at Stanford; was an NDSEG, NSF, and VIGRE fellow; and was cofounder and CTO of Counsyl, one of the largest clinical genome centers in the world. Srinivasan was named to the MIT TR35 and Founders Fund F50 lists. He currently runs the Stanford Bitcoin Group and teaches a popular MOOC on startups. Follow him on Twitter @balajis.
But while these large rallies command deserved attention, something else of significance is happening more quietly: Cloud formations are starting to take physical shape in the form of long-term friendly communities that are geographically colocated, like Campus, Embassy Network, and the Rainbow Mansion. In some ways this isn’t anything new—the twin ideas of co-living in the same house or co-housing with separate houses in a shared community have been around in Denmark since the 1960s and the U.S. since the 1860s. What is new is the ease of finding compatible peers via web search, online forums, and social networks. And so the concept is spreading around the world, with hundreds of co-living and co-housing locations now accessible through the internet in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, and across Continental Europe.
It is not yet clear how widespread this phenomenon will become, but few humans are truly so solitary that they would shun the very idea of shared communities—and from email to mobile phones, what technologists experiment with on the weekends has frequently foreshadowed what everyone else will be doing during the week in ten years.