Imagine you’ve been given the objective of designing a spacecraft that will need to take passengers to other star systems starting out from our own. A challenge of this nature starts with how do you sustain life through a journey that will potentially take millions of years. You can’t store energy without losing some to the environment. In the cold depth of interstellar space with the nearest star far far away, how is it possible to constantly recreate or source the energy needed for life? Really, how much energy does life need? This is the premise behind Rendezvous with Rama, a science fiction classic by Arthur C. Clarke.
If you’ve not read the book you could probably get around this paragraph and I’d avoid spoiling it for you. Many book reviewers found it strange that Rendezvous… does not have any alien life-forms in it. I’d say that the book is teeming with ideas, ideas about a different version of life. Life that flourishes in ways we understand but would find too obvious and will discard in the bat of an eyelid. Clarke’s fictional solution to interstellar space travel is to transport consciousness in a literally recyclable world where the life-forms are manufactured. Such life need only exist when an abundant energy source such as our sun is at hand. Now that we’ve got a grip on this central idea, you can ask why not? All we need to do now is to figure out how to sustain this consciousness in a low-energy state through the quiet between star systems.
Nine years ago on this day of 2004, Google first advertised a limited beta release of Gmail. It resonated with initial subscribers on the legs of another absurd idea – a 10GB inbox. Perhaps you’d thought, who’d need so much space? Or, how is it possible to give away so much space? At the time a GB cost a $1 on a hard drive** and most providers would only give away 10’s of MB’s to their millions of free users. I know I thought both those thoughts. I was a graduate student working at RIT’s Lab of Applied Computing. I recall dissecting how it would work with my colleagues at the lab. Obviously we needn’t allocate all that space right away. If we disassociated the inbox with the actual physical storage of an email, we could allocate just a few MB and simply grow the physical storage ahead of usage. This made the ’10GB inbox’ plausible.
Turns out, this idea was enough to spark millions of conversations within the first few weeks and drew several millions of users away from other email providers within it’s first year. Some enthusiastic users even tested the elasticity of their inboxes by growing them successfully all the way to the 10GB limit. It was fascinating to watch it all come together and yet I had more questions. Why were so many making this possible? I probably asked because I still didn’t think I needed that much space.
A few years later at a consulting gig, I’d been given an inbox on a client’s MS Exchange server. Every time I’d get a series of files weighing in at several 100KB’s, my inbox would cross a preset limit and I’d have to reach out to the admin for more space. While I waited, I’d delete older emails off the server or incoming emails would bounce back to senders. It was at this time that I wished dearly for Gmail’s magical expanding inbox and asked is this what drew the early adopters to it?
Many ideas are like that and I think they deserve a closer look. They’re really awaiting a marriage of the right mindsets before they can bloom. Perhaps someone who can see past first impressions to quickly spot the frustration of no solution and the genius beneath the unassuming? Someone who’s willing to put in the time to follow the idea through.