Elon Musk’s Flawed Vision and the Dangers of Trusting Billionaires
Elon Musk is a singular visionary driving humanity toward a better future—or at least that’s what he and his admirers want us to believe. For the past two decades, supporters and news outlets have praised him for the bold narratives he’s woven around Tesla and SpaceX, and by extension allowed him to evade scrutiny and become the world’s richest man. You can see his responses to every tweet Musk posts and check the dedication of his many millions of followers.
Musk, whose profile was elevated by constant media attention has made him the person everyone wanted: A powerful man who believed that technology and market combined could transform the world. He sold his belief without the need for a government role. (Just don’t talk about the billions in subsidies that kept his companies going over the years.)
This collective admiration, however, has only helped to strengthen an inexorable and more hostile billionaire. It is becoming harder to see the flaws in these future visions and how dangerous it can be for billionaire visionaries to applaud them.
As CEO of Tesla, Musk’s plan was to use luxury vehicles to fund a more affordable electric car. Model 3 was to be this vehicle. It started at $35,000. The current price of the Model 3 is $35,000. However, most buyers pay even more. Teslas are supposed to be the model for “green” automobility, but the emissions required for the production of each individual vehicle are on the rise, and there are persistent problems with production quality which means they’re at risk of not lasting as long as vehicles from other carmakers.
More importantly, those vehicles don’t have a clean, green supply chain. Around the world, mining companies are salivating at the opportunity presented by a shift to battery-powered vehicles because they’re so much more mineral-intensive than the ones we drive today. International Energy Agency predicts that demand for battery minerals will increase by 2040. They expect cobalt to rise up to 2100 percent and lithium to grow at 4200 percent, respectively.
This extraction has serious impacts on local communities and the environment. Tesla was named by a suit in 2019, involving the deaths of two children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had been mining cobalt at Glencore’s mining sites. Musk continued to work with Glencore, even though he spoke of the benefits of using cobalt-free battery technology. In 2020, Musk will supply his factories in Shanghai (Berlin) and Shanghai. While the suit was settled in November 2021 by Musk, an inquiry from Global Witness discovered that Tesla could be among several companies who were receiving minerals from DRC-mines that used child laborers.
It may be easy to overlook consequences that exist at the other end of Tesla’s supply chain, but these problems extend deep into the heart of its manufacturing operation. Black workers dubbed the company’s Fremont factory “the plantation” after being subject to racist abuse and a number of women described sexual harassment at the facility as “nightmarish.” Meanwhile, workers at the Nevada Gigafactory are suing after a mass firing of over 500 people, following reports that Musk praised workers in Tesla’s Shanghai factory for “burning the 3 am oil” by working 12-hour shifts and six-day weeks while sleeping on the factory floor.
To top it off, Tesla’s customers are also being put in harm’s way. While the Autopilot feature is supposedly autonomous, Tesla vehicles have crashed into vehicles on highway medians and emergency vehicles. Musk continues to mislead the public about the safety and capability of the system, while the U.S. traffic safety regulator prepares for the recall of hundreds of thousands more vehicles. Tesla is only one example.
Elon Musk is the king of how we see the future. Will his visions make it better for everyone? For all the tech industry’s talk of “disruption,” keeping us all trapped in cars for decades into the future by equipping them with batteries or upgraded computers doesn’t feel like much of a revolution.
A much more sustainable alternative to mass ownership of electric vehicles is to get people out of cars altogether—that entails making serious investments to create more reliable public transit networks, building out cycling infrastructure so people can safely ride a bike, and revitalizing the rail network after decades of underinvestment. Musk continues to try and block such alternative investments.
The Boring Company has a track record of presenting false solutions to problems caused by our dependence on cars. This thwarts efforts to provide people with other alternatives. Not to become a Las Vegas amusement park, The Boring Company was meant to fix traffic. As I’ve written in my book, Musk admitted to his biographer Ashlee Vance that Hyperloop was all about trying to get legislators to cancel plans for high-speed rail in California—even though he had no plans to build it.
Several years ago, Musk said that public transit was “a pain in the ass” where you were surrounded by strangers, including possible serial killers, to justify his opposition. But the futures sold to us by Musk and many others in Silicon Valley didn’t just suit their personal preferences. They were designed to meet business needs, and were the cause of just as many problems as they claimed to solve—if not more.
Musk is setting our collective sights at Mars. A town and wildlife reserve in South Texas are being sacrificed for his own personal ambitions. SpaceX fired several employees for writing an open letter to its controversial CEO asking them to stand by it. Astronomers, Indigenous groups and others have voiced concern over Starlink’s impact on the night sky. Meanwhile, scientists will tell you living on Mars won’t be an easy task. Musk purposely obscures those problems in pursuit of his goals.
Find new inspiration
In crafting his future visions, Musk draws on the libertarian tendencies of Robert Heinlein and a technocratic longtermism inspired by Isaac Asimov’s FoundationThe series is not to be missed the dream of Wernher von Brann, Nazi-turned NASA rocket engineer. Future visions cribbed from the pages of science fiction—often of the dystopian variety—and reshaped to fit the desires of the richest man in the world don’t serve the broader public. There are many other writers who offer different solutions to questions about technology and the future.
In 1985, Ursula K. Le Guin took aim at this “imperialistic kind” of science fiction that inspires Musk, in which “space and the future are synonymous: they are a place we are going to get to, invade, colonize, exploit, and suburbanize.” The renowned novelist explained that science fiction is not actually about the future; it’s about us and our thoughts and our dreams. But when we get confused about that, “we succumb to wishful thinking and escapism, and our science fiction gets megalomania and thinks that instead of being fiction it’s prediction.”
That’s exactly where we find ourselves now: having our future dictated by powerful people who seek to recreate the space colonies or dystopian virtual reality worlds they read about as kids without considering the consequences. Kim Stanley Robinson was the man whose Mars trilogy helped inspire some of the recent interest in colonizing the red planet, has called Musk’s plan “the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard” and one that’s dangerously distracting us from the real problems we face here on Earth.
For Le Guin, part of the problem is how we tell the human story: as one where a singular hero aggressively pushes it toward resolution, whether it’s the hunter with their bow or the Great Man driving society forward. It also infects our conception of technology, positioning it as “a heroic undertaking, Herculean, Promethean, conceived as triumph”—or as a call to “build”—rather than “the active human interface with the material world” and the more mundane technologies we rely on every day.
There is no doubt that people need to consider the future, and how a better world might look. This is especially true when we are facing serious problems like the climate crisis. But we also need to question the idea of “progress” being sold to us and who it ultimately benefits. The tech industry enjoys casting itself as our savior, delivering empowerment and convenience, but along with it has come an unprecedented expansion of surveillance, an erosion of workers’ rights, and the empowerment of white nationalist and fascist groups.
For years, Elon Musk sold us fantasies to distract from the reality of the future he’s trying to build, and to get people to accept his growing belligerence. We don’t need more colonization dreams and technokings right now, we just require a global project that improves the lives of millions of people all over the globe, while also addressing the immediate problems we are facing, regardless of how it makes corporate profits. That’s something Elon Musk can never deliver.
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