"Soon you'll be able to join a VR world, and earn virtual currency in virtual reality," says Silicon Valley entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan. "Which means that, for a good chunk of people in the world, the majority of their waking hours are going to be spent in the Matrix."
Srinivasan believes that new technologies—mobile devices, cloud computing, cryptocurrencies—are rapidly taking us into an era when geography, nationality, and other limitations on our labor and freedom fade away. He says that this evolution will empower individuals and erode the authoritarian capabilities of the state.
Srinivasan is a modern-day polymath who venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has called the person with "the highest output per minute of new ideas of anybody I've ever met in my life." A Ph.D. in electrical engineering, a co-founder of the genetic testing firm Counsyl, and a Stanford computer science lecturer, Srinivasan was also on Donald Trump's short list to head up the Food and Drug Administration.
He believes in technology's power to provide a way for individuals to migrate away from ossified institutions and destructive policies. Borrowing a framework from a 1970 political science treatise by Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Srinivasan described his vision in a much-discussed 2013 talk titled "Sillicon Valley's Ultimate Exit."
Today, he spends most of his time running the cryptocurrency-based startup Earn.com, which allows users to get paid for small tasks, like responding to emails and completing surveys. It is ultimately, he says, a tool for creating a "frictionless digital workforce." He imagines Earn.com providing users with a new type of decentralized employment based purely on their skills. Participants would log on, see a feed of tasks they needed to accomplish, and then be compensated accordingly.
While teaching at Stanford a decade ago, Srinivasan and his brother Ramji founded the genetic testing firm Counsyl, which offers a single assay that tests for every major Mendelian genetic disease. The company aims to lower costs, empower parents, and improve the way genetic diseases are identified and treated.
In a wide-ranging discussion, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Srinivasan about his current ventures; how the FDA and other regulatory bodies should adapt to new technologies; the controversy over genetic testing and "designer babies;" how the 1997 book The Sovereign Individual has influenced his thought; his intellectual heroes; and how he's contributing to "Silicon Valley's ultimate exit."
The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Balaji Srinivasan: One of the things I think a lot about is, if you've got an existing system, and it's ossified, there's at least two responses to it. There's more than two, but at least two. One is, you know, voice, which in its extreme is revolution. Revolution is extreme voice, where it's saying, "Oh, I'm so dissatisfied, let's take the whole thing over." And then democracy is, you know, like a much more limited version of that, but still also effective in many cases. You know, you could actually vote to go and change things. Alternatively, if you believe that it's going to be too hard to change things that way, but you're also cognizant of the fact that certain people like it that way, there's an alternative you can pursue, which is exit. You say, "Okay, I'm not going to be able to change the system, I recognize why you guys have it the way it is, but it doesn't suit my preferences, so I'm going to leave and start something new."
All progress is really the process of: You exit, you build something up, and then it gets ossified, and the next generation exits again. For example, a startup starts, and what happens is the libertarian founder ends up rebuilding the state. That's to say, you start it like an individual, and often people do that because they want to have total autonomy and control, and then what they find is as they get to a certain scale, well, they sort of need to have some policies. They need to have something in place so that you don't have like 500 autonomous people just moving in their own direction, but you have 500 people working as a team.
Nick Gillespie: A startup gets big enough, and then you've got to bring in an HR person.
Gillespie: And then you've got to start saying, "Oh, no, you got to wear shoes in the office, you got to do this, you got to do that."