Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Alon vs. Elon

Alon Levy is a highly respect transportation blogger currently based in Paris. He's also perhaps the leading debunker of the Hyperloop (or more accurately, the “Hyperloop,” but that's a topic we've probably exhausted). When Brad Plumer writing in the Washington Post declared ‘There is no redeeming feature of the Hyperloop.’, the headline was a quote from Levy.

Recently, Levy took a close look at Musk's Boring Company and found the name remarkably apt. We'd previously expressed skepticism about Musk's claim, but it turns out we were being way too kind.

Levy's takedown is detailed but readable and I highly recommend going through it if you have any interest in what drives infrastructure costs. Rather than try to excerpt some of the more technical passages, I thought I'd stick with the following general but still sharp observation from the post.

Americans hate being behind. The form of right-wing populism that succeeded in the United States made that explicit: Make America Great Again. Culturally, this exists outside populism as well, for example in Gordon Gekko’s greed is good speech, which begins, “America has become a second-rate power.” In the late 2000s, Americans interested in transportation had to embarrassingly admit that public transit was better in Europe and East Asia, especially in its sexiest form, the high-speed trains. Musk came in and offered something Americans craved: an American way to do better, without having to learn anything about what the Europeans and Asians do. Musk himself is from South Africa, but Americans have always been more tolerant of long-settled immigrants than of foreigners.

In the era of Trump, this kind of nationalism is often characterized as the domain of the uneducated: Trump did the best among non-college-educated whites, and cut into Democratic margins with low-income whites (regardless of education). But software engineers making $120,000 a year in San Francisco or Boston are no less nationalistic – their nationalism just takes a less vulgar form. Among the tech workers themselves, technical discussions are possible; some close-mindedly respond to every criticism with “they also laughed at SpaceX,” others try to engage (e.g. Hyperloop One). But in the tech press, the response is uniformly sycophantic: Musk is a genius, offering salvation to the monolingual American, steeped in the cultural idea of the outside inventor who doesn’t need to know anything about existing technology and can substitute personal intelligence and bravery.

In reality, The Boring Company offers nothing of this sort. It is in the awkward position of being both wrong and unoriginal: unoriginal because its mission of reducing construction costs from American levels has already been achieved, and wrong because its own ideas of how to do so range from trivial to counterproductive. It has good marketing, buoyed by the tech world’s desire to believe that its internal methods and culture can solve every problem, but it has no product to speak of. What it’s selling is not just wrong, but boringly so, without any potential for salvaging its ideas for something more useful.

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