Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Merry Muskmas to all

[I've been going back and forth as to whether or not some of this is meant to be read as parody. If I missed some subtle wink from the author of the piece, pointed out in the comment section I will amend this post.]

I've been on the Elon Musk beat for quite a while now, and I thought I had a pretty good idea where the upper bound was for hype and journalistic credulity, but this Rolling Stone cover story by Neil Strauss really does set a new standard.

Musk will likely be remembered as one of the most seminal figures of this millennium. Kids on all the terraformed planets of the universe will look forward to Musk Day, when they get the day off to commemorate the birth of the Earthling who single-handedly ushered in the era of space colonization.
“Musk is a titan, a visionary, a human-size lever pushing forward massive historical inevitabilities – the kind of person who comes around only a few times in a century”

And that's pretty much the level of critical scrutiny you can expect from the entire piece.  It's not just the lack of skepticism – – we've seen plenty of that – – but the obliviousness to the need for skepticism.  Up until now, most reporters for major publications have at least acknowledged that some level of skepticism would have been appropriate. True, many of the disclaimers are little more than lip service, but the journalist on those stories understood that they should do at least the bare minimum.

Strauss is the first writer I can think of who addresses proposals like the Hyperloop completely without any mention of its critics and the serious questions about its viability.

The article even has a photo caption that reads 'Inspecting the Hyperloop, which will transport people from city to city in record time.' Not "may" or even "will probably," but "will" despite a widely held consensus among transportation and infrastructure experts that this is unlikely to be viable as anything more than a glorified amusement park ride in the foreseeable future.

We may come back to this article. There's a great deal of unintentional journalism here, insights into Musk's real and extraordinary gifts for motivation and promotion, talents that have led to some truly amazing accomplishments. There is also an interesting cautionary tale in the way Strauss lets his subject steer the narrative away from these genuinely important and impressive points and toward unquestioning acceptance of a self mythologizing narrative.

For now, though, I'm just going to let it stand with this. Frankly, reading a puff peace this inflated takes a lot out of me.


  1. Mark:

    If you look up the author, Neil Strauss, in Wikipedia, you'll see that he has an interesting history. I'm not sure how that links up with the problems with the above-linked article, but who knows. Or it could just be as simple as that Strauss decided that a pure puff piece would give him access to write a future Musk bio.

    1. I saw the Wiki piece. I've gotten in the habit of checking out reporters' backgrounds whenever I see a really bad piece of journalism.

      In Strauss's case, the fact his profile actually lists 'ghostwriter' supports your thesis.

  2. Mark:

    Here's another angle on the whole Musk hype thing. Consider all the journalists and commentators out there who are not in the pay of Musk and do not harbor ambitions to write a book about the guy. Why don't they go mock Neil Strauss for this article?

    One reason, perhaps, is a mixture of vague hope of Musk dollars, mixed with vague fear of Musk dollars. Even if you're not directly planning to get any Musk funding, and even if you're not directly afraid that Musk would personally retaliate against you if you criticize him, still, it might seem "better safe than sorry" to just not bother to publicize any negative views you might have, regarding the Musk phenomenon. Not that Musk would pull a Peter Thiel and try to put you out of business---but what's the point of tempting fate?

    In addition to all that, you might feel that Musk is on the side of good. If you're politically conservative, Musk represents all the good things of self-made businessmen; if you're politically liberal, Musk represents a socially-conscious, zero-emissions future; or you just might think Musk is cool. So, sure, there's some hype, you might think, but why go after Musk, who is such a force for good?

    Is it good for Musk to have all this barely-contested hype? It's hard to say. It's got to be a loss to be able to dodge serious criticism---after all, the laws of physics will not be as gentle as the NY and LA press. On the other hand, it could be that all the hype could allow Musk to say afloat financially long enough for him to achieve whatever goals he has that are technically possible.

    My point here is to go one step "meta" on your discussion, and ask, not just why is this journalist shilling for Musk, but also why are all the other journalists, bloggers, etc., not blowing this particular gaff?

    A similar question could be asked about pro-Soviet hype in the 1960s, for example this notorious graph from Paul Samuelson's famous textbook. We can ask not just, How did Samuelson get it so wrong?, but also, why did other members of the economics profession not criticize Samuelson more for this mistake? In this case, I doubt it was fear of the Russians, but it might well have been a mixture of (a) not wanting to slam Samuelson, who was, it seems, nearly universally beloved by his colleagues, (b) not wanting to reduce the credibility of economics more generally by pointing out an embarrassing flaw in the most famous textbook in the field, (c) not wanting to draw attention to leftist sympathies in academia, and (d) not wanting to draw attention to the economic failings of socialism. Items (c) and (d) are hardly secrets; still, maybe people felt no need to gratuitously remind people.