Monday, August 20, 2018

A few points to remember about the recent (ongoing?) Meltdown of Elon Musk.

[If you haven't been keeping up with the story, here's a good write-up from the superior Times.]

1. First off, we all know that this story about spending every waking hour focusing on Tesla production problems is bullshit on any number of levels but most obviously based on the fixed upper bound of hours in a day. Musk leads a very public life, and even limiting ourselves to that public record, we know that he finds lots of time to support a multi-hour-a-day social media habit, hang out with his popstar girlfriend, play around with miniature flamethrowers and other toys, confidently make dubious proposals involving Hyperloops and tunneling machines and squeeze in a profoundly embarrassing trip to Thailand.

1a. As always, it is important to remember that Elon Musk has a long history of making questionable claims of extraordinary personal accomplishment. From reading the entire encyclopedia as a child to studying martial arts and taking out the school bully with a single punch to spending a month subsisting on hotdogs and oranges to test his self-discipline and ability to live frugally. These stories are difficult to believe individually; taken together, they strain credulity. Despite this, reporters routinely write "Elon Musk did – –" instead of "Elon Musk said he did – –".

1b. Also important to note that, like many conmen and manipulative people, Musk often relies on appeals for sympathy and personal "revelations" to win over listeners and breakdowns skepticism. This is particularly on display in the infamous Rolling Stone cover story.

1c. None of this is all that important for the state of Tesla, but it tells us a great deal about the state of 21st century journalism.

2. Even if the every-waking-hour story were true, it would hardly be addressing the real problems the company is having. Musk has no relevant experience in the field of auto production and he is, as previously mentioned, a terrible engineer. Even as a way of motivating the troops (an area where Musk has shown a natural gift) this is probably a waste of time thanks to his increasingly toxic relationship with Tesla workers. If he actually wanted to solve this problem, rather than pitching a tent on the production line floor, he would be on a plane trying to poach top talent from other companies.

3. The story does, however, make sense when viewed through a framework of magical heuristics. Keep in mind that one of the primary heuristics, especially when dealing with Musk, is the belief that certain chosen ones have the ability to will things into existence. Though this is always couched in the language of science and business, the real precedents are Merlin conjuring a dragon or Yoda levitating a spacecraft. Closely related to this is the heuristic of destiny. Instead of Merlin and Yoda, think Arthur or Harry Potter or perhaps even a more explicitly messianic figure. Musk repeatedly says that, though his burdens are great, he accepts them because there is no one else who can take them from him.

Keeping things in perspective. This interview will not decide Elon Musk's role in Tesla (his tweet about taking the company private might, but that's a topic for another post). The survival of Tesla will not determine the fate of electric vehicles. And while they have an important part to play, electric vehicles will not be the most important factor in the futures of either transportation or climate change. This isn't that big of a story.

It is, however, an instructive one. We live in an age when massive rivers of money are diverted based on hype, credulous journalists and investors, and folklore passing itself off as business plans. The results were never going to be pretty.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant, but then this yours is a country that elects faux cowboys, imagined messiahs, and bogus Dealmeisters (just one so far) to the highest office in your country with dismal results for the rest of the world. Sad!