Thursday, August 30, 2018

Back on the Musk beat -- actually, the Augean stables part is rather apt

One of the perks of following the recent news around Elon Musk and Tesla motors is the opportunity to observe in detail the performance of a narrative when stressed to the breaking point. We see the limits of its tensile strength, learn to spot the signs of strain.

Of particular interest is the way journalists react to those signs while trying to maintain the basic integrity of the narrative. This entails a strategic retreat on some points, sidestepping others, and holding firm, even doubling down, on the rest.

Take this Wired article by Alex Davies provocatively entitled "Elon Musk Is Broken, and We Have Broken Him." With the important caveat that some of this may be tongue-in-cheek (there are certainly touches of snark which suggests at least the possibility of more subtle sarcasm), here are some illustrative points.

Conceding the obvious first

On the surface, the implication—nobody else can do this—is nonsense. Lots of people could run Tesla. Starting with the hundreds of capable executives at the world’s automakers, most of which are larger, more efficient, and more profitable than Tesla.

Even here you have some hedging bordering on distortion. The phrase "more profitable"  in particular is pushing things quite a bit. This is true in the mathematical sense – – a positive number is always greater than a negative number – – but it arguably leaves the impression that Tesla is profitable rather than a money losing concern. The real pivot, though, follows in the second half of the paragraph where we it the inevitable mythic aspect of the story.

Go a bit deeper though, and you find the truth of the sentiment. Sure, someone might be a better CEO. But there’s no replacing Elon Musk. Because the man is not just a CEO. To many, the man is a legend.

As long time readers have already guessed, we are about to enter the realm of magical heuristics, sorcery and myth dressed up as business plans and technology. Before we get the good stuff, however, there are some important facts that have to be downplayed.

We get an account of the development of electric vehicles that dismisses everything that came before Tesla as "golf carts." No mention is made of the numerous predecessors or the other companies that were developing competing products in 2003 such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt (and before any hands go up, a plug-in hybrid is an electric car with a backup power system). Likewise, TRW fails to make an appearance in the account of the birth of SpaceX. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole piece is this "he wished a hyperloop industry into creation" which manages to combine the heuristic of will (bringing things into existence through focus and faith) with the phrase in "hyperloop industry."

For those who haven't been following the story, there is no Hyperloop industry because there is no hyperloop, and with the possible exception of a glorified amusement park ride in some place like Dubai, there probably never will be. The near universal consensus among independent experts is that the plan is nowhere near viable. At best the companies pursuing this technology are tragically overoptimistic; at worst, it is an enormous scam that is fleecing hundreds of millions of dollars from gullible investors and quite possibly taxpayers in the near future.

Regular readers will also know that we have an ongoing thread at the blog collecting examples of business and technology writing that implicitly and sometimes explicitly owes more to folklore than to what we would normally consider journalism. This article presents a particularly rich vein in this area, having Musk play multiple mythic or archetypal roles ranging from Fisher King to Icarus to questing demigod (actually, I'm not too sure about the first one. It's been decades hence I read any Joseph Campbell and I have a feeling that I've conflated the Arthurian figure with someone else. There's no doubt about the demigod part, however).
Musk, then, is Hercules remixed. The greatest of Greek heroes performed his famed labors as penance for killing his children in a fit of insanity. Musk has completed his own labors, landing rockets on boats and delivering a wonderful, affordable, electric car. But the effort seems to have left him mad. And now he threatens to destroy what he has created.

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