The Fake Futurism of Elon Musk

Hello Earth! This is Captain Tom Nicholas
speaking to you live from SpaceX Mars Colony One, Codename: Eden
(but both the "e"s are spelt with "3"s and the
"n" is inexplicably an exclamation mark. Today marks 365 Earth-days
since the spacecraft Dragon V touched down safely at Eden Interplanetary
Spaceport. And I'm happy to report that everything
has gone according to plan.

The water mines continue to draw ample moisture
from the soil. Food grows and grazes in the
agricultural biomes. And, more importantly than
anything, those who arrived here as refugees
have begun to become citizens. What they left behind on Earth in terms
of creature comforts is more than made up for in their
ability to dream, their newfound capacity to imagine a
future beyond rising sea levels and ecological
collapse. If this colony represents anything, it is
hope. And the ability to once again imagine
a future for humanity. And, wherever you're watching this on
Earth, know that you too can join us.
To live and to dream and to build on that future.
For the low, low price of just two million dollars. Elon Musk is something of a lightning
rod for popular opinion; at least online anyway.

To his supporters,
he's a continual source of inspiration, a real-life Tony Stark; not only is he a
successful entrepreneur but an innovator whose swagger is matched only by his
unending ambition to make-real technologies which
previously were the reserve of science fiction.
To his detractors, he's a point of ridicule;
someone who seeks to take credit for the work of his engineers
and who often proposes solutions to problems
for which better, more workable solutions already exist. A great deal has thus been
written and said about Elon Musk. On this website, for
instance, Oliver Thorne of Philosophy Tube has provided a great examination of
how Musk tries to present himself as a kind of counter-cultural figure,
whilst in truth being pretty much the archetypical capitalist in how he runs
his companies.

In this video, I want to take a different
approach. For, I don't think that those who hang on
Musk's every word have simply been duped; I think that
there are ways in which Musk is fairly distinct from the other entrepreneurial
figures which surround him. And this distinction lies in his
unashamed belief in the future. Tech entrepreneurs in
particular often talk about disruption. They
regularly try to position the various products that they're bringing to the
market as having the potential to completely
change the way we live.

This lofty rhetoric, however, is soon
undercut when it turns out that what they're actually trying to sell us
is a microwave that connects to the internet, or something similarly mundane.
Whatever questions we might raise about Elon Musk's specific
proposals for the future (and I will raise a few towards the end of this
video), they're at least genuinely pretty bold.
One might argue, for instance, that the underground roads that he wants to build
as part of his loop project would likely have less impact on
congestion and on efforts to combat the climate
crisis than simply laying on a few extra buses or metro
trains each hour. Nevertheless, the idea of boring a web of roads under a city is at the very least genuinely ambitious.
While I'll talk a little bit about what I think some of the potential
social, economic and political ramifications
of the individual projects which comprise what I'm going to refer to as
Muskian Futurism are towards the end of this video,
what I want to focus on for the most part is why
Musk's vision resonates with so many people.
If you're a Musk fan yourself, then you'll likely have your own specific
reasons for admiring the man, and I don't want to take those away from
you.

But I do want to ask more broadly what it is about our
contemporary moment (and the recent past) that makes Musk feel,
to many, like such a breath of fresh air. I want to ask what societal desires
Musk's invitations to imagine bold futures
respond to. Frequent viewers of my channel will not be surprised to learn
that doing so is going to involve a bit of a history lesson
and a ramble through changing perceptions of the future
from the early 20th century to the present day.
I hope you'll stick with it though, because understanding
how we got to where we are now, and how people's relationship to the idea of the
future has evolved over time, is, I think,
essential for gaining a fully contextualized understanding of exactly
what Elon Musk is offering us and why our culture has, for the most
part, so enthusiastically embraced his
futuristic dreams.

While many of Elon Musk's ambitious
visions for the future remain at concept stage,
there's one thing for which we have to give him some credit:
the popularization of the electric car. In a 2019 paper summarizing a study into
consumer perceptions of electric vehicles,
Zoe Long et al. wrote that 'several participants explained that Tesla
changed their perceptions that electric cars
are slow, ugly, have limited range, and not fun to drive. Several
participants noted that Tesla is "cool" and that owning one communicates a
symbolic message to others'. As recently as a decade ago, electric
cars were seen as pretty lame. Their quietness and eco-credentials were
the antithesis of the kind of vehicles that were fetishized in the Fast &
Furious franchise or in games such as Gran Turismo, Forza
and Grand Theft Auto. Tesla's interventions in the market,
however, have changed all of this.

Electric cars are now not
only more widely available, they're also seen as pretty cool. Of
course, neither Elon Musk nor Tesla invented the electric vehicle;
their success lies in having changed the popular perception
of an already existing technology. And, in this, Musk has more than a little in
common with the original automobile entrepreneur: Henry Ford.
Similarly to Musk, Henry Ford did not invent the car;
cars had been sold commercially for more than a decade prior to the founding of
the Ford Motor Company in 1903.

Early automobiles, however,
were expensive, hard to come by and often highly unreliable.
It was only with the launch of the Ford Model T in 1908
that the motorcar became the middle class's preferred means of
transportation. The Model T was not only more reliable
but quicker and cheaper to produce, thus meaning that there were more of
them available and that they were cheaper to buy.
While innovations in the internal engineering of the car likely also
played a role, most of this was made possible by the Ford company's
innovations in the process of manufacture.
Ford used machines to ensure consistency across
parts and, rather than having one highly- skilled technician
assemble all the pieces together, broke the assembly process down into individual
tasks which could each be performed by a worker
who only needed to be trained in that specific task.
This method of manufacture would come to be known as the
'Fordist model of production', and would fundamentally alter
how goods were produced to the world over. There are further parallels with
Musk and Tesla in the present day here, too.
Although it's not been entirely without its problems, Musk has sought to automate
as much of the car manufacturing process as possible in order to similarly
'increase manufacturing speed and drive down costs'.
What's more instructive in our attempt to understand the appeal
of Muskian Futurism in the present day than
Ford's technical innovations, however, is the broader cultural
atmosphere of the time in which he was working.

Two years after the Ford Motor Company
began production of the Model T in Detroit, the Italian poet Filippo
Marinetti wrote a short document called The
Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism.
This manifesto, which was shortly published on the front page of the
french newspaper Le Figaro, decried 'futile veneration for the past'
and exhorted the reader to embrace speed, light, creative destruction
and, above all else, the possibilities of the future yet to come.
Marinetti's document set the stage for an artistic and social movement known,
as the title of the manifesto would suggest, as Futurism.
In his desire to break with the past and look excitedly towards the future,
however, Marinetti also ably summed up what we
might call the "spirit of the age".

For, human beings haven't always believed
in the future. Certainly, people have always known that
each day, week, year and decade would be followed by another.
Nevertheless, the future hasn't always been viewed as a realm of possibilities,
and our journey towards it has not always been viewed as a positive.
The Christian faith, for instance, has often seen the passage of time as a
negative, as a progressive journey away from the
innocence of the garden of Eden and the word of God.

Across art,
industry and politics, however, during the early 20th century,
the future came to be celebrated, fetishized even. We can see this in the
economic sphere, with industrialists such as Ford
racing to find ways of making goods cheaper
and of higher quality. We see it in the cultural sphere, too.
Following Marinetti, artists of all forms and disciplines
constantly published manifestos detailing how they would tear up
previous expectations of what art could and should be. We see it in the political
sphere, in which followers of ideologies
including communism, fascism and even the dominant creeds of
liberalism and capitalism dreamt up new ways of structuring
society. Across each of these spheres, we see
attempts to imagine bold futures in which society is almost
unrecognizable from the present. All of this is detailed
in Franco Birardi's 2011 book After The Future, in which he christens
the 20th century 'the century that trusted in the future'.
He writes that 'the 20th century is pervaded
by a religious belief in the future'. This belief was perhaps put under some
strain by the horrific consequences of Fascism in Europe
and of Stalinism in the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless,
after the Second World War, it continued on relatively unabated.
One only has to think of the "space race", at the heart of which was a utopian,
futuristic vision of humanity conquering the stars.
Or, in the UK, Harold Wilson's declaration that the country would
embrace the 'white heat' of technology and undergo a 'scientific revolution'.
If such bold appeals to the future existed throughout the 20th century, then,
why is it that Elon Musk's proposals often feel so unique in the present day?
For, again, whatever we think of his specific proposals,
the unashamed manner in which Musk dares to dream
of a future which is on some level different to the present day
certainly stands out. And this clearly says something
about the way in which the future is viewed elsewhere in our culture
(or at least has been viewed until recently). In order to understand
why Muskian Futurism often seem so unusual in the present,
we therefore need to understand what happened in the interim
between the bold dreaming of the 20th century
and our present situation: what Birardi refers to as
'the slow cancellation of the future'. Starting in the late 1970s and early
1980s, the undying belief in the future which
dominated the 20th century began to steadily decline.

Perhaps this
was the result of sheer exhaustion, perhaps this was a result of the
economic crises which dominated the period.
Either way, we can identify this fading belief in the future as a realm of
possibilities most clearly in the political sphere.
After her election as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979,
Margaret Thatcher soon became associated with the slogan
"There Is No Alternative".

As she, along with Ronald Reagan in the US,
set about transforming society in line with their neoliberal vision,
they pushed hard on the idea that their politics was not just
one of many possible ways of governing and
organizing society, but that this was the only
logical way of doing so. This kind of rhetorical flourish is certainly not
unique to Thatcher, Reagan and other supporters of neoliberal capitalism.
Nevertheless, in this case, it gained significant traction
throughout society. This was compounded in 1989,
when the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union
and, with it, the most prominent example of an alternative to capitalism.
Whatever your views on capitalism, Soviet-style communism or
any ideological formation for that matter, it should be possible to see
that the absence of any actually- existing alternative to the dominant
ideology of a period makes it far harder to imagine society
being structured differently in the future.

Francis Fukuyama famously
declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union signaled
"The End of History". He cited 'the total exhaustion of viable
systematic alternatives to Western liberalism'
as proof that the world had reached 'the end point of mankind's
ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal
democracy as the final form of human government'.
In many ways, then, the end of history also meant the end of the future.

In
contrast to the bold visions of the early 20th century,
the politics of the subsequent decades thus became
increasingly managerial. In the UK, US and elsewhere,
political parties rarely pitched radical proposals for the future
but, instead, merely sought to present themselves as the
least offensive candidates, as reliable administrators of the present.
In his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher explores how this was mirrored in
the cultural output of the era. He points, for example, to a lack of
innovation in popular music, writing that 'it was through the
mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in
the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the
passage of cultural time.

But faced with 21st-century music,
it is this very sense of future shock which has disappeared'.
Where the Futurists and other 20th- century artists had constantly sought to
tear up the perceived rules of their various art forms,
Fisher posits that the 21st-century music scene was
absent of any seismic event in which a band or artist
suddenly produced a new sound which shook up expectations.
In fact, in the late 2000s and early 2010s,
an active distrust in the future became a central theme in english-language
storytelling. Black Mirror, for instance, works directly
on the premise that technologies which we might be tempted
to view as enabling a more hopeful future
will actually be a corrupting force.

More concerningly,
until very recently, young adult fiction was dominated by dystopian futures
in properties such as The Hunger Games and Divergent.
What does it say about a culture when its most popular tales for children
envisage a future in which young people have to fight each other for their very
survival? If the 20th century was "the century that
trusted in the future", both Birardi and Fisher posit that the
early 21st century saw the future viewed either with
skepticism or dread. The world's coming to terms with the
climate emergency and increasing awareness that politicians were doing a
little to combat it likely also played a role here. What
point was there in dreaming of the future
when the very planet on which we live has a terminal diagnosis?
In the past few years, however, this bleakness and pessimism towards the
future has begun to come up against some
opposition. And, up there among its chief opponents
has been one Elon Musk.
So, after more than a brief detour through the history of perceptions of
the future, we find ourselves back in the present
where I want to argue that the future is making a bit of a comeback.

And, this
is interesting in relation to Birardi and Fisher's work. For, both authors
display some skepticism about the younger generation
(primarily millennials), with Fisher writing that
'the assumption that the young are automatically at the leading edge of
cultural change is now out of date'.
Both predicted the pessimism of the 80s 90s and 2000s
continuing for some time and being largely accepted by the generations
growing up within it. This, however, has not been the
case, with Musk being a prime example. Polling
of UK residents by YouGov in the past year found that 46 percent of
millennials have a positive opinion of Musk,
in comparison to only 22 percent of gen xers and 15 percent
of baby boomers. Despite Musk himself being 49, then,
it seems to be millennials who are most responsive to his futuristic
vision. And, while I remain of the opinion that Musk is relatively unique among
other entrepreneurs in his consistent articulation of
genuinely bold visions of the future, I think, in his gaining popularity
primarily amongst millennials, there are similarities between Musk and
figures in other spheres which hint at him being not so much a
lone wolf than a symptom of a broader cultural shift
in popular perceptions of the future.

In particular, I think we can identify
several parallels between Muskian Futurism
and a recent expansion of the political imagination.
On the left, figures such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and "The Squad" in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK
have also, when not being millennials themselves,
found support primarily among younger generations
and have also set about imagining bold new visions for the future. Where the
politics of the previous decade accepted much of the existing dominant
order and contented itself with proposing
minuscule changes to the status quo, we've seen a resurgence of both
politicians and grassroots movements such as Black
Lives Matter advocating for comprehensive reform,
guided by the belief that the future can be better than,
and fundamentally different to, the present.
I think that this context (and that of the darker visions of the future offered
by the contemporary political right in the form of Donald Trump and the
post-Brexit Conservative Party is essential to understanding why Elon
Musk has become such a revered figure in the contemporary moment.

I think, in
many regards, his appeal lies less in his specific
proposals than in the more fundamental fact that he answers a contemporary
desire to believe in the future again. We can
propose countless reasons why this desire might have re-emerged.
I would place the financial crisis of 2008's revelation that neoliberalism was
not the perfect system that it had presented itself as
high up on that list. Whatever reason one lands upon, however, what is evident is
that people (young people in particular) seem to want
to trust in the future again. And Elon Musk answers that call.
What remains is to consider what the ramifications
of his vision might be. For the most part, in this video, I've
attempted to contextualize Muskian Futurism
to ask what its appeal is and what other social,
political, economic and cultural movements
it might have something in common with. I want to end by making some observations
about Musk's projects themselves.

A few weeks back, Musk posted
a rendering of the plans for Central Hall
Station, one of the stops in the Las Vegas Convention Center "Loop" tunnel
system which, according to an article by Mike Brown
for Inverse, is 'designed to take 4,400 attendees per hour
in one of two directions over a distance of nearly
a mile'. The responses to Musk's tweet were
filled with people comparing it to other forms of transportation.
Many pointed out, for instance, that each car can only take
five passengers, with the proposed minivan-type pods
only being able to take twelve. When we take into account the fact that most
metro trains can carry more than 1,000 people at any one time, the Loop
system thus seems to be a little bit lacking. Yet, I don't think
this is a bug but a feature. In a 2018 episode of Star
Trek: Discovery, Musk was mentioned as an example of an
innovative pioneer. Now, I've never actually watched an
episode of Star Trek, but the world of the show is, I'm told,
relatively utopian. In his book Four Futures, Peter Frase uses
it as an example of a potential future in which both scarcity and social
hierarchy have been eliminated.

He writes that 'we could indeed call it a
communist society, in the sense that Marx used the term, a
world run according to the principle "from each according to their ability, to
each according to their need"'. I mean, I don't think anyone's under the
impression that Musk is any form of communist; although
he did once claim to be a socialist and he evidently has a deep understanding of
Marx's work. Nevertheless, I do think we can often
fall into the trap of assuming that Elon Musk's various
projects are about building a future in which, as
in Star Trek, we'll all share. When we see mock-ups of
the Loop system or hear of colonies on mars, we assume them
to be intended to serve everyone and appraise them on that
basis. I think this is a mistake. For, I don't
think Muskian Futurism is intended to serve everyone.

I think
the limited capacity of the Loop system is a central feature. This is not a mass
public transportation system, this is a proposal for a series of
gilded corridors which enable elites such as Musk to get
to their destinations quicker and without having to mix with the rest
of us. The colonies on mars, too, are not a futuristic vision of new life
for the many, but a means for the few to escape the
effects of the climate crisis. Where the egalitarian mask of Muskian
Futurism slipped most obviously was in the
announcement of the Cybertruck, a bulletproof (supposedly) solar-powered
electric pickup truck. We often think of electric vehicles as
being intended to stave off the climate crisis
(although whether they're the best means of doing so is itself debatable).
This vehicle, however, is not a vehicle for stopping the coming of the end times,
this is an early concept of a vehicle for the end
times. Speaking to Jay Leno about the Cybertruck, Musk himself stated that
'we want to be a leader in apocalypse technology'.
This, then, is a vehicle for the elite to traverse a world which is both
ecologically devastated and in which there is likely to be increasing
hostility towards them.

So, to conclude, Musk's vision of the
future may be bold. Muskian Futurism may, on
the surface, fulfill a present desire to believe in
the future again, to imagine how human ingenuity might be
harnessed in order to overcome the problems of the present
and to fundamentally reshape society. The pressing question to ask of these
projects, however, is, to my mind, not what their logistical
viability might be, but who they're for. To argue that Musk's
proposals do not solve the problems they are intended to solve
often leads down a path of forcing people to make a choice between the
future and the present. And, things are not so
binary. A better future is possible. The
challenge lies in trying to articulate one that is
as bold as that offered by Elon Musk but is one in which
we can all share. Thank you so much for watching
this little broadcast that I put together.
If you've enjoyed it or found it interesting in some way, then I would be
super grateful if you'd consider sharing with a friend or
someone else you might think might get something out of it.
A massive thanks as always to Michael V Brown,
to J Fraser Cartwright, to Richard, to Kaya Lau,
to LaLomi, to David Brothers and to Chris Brown for being signed up to
the top tier of my Patreon.

Patreon support is massively
useful in helping me put together bits like this and to
set aside the time to make these videos. So, if you enjoy them and would
like to help me make more, as well as getting Early Access to my
videos and to scripts and stuff, then you can find out all about how to
do so at patreon.com/tomnicholas. Thank you so
much for watching once again though, and have a great week!.

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