Elon Musk has become a household name synonymous with cutting-edge engineering, brilliant entrepreneurship and acid-induced tweets.
The South African-born tech baron has carved out a niche in futuristic solutions to the world’s biggest problems, from electric cars, to subterranean transportation to revolutionary rockets. However, Musk, along with other Silicon Valley leaders like him, has recently come under fire from the public.
Musk rose to prominence in the 2010s, gaining an international fan club — comprised primarily of young men — who saw him as a role model.
His meteoric rise has been dampened in recent days — a disturbing article by his ex-wife and a concerning Medium post by a Tesla employee have contributed to the growing number of people who just don’t like the guy or much of what he represents.
And yet, Musk maintains an avid following. What makes him so appealing to our generation?
The cultural phenomenon of Musk speaks to deep changes within modern tech entrepreneurship. Gone are the days when scientists and engineers sat in isolated laboratories, eschewing human interaction for equations and computers. Soft skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership are now regularly emphasized in STEMM curriculum in a valiant attempt to groom well-spoken, business-savvy industry professionals.
Unfortunately, these curricula gloss over some pretty important details, including in-depth ethical analysis, the importance of social justice, or you know, how to be a respectful and humble person. Rather than the field of socially aware, ethical scientists and engineers for which we hoped, we’ve created egotistical, greedy tech bros whose idea of leadership and teamwork is condescension and ladder-climbing.
Musk, who presents himself with the easy arrogance of a man who has always believed that he’s destined for greatness, is a microcosm of this attitude. He’s a product of his wealthy family’s Apartheid-era privilege and the male-dominated culture of engineering and business.
No wonder he has a cult following; an entire generation of young men see Musk as what they could become, as what they are entitled to become. Think Tony Stark, but without any of the introspection that made him into a well-meaning superhero — a smart, rich, average-looking white guy, galactically arrogant, with the sleaziest savior complex the world has seen in a while.
This breeds a theme in the cutthroat arena of Silicon Valley’s start-up scene: creative young capitalists, intent on coming up with the next billion-dollar idea, pay little heed to the impacts their burgeoning companies have on communities, employees or natural resources.
Take, for instance, Musk’s latest project, an enormous satellite constellation called Starlink. While the goal of the project is to provide worldwide internet access, the satellites have the potential to ruin our view of the night sky forever.
It’s classic capitalism: Wrap a profitable scheme in flashy packaging, ignore the ramifications and walk away with millions.
Don’t get me wrong. I love commercial space ventures as much as the next aerospace engineer, but Musk and his fanboys ignore the idea that privatization doesn’t have to mean exploitation.
These up-and-coming firms brand themselves as out-of-the-box thinkers solving serious worldwide issues with the power of innovative technology, and some of them genuinely are what they claim to be. More often, though, we see ethically dubious enterprises that feel as though they belong in a technocratic cyberpunk society from an episode of Black Mirror.
Let’s think about this in the context of SpaceX, arguably Musk’s most high-profile — and certainly most profitable — venture. Musk thinks that at some point, humanity is going to be forced to either colonize Mars or go extinct. He has also stated that he plans to charge $200,000 per ticket in the event of a mass exodus to our favorite neighboring planet.
Even assuming that Musk builds in subsidies, he and his board of directors would effectively decide who gets to leave the dying Earth and who would have to suffer here with limited resources and infrastructure. Of course, this would be the global poor and people of color. Doesn’t this sound like the premise of "Elysium," that Matt Damon movie from 2013? I thought so too.
As for his less dystopian-sounding ideas, Musk has always preferred elaborate hypothetical plans to direct action. Promises go unfulfilled or are approached half-heartedly, leaving communities and investors back at square one or worse off than before.
Musk, with Trump-esque bravado, has made a habit of announcing grandiose projects on Twitter, including an idea to cover Puerto Rico in solar panels, a submarine rescue mission, and a promise to dramatically increase the number of Superchargers for his Tesla cars in Europe. None of these materialized quite as he hoped.
Maybe these projects were well-intentioned, and it’s not uncommon for engineers to discover partway through design that the project isn’t going to work. But let’s get something straight — it’s unethical to use aiding an island in the midst of a humanitarian crisis as a public relations stunt, only to abandon it once people stop paying attention.
Similarly, it’s arrogant to get in the way of rescue officers and frightened families to propose a half-baked solution to a life-or-death situation. Grandstanding good intentions are never enough.
The tech moguls of Silicon Valley need to understand the value of following through, rather than playing hero from their cozy California offices.
I’m not saying Musk is evil. There’s no doubt that the man is a visionary; PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX have been groundbreaking, transformative and a benefit to our way of life. His philanthropic efforts include multiple worthy causes, from the Future of Life Institute to relief for the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.
But ethical analysis isn’t based on a system of debits and credits, and Musk’s positive actions don’t outweigh his negative impacts on the culture and ethics of engineering and business.
In an age of corporate greed run rampant, don't be blinded by Musk and his starry vision of the future. He's not our savior, he's a businessman selling a capitalist narrative that will harm more than it helps.
Sandhya Ravikumar is a Sophomore from Lawrence majoring in engineering physics.