On social media, there are only two opinions of Elon Musk. Either he’s an evil billionaire trying to escape to Mars before the Earth dies or he’s a once-in-a-lifetime genius who will save humanity from extinction and bring us into a golden age. It’s no surprise that the medium least known for its nuance has none at all. Social media, particularly Twitter, is designed to extricate subtlety and elide deeper thought. Why? Because to spend extended time on one topic or post or long read would mean that you are not rabidly scrolling through thousands of other posts laced with ads and influenced by behavior modifying algorithms that are secretly recording everything you do across the web. It’s true. Google it. Or Duck it.
Thus I have great trepidation about someone like Musk gaining control of such a medium, no matter his good intentions.
But let’s be honest about Musk. If SpaceX wasn’t around, the United States would have no way of getting astronauts into space. When the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, we were entirely dependent upon Russia and their Soyuz rockets to get into space. You can see how terrible that would have been had the U.S. still been relying on Russia once the Russia-Ukraine War broke out. Roscosmos basically gave the finger to NASA, even threatening to shoot down the ISS. (They recently almost did.) And not only is SpaceX now launching astronauts to space from U.S. soil, but they’ve landed and reused rockets dozens of times, something many people said was impossible. And despite the FAA dragging their feet with issuing permits, SpaceX is rapidly iterating Starship, the next generation rocket that will take the U.S. to the Moon and Mars. If you doubt that will happen, then you haven’t been paying attention to the New Space race at all. It’s not if this will happen, but when.
Then there’s Tesla. Whatever you want to say about it’s supposed stock valuation, you cannot seriously argue that the electric vehicle market in the U.S. would be anywhere close to where it is today without Tesla’s Model 3. When you have Ford, an American exemplar of gods-awful gas mileage SUVs, loudly committing to go all electric by 2035, you cannot say with a straight face that this would have happened without Tesla’s market pressure. Ford doesn’t go all electric without Musk.
Then there’s the Boring Company, which wants to revolutionize transportation. And Neuralink which wants to help people with debilitating brain injuries. And Tesla’s solar roof tiles and Powerwall, to help people go off-grid. And not to mention Musk’s dream of making humans multi-planetary, so we might survive the so called Great Filter, or extinction of our species. These are lofty goals. Not for the faint-hearted.
Yes, yes, a lot of these ideas are speculative and I could take bets on whether or not they have any chance of succeeding. But the point is, all great ideas are speculative. Without great ideas you don’t get the ancient human who decided to venture out over the next hill to see what’s there, you don’t get the carriage or the automobile or the iPhone or people on the Moon. Visionaries make this happen, and, yes, sometimes their visions don’t pan out. I seriously can’t understand the aversion to visionaries. It’s as if great ideas are automatically suspect simply because the person saying them isn’t perfect. That’s a hard hill to climb.
But wait, wait, you say – Musk didn’t create any of those great things you listed. His workers did! Well, duh. That’s how industry works. Everything you use, from the pen on your desk to the computer you’re reading this on required the work of countless thousands. But you need a bold visionary to set the course, to dream large, so that others might be inspired by their vision and work hard to make that happen.
But like all visionaries, Musk is human, and thus flawed. He’s anti-union, prone to temper tantrums, shoots his mouth off on Twitter, and often seeks to destroy those who insult his ego. To me, he sounds like a classic narcissist. Insult me, and I will destroy you utterly.
This is why I find his intended purchase of Twitter so troubling. He’s doing this, he says, to protect freedom of speech. But judging by his complete inability to handle criticism of any form, I find this take highly suspicious. And, by the way, I hate that I live in a world where a small number of people can exert control over a medium that billions of people use for communication. I hate that I live in a world where someone can accumulate $280 billion dollars of wealth while some struggle to have enough money to pay for heat, housing, healthcare, and even food. And all this while a dictator tries to reclaim his country’s former glory by invading a peaceful country and murdering tens of thousands of civilians. But, yes, let’s talk about what happened at the Oscars.
These are troubled times we find ourselves in, but many of us are too distracted by minutiae to see the big picture. And this, I think, is intentional.
Twitter (and most of social media) is toxic to humanity, and this needs to change. However, just because I admire some of what Musk did with SpaceX and Tesla doesn’t mean I trust him to do the right thing in this case. Time may prove me wrong. But we’ll see.