I was reading an old story of mine, about the time I lived in Romania, in 2007-2008. While I was there I went on a trip with a couple of friends, to the Danube delta on the Black Sea, a region called Dobrogea. At some point we drove passed an abandoned factory. One of my friends said that it had been Romania’s only silicone factory during the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, the country’s second, and last, communist dictator.
He added that the silicone produced was three times more expensive than what you could buy on the world market at the time, but that this didn’t matter according to Ceausescu, “because it is our silicone, Romania’s silicone.” Something flashed through my mind in that instant. I realized that what Ceausescu meant was that it was his silicone. It was part of his madness that he conflated his own desires with that of the country: that in his own head he was Romania.
Ceausescu was always mixing up his own beliefs and opinions with what the country needed, and turning this into policy. So Romania’s covered in forests, but they’re not old forests, they’re new. The forests were ordered by Ceausescu so that wild animals could roam, but this wasn’t because he was a conservationist. He was a hunter. Other people weren’t allowed to hunt, only Ceausescu. Sometimes he liked to use a machine gun to kill his prey, having trapped the animals in a fenced-off arena. Then he’d fire his gun from a concrete bunker. He wasn’t even taking a risk. That was the extent of his vanity. He’d love to see the trophy bodies piled up as a testament to his prowess.
Another major indulgence was the Romanian parliament, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. It’s about the size of a small city. When you first catch sight of it in the distance it doesn’t appear so big. It’s only as you approach it over several miles, and it doesn’t seem to get any larger, that you realize just how far away it is, and how huge. As I described it in my story: it’s “a great, sprawling, Gothic-Communist wedding cake.” He flattened the entire city center and made half of Bucharest homeless to build it, unleashing packs of wild dogs into the city as the newly-made homeless people had to get rid of their pets. I wrote: “It is a stupendously ugly building and an act of vanity on a terrifying scale.”
Such is the nature of communist dictatorships. Even a relatively benign one will be stamped with the dictator’s predilections. This is also true of the current rulership of the world: not by communist dictators in this case, but by tech-barons such as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. I’ve been watching the BBC TV series The Elon Musk Show. That’s a good title. There's something theatrical about the man. Musk loves the limelight. He loves the attention. He’s always posing in front of the cameras, or appearing on YouTube channels such as the Joe Rogan Experience. It’s from platforms such as these that he lays out his vision of the future.
The difference between Ceausescu and Musk is that the former was a tin-pot dictator of a small, backwards nation on the shores of the Black Sea, powerless beyond the borders of his own country, while Musk pretty much rules the world. His only rivals are the other tech-giants who, while they might not share his vision exactly, share his power to impose their beliefs on the future of society.
We’re moving into a new world, what Yanis Varoufakis refers to as techno-feudalism. It’s a system in which a very few men (they are usually men) hold absolute power within their vast private realms. Even nation states are unable to hold them back as the corporations they control are transnational in scale. They’re digitally-based, which means that money can be almost instantaneously shifted from one state to another. A business operating in one country may have its headquarters somewhere else. Money to buy goods in one country is paid into a bank account in another, where the tax system is more generous to the corporations’ interests. Nation states have become vassals to the private power of a few, extremely wealthy individuals. The billionaires are taking over.
The BBC is suitably hagiographic about Musk. He’s “the richest man who has ever lived,” they say. The word “genius” is bandied around a lot, most often by his mother. One interviewee describes him as greater than Einstein. Another likens him to God when he remarks, “he works in mysterious ways that guy.” Joe Rogan calls him “The Dude”: like that, with capital letters. You can hear the capital letters in the tone of his voice as he addresses his guest. He means that Musk is the most important man alive.
He may be right. As the BBC says in its introduction: “No one on Earth is doing more to change the world.” He’s creating a chip that can be put into our brains. He plans to extend life beyond the Earth, to make human civilization multi-planetary. He’s building a rocket that can take 100 people at a time to Mars, plus all of the equipment they will need. He’s making bore-machines so they can build underground colonies when they get there. As a child, his mother tells us, he used to stay awake all night reading science fiction books. It’s a science-fiction future he’s trying to create, the one originally envisioned by Robert A. Heinlien, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and the like.
This would be okay if he really knew what he was doing, but it’s fairly obvious that he doesn’t. For example, when he was setting up Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) he relocated the construction facilities to Kwajalein, a small island in the Pacific. There was no power, no water, no plumbing. Everything had to be transported from the United States’ mainland.
“The logistics were terrible. Trying to get liquid oxygen there, in the tropics, was quite a feat.” So says Thomas Mueller, a rocket propulsion engineer who was one of the original people signed up to the enterprise by Musk.
They had one year to make the first privately-built rocket to achieve orbit, on the back of a windfall profit that Musk had made from the sale of PayPal. The first rocket, Falcon 1, lasted 28 seconds after launch before it plunged back to earth. Angry at the failure Musk blamed one of the young rocket engineers, denouncing him to the press. It wasn’t really his fault. The salt sea spray had caused corrosion of the aluminium components. It was Musk’s fault for choosing to build the rocket in such an exposed position. Despite the post-mortem showing where the problem lay, Musk refused to back down.
“It was humid. My body wasn’t really made for that. It was work, and then work, and maybe work,” says Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President of Flight Reliability for SpaceX until his retirement in 2021. “Everything was driven by schedule. That was brutal.”
This shows us Musk's fallibility and monomania. Do we want to hand over our collective future to a man who seems to care so little about other human beings? How he treats his staff is an indication of how he’d treat the rest of us if his power was ever extended beyond the companies he owns. He expects everyone to be as committed as he is. He expects everyone to give everything. Failure to be 100 percent dedicated to “the mission.” as he sees it, leads to dismissal. As one of the interviewees observed: “I noticed that if somebody was negative they weren’t in the next meeting.”
It took four attempts before SpaceX reached its goal of putting a spacecraft into orbit. After that, in December 2008, NASA awarded the company its first Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, worth $1.6 billion. This saved the company and set Musk up on the way to his fortune. NASA is a government-funded agency. Musk’s company is entirely dependent on government largesse for its success. Musk is creating the future, but he’s doing so at the taxpayer’s expense.
In 2004 Musk took a $6.5 million stake in a small electric car company, Tesla Inc, becoming it’s largest investor and, eventually, its CEO. This is another of Musk’s “missions”: to transform the world’s transport system, to get rid of petrol cars and to replace them with electric-powered vehicles. This is laudable but the way he’s gone about it also displays a certain myopia.
There’s a form of cognitive bias called the Law of the Instrument. It was summarized in 1966 by Abraham Maslow when he wrote, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail." Musk’s bias is that he’s an egotist and sees everything through an egotist’s eyes.
The bias shows up in his choice of vehicles. His first electric car was the Roadster, a sports car based upon the Lotus Elite: a rich man’s car for a wealthy clientele, capable of driving one or two people very fast and little more. It, too, like the Falcon 1 rocket, was dependent on public subsidy in several nations where it qualified for government incentives. The idea that these innovations are the sole responsibility of a single individual genius is false. Not only is Musk dependent on government handouts, he also utilizes the existing infrastructure and educational capabilities of whatever country he’s working in to further his aims. Without an educated workforce he’d be unable to complete his mission. Without public road and rail networks throughout the world he’d be unable to move his goods around to bring them to market.
And what about public transport? We don’t need more and more electric cars on our roads, dependent on lithium-ion batteries, which bring their own problems. We need people to get out of their cars and onto public transport. We don’t need self-driving cars on dedicated roads, each driver sitting in his own self-contained pod, we need a cheap and reliable railway system which can transport hundreds of people in comfort with a single driver.
We also don’t need to go to Mars to save the human race: we need to fix the Earth. We’re handing over our future to the biases and false reasoning of a few, very powerful, egotistical individuals, none of whom have humanity’s interests at heart.