The 100-Year-Old Man Who Lives in the Future
To reach the Venus Project Research Center, a utopian compound created by a 100-year-old futurist, drive through vast stretches of fields, orchards, and dirt roads in south-central Florida. There's little cell phone service and no signs of other humans on the way to a white gate. A sandy path flanked by lush tropical trees leads to a cluster of white dome-like structures. Inside one sits Jacque Fresco, hunched on a couch within his own model of an ideal society.
Fresco, now hard of hearing, gave me a nod when I visited in March. "Thank you for driving all this way," said Roxanne Meadows, 67, a former portrait artist and Fresco's longtime girlfriend and collaborator. A dozen people had turned out that day to see the secluded 21-acre property, including Venus Project devotees from as far away as Australia.
Fresco's 100th birthday bash, held days earlier at a convention center in Fort Myers, drew more than 600 fans. For them, these rounded retro structures in the wilds of Florida are a hint of what could be: a master plan for a City of the Future without money, a place where all needs are met by technology. That city, Fresco says, will be run not by politicians but by a central computer that will distribute resources as needed. It's a vision he's been working on for most of his life. “A machine doesn’t have emotions,” Fresco likes to say. “It’s not susceptible to corruption.” Social engineering and favorable living circumstances will ensure that people act responsibly toward one another.
A Brooklyn native born in 1916, Fresco embodies a certain breed of irrepressible, self-taught inventors and futurists, the sort of free-spirited visionaries from the 20th century who have largely been subsumed today by the world-making ambitions of Silicon Valley tech culture. Fresco's backstory includes all the requisite (and difficult to verify) tales of a imaginative life. Fed up with the status quo and worried about the future, he says he dropped out of school at age 13 and hitchhiked across America before taking a temporary job drafting designs for an aircraft company. What followed has been a lifetime of dreaming up novel technologies and infrastructure, including oval-shaped driverless cars, floating cities, and mass-produced extruded dwellings.
On the property in Venus, Fla.—his utopian master project adopted the name of the town—two domes contain workshops filled with hundreds of models and renderings. There are disc-shaped aircrafts and a channel-digger designed to help filter off the ocean’s rising sea levels into uninhabited deserts. Two more domes house a rotating cast of international Venus Project volunteers, who help spread Fresco's ideas worldwide.
The compound itself is intended to show what the outskirts of a city built in the image of the Venus Project might look like. "We didn't build what we wanted to build, we built what we could afford to build," says Meadows, who gives tours of the grounds. The couple, who met 40 years ago when Meadows came to hear Fresco talk, purchased the property in 1979. It had previously been a tomato farm. They planted hundreds of trees, dredged the land, and began building examples of mass-produceable housing.
"We labored in obscurity for a long time," says Meadows. Everything was financed with money they scraped together doing various odd jobs, such as freelancing as model builders for architecture firms and medical equipment companies.
Today, Meadows says, people come to tour the compound every Saturday, paying $200 per family for a tour, as well as books and videos. Even those visitors who question Fresco's ideas regarding social engineering seem to find inspiration in his technological dreams. "Companies like Google are actually working on building smart cities—it's happening," said one person on the tour. "And this is an interesting framework through which to look at some of the problems."
As for Fresco, he remains convinced his computer-governed city can become reality. "We already have the technology to do it," he says, speaking with the group after the tour. What’s lacking, as he sees it, is the will. Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. “There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,” he says wryly. “I’m surprised I haven’t been shot already.”
By 6:30 p.m., the 100-year-old visionary is starting to fade. It’s been a long birthday week. “Thanks so much for coming,” he tells us. “Now I’m gonna hit the sack.”