The Elon Musk Fiction: How Myths Paralyze Progress
By Exiled Consensus
13 - 16 minutes
If only the obsession and worship of Elon Musk were an energy source. We would have finally addressed our fast approaching energy deficits; albeit with an extremely toxic fuel. Hyperbolic tales of genius, ingenuity and exploit run right through the American landscape like public transportation never did. As Kurt Andersen writes in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, “Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.” The deification of Musk is a testament to the efficacy of propaganda agencies; or more politely, public relations.
A large part of Musk’s storytelling is centered around Tesla Motors, and the company’s mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” To evaluate whether the company is true to this goal requires dissecting Musk’s claims, superficial metrics like vehicle count, the economic system under which the company operates, and the support provided by public relations to obfuscate elementary facts. A potent cocktail of fabricated dreams, tailored business metrics, auxiliary projects and technobabble from Musk is the adrenaline to this exploit. Tragically, the same cocktail is lethal for efforts required to truly achieve the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Ostensibly, the confluence of electric vehicle manufacturing, solar roofs (a 30-year old concept), vacuum trains (a century old concept) and underground tunnels that increase traversable vehicle space can spin a warm cocoon of assurance. It can also spin hurricanes of excitement over the indiscriminate and thoughtless use of our technical capabilities. As an example, let us consider vehicle manufacturing.
Despite operating a gargantuan cash-incinerating machine, Tesla Motors has enjoyed remarkable investor support in the public markets. Broadly, this support is based on an expectation of utter market dominance by Tesla in the electric vehicle age. Tesla is required to scale its manufacturing operations to cover various automobile segments. As Musk described in his July 2016 revamped company mission statement, “Today, Tesla addresses two relatively small segments of premium sedans and SUVs. With the Model 3, a future compact SUV and a new kind of pickup truck, we plan to address most of the consumer market.”
I have already covered the fallacy of targetting systemic problems with only superficial technology solutions. Tesla Motors’ vehicle manufacturing operations stem directly from Musk’s decisions — from the design cues and functionality of vehicles, to production targets. Hence, these core operations must be evaluated through Musk’s estimates and executive decisions in auto manufacturing. Unfortunately, the record here is extremely bleak, and actually detracts from the goal of “accelerating the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” For instance, unnecessarily powerful powertrains that put out blistering 0–60 mph times do not advance the efficient use of energy. Overly complicated falcon-wing doors on the Model X only increase design, manufacturing and service energy and resource consumption, dragging production processes closer to unnecessary complexity and further away from efficiency. Skipping beta production only ensures poor quality and higher parts turnover, resulting in inefficiencies during the lifetime of the vehicle. Finally, how the second Roadster advances sustainable transport is enigmatic at best, fraudulent at worst.
Musk’s tech-savior propaganda complex prohibits even the consideration of such bothersome facts. Indeed, even questioning the logic earns you an accusation of “doing the work of the devil.” An egocentric project disguised as a noble cause, Tesla Motors peddles a vision of green highways carpeting the country, as if the vehicles themselves somehow generate pristine ecologies, occluding the effects of rogue and unchecked industrial metastasis on the environment.
As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Strictly tied to market capitalization and revenue goals only, Musk’s compensation assures rank disregard for ecological sustainability and waste management, with restrained and tactical deployment of resources to develop well-built vehicles; rather, it guarantees, evidently, a maniacal charge towards meeting token production targets, leaving a trail of waste and destruction in its wake, as its factories continue to defy industry standards of scrap and rework rates. Each supposedly green vehicle is produced at a high environmental cost, not including the lifetime cost of constant service and repairs that must be conducted for designing and manufacturing low-quality vehicles in the first place. Combine this with a wealth-extractive subsidy structure for Tesla vehicles that siphons funds from the taxpayer to already concentrated wealth, and you have few better examples of capitalism than Tesla Motors.
It may help to peer into Musk’s mind to follow his actions. However, grasping the sheer brilliance of such a once-in-a-generation mind is not a task for lesser men and women. It is perhaps best to allow such a mind to express its own genius. Below are a few examples.
When discussing CapEx and manufacturing speed during the Q3 2017 conference call, Musk solemnly opined, “If you can see the robot move, it’s too slow. We should be caring about air friction, like things moving so fast. You should need a strobe light to see it. Um, and, that’s incredibly critical to CapEx efficiency.”
To be concerned with air friction as manufacturing robots move is asinine. To think a strobe light would be required to see them is D.C Comics level of thinking. Not for mere mortals.
Another nugget of genius was fried during his email conversations with WSJ. As reported by the WSJ,
Mr. Musk said his actions and rapid decision-making can be misunderstood as erratic behavior. “It is better to make many decisions per unit time with a slightly higher error rate, than few with a slightly lower error rate,” he said last weekend in a series of emails with The Wall Street Journal, “because obviously one of your future right decisions can be to reverse an earlier wrong one, provided the earlier one was not catastrophic, which they rarely are.”
Because catastrophes reveal themselves right away for your convenience. The unfortunate part is that these ‘insights’ are plastered on t-shirts, tech conferences and LinkedIn memes as examples of otherworldly cognitive capabilities. Absolutely nothing is being said here.
Then there was the time when Musk called himself a socialist. “By the way, I am actually a socialist. Just not the kind that shifts resources from most productive to least productive, pretending to do good, while actually causing harm. True socialism seeks greatest good for all.”
This statement does not even rise to the level of being wrong. It has the dubious honor of being not-even-wrong. For context, the NLRB has alleged Musk of coercing Tesla workers against forming a union and he has openly implied that there would be consequences to doing so.
In the middle of the aforementioned self-inflicted going-private turmoil, Musk decided to shirk responsibility by giving a tearful interview to the NYT. (Side note: Always concerned with accurate and important information, Musk now clarifies that there were no tears.)
Musk details spending nights at the Tesla factory and almost missing his brother’s wedding, after which he went straight back to the deepest pits of manufacturing hell; a claim that has since been falsified. NYT continued its reporting, “But while Mr. Musk is clearly working hard, his recounting paints an incomplete picture of his travels. He was away for five days during his trip to Spain, and on the way back, he stopped with his children in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to tour the Game of Thrones set.”
One would think geniuses have sharper memories.
Speaking of exhausting work, a recent Reveal report showed how Tesla left worker injuries off the books and created a hazardous work environment by removing yellow hazard signs and loud forklift beeps that are commonly used as safety measures in factories. Such measures were removed as Musk disliked them, because of reasons. The report continues on to detail various chronic worker injuries. Yet, the lively discussions generated by Musk’s emotional NYT interview, depicting the 54th wealthiest person in the world putting in long hours without bodily harm, easily eclipsed discussions around worker injuries. Again, for context, this during a time when more Americans are working multiple jobs simply to make ends meet.
A cult of personality does not serve well when confronted with the immense problems of climate breakdown and ecological disaster. Consumer virtue-signaling, where fans aimlessly hoard one of each type of car the company builds, only boosts the problem of thoughtless and renegade resource and energy consumption to meet arbitrary production numbers. In addition, space-age storytelling reduces the challenge of developing a sustainable economy to an act of posting record-breaking 0–60 mph times, an antithesis of economical use of energy.
Electric propulsion certainly needs to be a key piece of our transportation system. In 2014, Stanford University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Mark Jacobson and his team developed and released a 50-state strategy to move the U.S to renewable energy. One of the key areas that the report looks at is the reduction or elimination of extraneous use that can be substituted with other systems. These substitutions must be developed by resourceful, tactical, calculative and often tedious urban planning and energy management techniques. It is not sexy. It is not supposed to be. In Dec 2017, international public transit planning and policy consultant Jarrett Walker eviscerated Musk’s rush to continuously increase space for cars by digging tunnels, and his repulsion to public transit, which must form the core of urban mobility. Unfortunately, ideologies surrounding tech-saviors detract from committing funds and resources to true solutions; instead generating consensus for allowing Musk to develop his own Legoland in any area he pleases. When consensus is absent, sending employees to sell the idea seems to be a new tactic, as evidenced by the recent astroturfing during a public town hall in L.A to discuss the merits and demerits of Musk’s proposed tunnel to only deal with game-day traffic at Dodgers stadium. As one attendee described, “I thought it sounded kind of silly before, but now I’m convinced it’s ridiculous. The desperate attempts to show how it’s going to help people in Los Angeles are kind of transparent. It has such a narrow scope and use.” Trivializing public transportation when hawking cars is not a new or even an unpredictable mental gymnastics maneuver. Hence, the number of cars worldwide is set to double by 2040. In this sense, Musk wants to hammer nails only by making more nails.
In addition to discussing the importance of correctly wielding our technical capabilities communally, I have also covered the need to include workers in decision-making through cooperatives, instead of concentrating all control in the paws of a tiger without his stripes. In addition, factory councils, engineering/worker representation on the board, and pulling improvement from workers as Toyota has also shown are all approaches that would produce a better company and more equitable decision-making. However, this draws attention away from the unstriped tiger and punctures the story of his genius and seemingly solo accomplishments; an unacceptable outcome. Perhaps these are the “responsible men” that James Madison referenced during the Constitutional Debates, or the “intelligent minority” that Edward Bernays was praising in Propaganda. Abstracted out from this worship is the collective efforts of the engineers, planners, technicians, software developers, supply chain managers and countless other individuals who turn raw material into finished product, often despite unstriped tigers, not because of them. It is only when our obsession with mythical figures ends, and we begin to apply ourselves to much bigger predicaments than Musk vs. Jobs, will we begin to approach and implement sustainable and technically sound solutions required to continue organized existence on the planet. Responding to questions about his decision to declutter his factory after fanatically stuffing it with excessive and unnecessary robots, Musk offered another insight from his perceptive calculus, “Humans are underrated.” It would seem some among us do not hold that distinction. Some are wildly overrated.
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