A few thoughts about Elon Musk

CEOs are being explicitly compared to comic book characters. So it’s probably safe to say that we live in a period of technological enthusiasm.

We’re living in a period in which what might be called “moonshot thinking”, or a general enthusiasm for new futuristic technologies, is very popular. In the last few years, we have seen Google promise both artificial intelligence and radically expanded human life-spans, we have seen proposals for asteroid mining , and we now have a list of 100 finalists to be the first human residents of Mars. If you asked anybody who pays attention to this stuff to name one person they would most associate with it, they almost certainly mention Elon Musk. A few others, such as Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, and (shudder) Mark Zuckerberg might be mentioned, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of ambitious projects Musk has proposed and is currently working on. The guy is a kind of a big deal.

Tempting though it may be, we need to be careful not to fawn too much over people like Musk. First of all, because Musk’s perception as a selfless innovator who is interested in technical challenges and public service, is probably at least partly a PR creation. I’m inclined to believe that Musk probably is a decent human being, but we should still remember that he is a powerful billionaire, and therefore any discussion of him comes with a duty to be critical. Musk didn’t get to where he is by not earning a profit, after all. The other thing we have to keep in mind is that Musk didn’t get where he is without help. Tesla employs 10,000 people. SpaceX employs around 3,000. SolarCity employs more than 6,000 more. And many of those people are doing the hard research and design work for which Musk soaks up a lot of the credit. Musk is still almost certainly a clever guy, but the development of new technologies has been a large-scale team effort since at least Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

But people like Musk, Schmidt, Ford, and Edison are still a fascinating element of technological culture, because of the enthusiasm they seem to be able to generate for their ideas. If I proposed the hyperloop, nobody would listen and I would probably lose some professional credibility. But because Elon Musk has a reputation for building cool stuff, he can make international news by publishing a 58 page report on the same idea. And the tech media covers virtually everything he says. Why is this the case? One obvious answer is that, as I argued at the top of the page, we are in an era where moonshot thinking predominates, and as the progenitor of a bunch of moonshot projects, Musk is somebody who people want to pay attention to. But just as an experiment, let’s consider it the other way around. What if people like Musk (rather than merely the things they create) are the reason that we are currently so convinced that our immediate future looks like a science fiction movie.

At first glance, this theory goes against everything that science and technology scholars have been saying for the last few decades. Technology, they tell us, is not created by heroic individuals. Some trace the myth of the lone inventor to an obscure Victorian dispute about patent law. Scientists have long acknowledged that they see far by standing on the shoulders of giants, and it is probably time that engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs be willing to make the same admission. Tesla would be nowhere, for example, without the hard work of thousands of people working over the past few decades on better batteries for laptops and smartphones, to say nothing of the legions of people who mine the raw materials for these things, manufacture them, transport them, and sell them.

But what if we look beyond the technology itself, and pay a bit more attention to its public context and popular support? Could prominent, charismatic, and fascinating individuals make us more likely to give our endorsement to new technological ideas that would otherwise sound crazy? I think it’s plausible, mainly because we, as a species, seem to love colourful personalities. That’s why it makes national news when Kanye West interrupts Taylor Swift. It’s why celebrities are paid exorbitant sums to endorse products. It’s why most history is understood in terms of big political and cultural personalities, form Louis Armstrong to Winston Churchill. And it’s why websites like Perez Hilton exist. We like to embody our ideas about the world in the form of people. That’s why we remember most of the big technological changes of the past by remembering the people who embodied them. Cars are represented by Henry Ford. Electrical infrastructure is represented by Thomas Edison. Computers are represented by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And so on. We find it much harder to relate to technology, which at the end of the day is a thing, than we do relating to people.

So, according to the hypothesis I’m developing here, sometimes an inventor or entrepreneur catches the public eye for one reason or another. By either an accident or a conscious effort, they cultivate their public image until they have a substantial media following. This becomes a major business asset, allowing them to generate major publicity for virtually any new idea they have. Because of their past successes, the public and media establishment are willing to consider proposals from them that they would reject out of hand if they were voiced by anybody less prominent. The result of this media coverage is that these ideas get financial and political support, as well as motivating research on the idea and perhaps an early market niche from technological enthusiasts. This in turn makes the success of the idea more viable. The result is that people like Elon Musk can serve as standard bearers, playing a big role in shaping future technology regardless of their role in actually developing it.

While I would like to do some detailed research on this idea one day, it remains just a hypothesis at this stage. But as a hypothesis, it has some interesting and important implications. Most important, perhaps, is that it suggests that prominent entrepreneurs and inventors can be extremely powerful people. Politicians come and go and most powerful business leaders are restricted by regulations and market forces. But if people like Elon Musk truly do have this kind of influence over the direction of technological development, then it could be that a small handful of people, most of whom are white men, have a very large role to play in shaping the future of human societies. It’s hard to vote down a transportation system that already has infrastructure in place, regardless of whether your votes come in the form of ballots or dollars. That means that we need to be very critical of these kinds of people and the ideas they propose. We need to really get to grips with their motivations, and be willing to think seriously not just about the viability of their proposals, but also about their long-term social, political, economic, and environmental effects.

But the news isn’t all bad. The power of technological standard bearers can also be a force for good, if we find ways to influence the kinds of people who we give this technological credibility to. We need big technological changes to solve a whole host of very scary social, economic and environmental problems, and if it is possible for one prominent person to play a big role in pushing those kinds of changes, then so much the better. We should, of course, fight the tendency to put people on pedestals. But maybe there is a role for social activists in helping societies think critically about the people to whom they give technological power. And maybe if we can help boost the public exposure of the right kinds of people, then we can help push the kinds of technological change that will make the world a better place rather than a worse one.

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SpaceX did something cool last week.

Exciting news from a few days ago: While launching another Dragon supply capsule to the International Space Station, SpaceX accomplished a rather novel feat: After detaching from the payload, the booster stage of the rocket was able to descend under its own power and make a (relatively) gentle landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

The booster stage of the rocket is an expensive piece of hardware which is normally jettisoned and rendered pretty unusable either by the heat as it falls back through the atmosphere, or by the sudden stop when that fall is finished. This is a pretty big part of why space flight is so expensive with our current technology: Rockets are expensive, and at this point in time most of them have been single-use only. If you had to buy a new car (or even new tires) every time you drove anywhere, you would probably not do very much driving.

SpaceX plans to change that. They’ve equipped some booster rockets with landing legs, and their ultimate goal is to have them set themselves right back down on the launch pad. This pretty amazing video demonstrates what they have in mind:

If boosters could land this way, it could be very cheap and easy to simply refuel them and give them a new payload and send them up again in a short period of time. A rocket launch pad could start to look more like an airport gate or a shipping terminal and less like a perpetual construction site. And that could give a pretty big boost (heh) to other space businesses, such as Planetary Resources. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, has a stated goal of enabling the colonisation of Mars, and while that’s still pretty far off, you can’t fault him for lack of effort.