Top 5 Ways to Hack the Surface of the Earth

It's another installment of Entropist, a scifi culture column by futurist design maven Geoff Manaugh, author of BLDG BLOG. If we can hack Wiis and iPods and old Segas, make garage door openers into mobile phones and cause elevators to run backwards — or turn upside-down, or do whatever it is that elevator hacks are supposed to do — then could we also hack the surface of the earth? Could we hack geology? Could we use plate tectonics to re-direct whole island chains, color rocks, print cities out of magma, and build mountains where mountains have no right to be? Here are the Entropist's top five ways to change the surface of the earth.

1) Earthquake Towers

In 2005, scientists discovered that a new skyscraper in Taiwan might be causing earthquakes. Called Taipei 101, it was temporarily the tallest building in the world, before towers like the Al Burj were anything but rumors. "At more than 500 metres," we read back then, "Taipei 101 in Taiwan is the world's tallest building. But now geologists fear that its size and weight may have transformed a stable area into one susceptible to earthquake activity."

Top 5 Ways to Hack the Surface of the EarthS

The building is so heavy, exerting such "exceptional downward stress" on the earth beneath it, that it might have "reopened" an ancient tectonic fault. If true, this discovery "may have far-reaching implications for the construction of other buildings and man-made megastructures."

At the very least, we should ask: What would happen if we built more of them? Could we build fourteen of these things in San Francisco, in an act of long-term tectonic warfare, and destroy the whole city within a decade?

Conversely, could we build just the right number of these, at just the right spots, throughout the greater Los Angeles basin and thus nail the tectonic plates in place — weighing southern California down and zipping the San Andreas Fault up tight? It'd be seismic acupuncture, a new form of therapy against continental drift. Perhaps one gigantic tower exactly placed in outer Tokyo could make the whole Pacific Rim freeze up. That is, till a rogue group of German terrorists arrives and wreaks havoc... Directed by John McTiernan. It's geology as a military campaign, enacted through architectural design.

2) Tectonic Warfare

In the wildly under-appreciated 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill, Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) likes to ride boats with Grace Jones and grin a lot. He likes blimps and he has blonde hair. He has a plan. He wants to blow up the San Andreas fault, cause some sort of catastrophic earthquake, and thus flood Silicon Valley. Which is just a bunch of car dealerships and seafood restaurants, in any case. But this flood will make Zorin's own microchip business go through the roof... or something. He'll then rule the planet.

Top 5 Ways to Hack the Surface of the EarthS

Needless to say, Zorin's plan fails. Bond makes it with a geologist and the world goes back to sleep. But the central idea is worth pursuing: Could we bomb faultlines all over the earth, causing earthquakes? If not, why not? I'm reminded of a TV show I watched last weekend, about Mount St. Helens. Mount St. Helens is supposedly going to erupt any year now — but today it just sits there, sort of steaming. It's bit boring, frankly. So why don't we bomb it? Let's see what that thing is capable of! Unmanned drones from a nearby air base climb to 25,000 feet. It's 3 o'clock in the morning. They open fire. They hack the earth, in other words, applying the landscape theories of Max Zorin. Think of it as Zorinism: tectonic warfare.

3) Igneous Printheads

Inkjet printers require small, spongy reservoirs of liquid ink to operate. But there are alternatives to ink.

There is magma.

Top 5 Ways to Hack the Surface of the EarthS

A magma chamber is a "reservoir of molten rock material beneath the earth's surface." It "is connected to the earth's surface by a vent." So what if we took control of the vent? What if we could print new landforms, selectively directing and solidifying liquid rock where we want? Could we attach a kind of igneous printhead, guiding magma into new forms? I'm thinking here of the concrete-printing machines of Behrokh Khoshnevis, or even just 3D printing. In other words, could we rapid-prototype experimental mountain forms, attaching igneous printheads to reservoirs of liquid rock and printing landscapes on the earth above?

4) Colored Magma

Could we dye these magmatic streams using metals - injecting huge amounts of copper, or iron, into a domesticated magma well, extruding colored rocks only a few days later? And could we print cathedrals with it, spraying their vaults and buttresses into place with a deep liquid mixture of green and red?

5) Slow Sculpture

In his novel Iron Council, China Miéville proposes something called slow sculpture. Miéville describes an artist who creates literally geological works of art on a time scale that exceeds any individual human life.

Huge sedimentary stones... each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.

So could we leave slow sculptures sitting, undiscovered, in the rocks and mountains all around us?

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And what long-term geological hacks might have been left for us someday to discover?

[Note: The last two photos were taken by Paraflyer]