Tsunamiball: The Newest Iteration of Fear and Loathing in Silicon Valley?

Michael Teague  |

Finally, there is an expression for the ever-mounting fears of a new tech bubble, a dotcom boom part deux, and one that is notable for its embodiment of these fears on both the concrete as well as metaphorical levels.

Like with everything in the new celebrity world of tech, this expression is over-the-top, with the only difference being that it doesn’t, indeed cannot tout itself as the next “disruption.” But what it can boast of may yet prove to be something of far greater value down the road.

This new post-disruption product has been dubbed “Tsunamiball,” and is the pet-project of one Chris Robinson, a former art director for both Facebook (FB) and PayPal. Since 2012, Mr. Robinson has been working on a Tsunami-proof capsule in his backyard in Palo Alto, California.

Tsunamiball is inspired in part by the horrific events in the wake of the tsunami that destroyed entire swathes of Fukushima prefecture in Japan in March of 2011, in part by the simple and noble desire to, in his words, “build a beautiful object.”

And Tsunamiball is indeed impressive, if not beautiful; 22 feet in length, 8.5 feet high, and 10 feet wide, the mini-submarine-like structure is composed primarily of plywood and epoxy. For those wondering how plywood could possibly hope to stand up to the destructive force of a tsunami, Robinson explains rather convincingly on his blog that “The outer hull will be 2 1/2 inches of marine grade plywood covered in xyletol and epoxy. Xyletol is a very abrasion resistant polyester material. When combined with epoxy it is very similar to kevlar.” Furthermore, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of additional protective walls for the inside of the structure.

But Robinson’s design is as much about the act of executing it as it is about it actually being of practical use someday. The designer, in any event, is not afraid that a tsunami will be hitting Palo Alto any time in the foreseeable future, but he does plan to test it out eventually, at least if he can find a crane to lift it out of his yard and transport it first to a swimming pool for preliminary tryouts, and then after that perhaps an afternoon in the Pacific.

After that, the plans for Tsunamiball are vague, he may use it as an extra room for guests and AirBnB patrons, but Robinson is definitely not out to sell anyone a product, or make a killing for that matter.

But who knows if he’s maybe channeling something a lot bigger with his creation. Tech IPOs have spoken of nothing but a new level of confidence, from the recuperated disaster of Facebook’s offering, to Twitter’s blockbuster debut last year. Mergers and acquisitions have also been spectacular displays of a priori bullishness in the industry, most recently with Inspector Gadget-esque instant messaging service Snapchat turning down Facebook’s $4 billion dollar buyout offer.

Given the massive sums of money being tossed around, no less the apparent takeover of San Francisco by gilded social media companies, it was perhaps to be expected that a “venture capitalist” by the name of Tim Draper made a stir last February, when he proposed the idea of splitting up California into six smaller states as a potential ballot measure that CA residents may well have a chance to vote on later this year.

No surprise that this “disruptive” new idea has emerged from a state that entertains what we might call avant-garde notions about ballot initiatives (ie- the crypto-conservative and disastrous three-strikes initiative that simplified criminal law in California to the level of a sporting event, and has led to the warehousing, for life, of untold numbers of non-violent offenders, at enormous cost to taxpayer and more recently Governor Jerry Brown’s credibility alike).

No surprise either, then, that the “Six Californias” initiative foresees Silicon Valley becoming its very own state, a state that would obviously be the richest in the Union. From a certain perspective, this would be highly convenient and beneficial. From another perspective, however, this is one of the most unabashedly classist ideas to have gained any sort of traction in recent times.

And then there’s the last couple weeks of selling-activity that has hit the tech sector pretty hard, and, in some quarters, has been seen as a confirmation that the whole industry is just too top-heavy to be sustainable. Over the past twelve months, tech has gained an amazing 23 percent. But in the last six months, that growth has pared back to 5.5 percent; in the past three months there has been contraction to the tune of a very modest 0.1 percent; in the past month, losses have grown to 0.4 percent for the sector as a whole.

Aside from the slight rebound in the past week, internet information providers, the industry in which big social media stocks like Facebook, Yahoo! (YHOO) , Google (GOOG) , and Twitter (TWTR) reside, and around which the broader sector has been reorienting itself in the last few years, has over the past quarter become one of the worst performing industries of the US economy.

This is by no means a prediction that the bursting of the bubble will soon be upon us. It’s not even necessarily a claim that there is a bubble to burst. But it is a notion that has gained its own fair share of traction. In the event that the whole thing goes up in smoke like it did some 13 years ago, Tsunamiball might come to be seen as a parody of its own creators good will and love of beauty. The exact photonegative of the “Six Californias” proposal, sort of like that frightful picture that Dorian Gray kept hidden in his attic.

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