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special regulatory zone

It’s Time For A Special Regulatory Zone

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Your government is the enemy of the future. Innovative technology that would disrupt the world as we know it is already here, but oppressive government bureaucrats keep getting in its way. Taxi commissions vs. Uber; the FDA vs 23andMe; the FAA vs. Amazon Prime Air; the DMV vs. self-driving cars; governments everywhere vs. Bitcoin.

This is intolerable and must stop. The government must get out of Silicon Valley’s way. No wonder that, even as it has become the center of the universe, its leading lights are musing about secession from America, or, at least, “an environment where people can try new things … some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society,” as Google’s CEO put it earlier this year.

Too right. In the same way that Special Economic Zones have triggered enormous economic growth in places like Shenzhen, Dubai, and even Iran, we need an American equivalent; a Special Regulatory Zone where the normal rules and regulations which (allegedly) apply to today’s technology will hold no sway. A bit like Burning Man’s famous Temporary Autonomous Zone, which Page also cited, except with less dust, fewer rules, greater permanency, and a slightly lower incidence of incoherent naked people. The existence of such a zone will be critically important to the sacred mission of bringing us all the fruits of the future as soon as humanly possible.

But where? you ask. I believe the answer is staring us all in the face. I hereby modestly propose that the city of Oakland be transformed into that Special Regulatory Zone.

Oakland is perfect. It could hardly be more accessible to the tech titans who define this era; it’s barely a stone’s throw across the Bay from Silicon Valley. And yet at the same time it is a city notoriously plagued by poverty, crime, and political gridlock, all of which, like all problems, can be solved by the application of sufficient quantities of VC-funded smartphone apps and responsive websites built on Node.js and MongoDB. Silicon Valley has already shown this to be true with its cornucopia of revolutionary, world-transforming companies such as Instagram, Snapchat, Topsy, QuizUp, and Vine (to say nothing of Color.)

What’s more, despite the challenges it faces, Oakland is already an early adopter. It was a pioneer of police drones and recently approved a Domain Awareness Center that will provide 24-hour surveillance of license plates and street views for “proactive policing.” Its civic leaders don’t really understand the tech industry — indeed, one recently said, laughably, “I have this theory that the big problem with the tech industry is a lack of self awareness” — but as an East Bay resident myself (okay, fine, Berkeley, but some of my best friends live in Oakland) I’m confident that the imposition of a Special Regulatory Zone organized by Silicon Valley’s finest tech minds would be welcomed by most of Oakland, much as a grateful Iraqi population greeted their American liberators a decade ago.

Needless to say, its economically disadvantaged population can be turned into an army of six-figure earners in a jiffy by simply teaching them how to code (though admittedly it’s not clear how long it will take to feature them all on the Today Show). Obviously all that training will have to be done en masse rather than one-on-one in what I like to call “re-education camps,” perhaps a little like the ones that kickstarted China’s economic growth some decades ago.

We may however need to tweak the demographics of the Special Regulatory Zone a little for testing purposes. To make space, Luddites, hipsters, and other technological throwbacks could be humanely resettled to camps in the Central Valley, where I’m given to understand that there’s a thriving informal economy of agriculture jobs that can support them.

Some will argue that Oakland’s notorious violence may be an obstacle; but I say that, first of all, it can be curtailed if necessary by simply building a panopticon and an army of drone enforcers, and second, perhaps these lemons can be turned into lemonade. After all, aren’t the people willing to commit violence for the sake of the success of their personal enterprises exactly the kind of people with the drive, grit, and pluck required to become successful entrepreneurs? We only need to redirect their energies towards developing MVPs (Minimally Violent Products.) Furthermore, Oakland’s history of gang violence will likely let us investigate the realities of drone crime without having startups perform ethically awkward experiments themselves.

You may think that this proposal is a little too America-focused, so let me add one key feature; any foreigner who meets certain technical criteria would be allowed to immigrate to this new SRZ to build their startup. Obviously this will raise legal issues in the outside world; this in turn will open a market niche for the first startup to build ergonomically designed ankle-cuff location trackers to ensure that foreign founders don’t leave the bounds of the SRZ except for certain approved purposes, such as Y Combinator interviews.

I would like to finally suggest that the SRZ be renamed from “Oakland” — there are hardly any oaks left, anyway — to a name which better represents its glorious future. I propose “Cyberia.” Perhaps, in the future, people will speak in tremblingly optimistic voices of most startup entrepreneurs being sent to Cyberia. It may never happen, but a man can dream.

Image credit: yours truly, in Oakland, on Flickr.