When TIME named Elon Musk as its 2021 Person of the Year, it referred to him as someone who “aspires to save our planet... [a] clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman, cad; a madcap hybrid of Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Andrew Carnegie and Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan.”
Musk had, to TIME, “defied the haters,” and it described him as someone who “a few short years ago” was dismissed as a “crazy con artist on the verge of going broke,” referring to a man who as far back as 2016 was named one of the richest people in the world by Forbes. TIME said that Musk was “easily cast as a hubristic supervillain” just like other “tech bros and space playboys,” but he is somehow “different” because he’s “a manufacturing magnate” that “moves metal, not bytes.”
Buried in the scrawling quasi-puff-piece lies one auspicious quote from Robert Zubrin, founder of The Mars Society, who said that Musk wants “eternal glory for doing great deeds, and he is an asset to the human race because he defines a great deed as something great for humanity.”
At no point does this piece ask a straightforward question: what, according to Elon Musk, is “great for humanity”?
This is the eternal problem of turning “the future” or infrastructure over to the richest people alive, even if their supposed goals are noble or “good for everybody.” What Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, or Jeff Bezos feels is “great for humanity” is entirely defined by something so utterly inhuman — they have so much money, power, and status that they no longer face any real, tangible threats or friction in their lives.
It is not that they don’t pay bills — it is that they do not see things as having a real cost, as beyond a very few very specific things, the actual cost of something is almost immaterial due to the sheer weight of their capital. Mark Zuckerberg owns over 1500 acres of land in Kauai, Hawaii, costing him over $100 million to do so, or roughly 0.1% of his net worth. Jeff Bezos invested $42 million into the Long Now Foundation, most of which has gone into the creation of The Millenium Clock, a 10,000-year clock that exists to “encourage imagination at the timescale of civilization,” rather than what a regular person spends money on — food, shelter, utilities, and so on.
These comparisons are, of course, trite, but they’re important to make when considering the ramifications of leaving our future in their hands. Elon Musk does not wake up worrying about his mortgage, or bills, or whether he will make it to work on time, or if he will be yelled at for his performance on the job. These men are not simply elevated above society, but mentally abstracted from the human experience of challenges and concerns that an actual person will face.
As a result, trusting them to be reliable stewards of the tools they create or acquire is inherently dangerous, because what is good for them will always trump what is good for everybody else. On August 1, Meta chose to start blocking news stories on Facebook and Instagram in Canada as retaliation to a law requiring internet companies to pay news publishers for showing ads against their content. Google also removed all Canadian news stories from Google News, claiming the law was fundamentally flawed despite it being estimated to cost all digital platforms around $329 million (CAD) a year — roughly 3.29% of the $10bn (CAD) of all Canadian advertising revenue, 80% of which goes to Facebook and Google.
While this may seem like big government arguing with big tech, the very real human cost is that those affected by Canada’s brutal wildfire season can’t find any news through Google or Facebook. As Paris Marx noted, users are resorting to screenshotting and posting local news articles onto the platform because two of the largest companies in the world with a collective value over two trillion dollars can’t potentially take a haircut that would help benefit an industry that they have so obviously helped to destroy.
This craven greed looks even worse when you consider that Google and Facebook already pay publishers for news content on their platforms. In 2021, Australia passed the News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC), which forced digital platforms (particularly those in search and social) to come to a revenue-sharing agreement with media outlets. If the two sides couldn’t reach an amicable agreement, an arbiter would step in and make a binding ruling.
To be clear, Facebook initially blocked news links from Australian Facebook feeds, but eventually caved after a few short days. As the Canadian law is similar in scope to the NMBC, the likelihood that the two companies would have reached a compromise — either with publishers or the government — was high. Shutting off news access at a time of natural disaster was nothing short of petulant, selfish avarice. And a demonstration of why we can’t rely on tech giants to exhibit any sense of civic duty, or recognition of their responsibilities to wider society, or even an acknowledgment that such a thing exists.
Giant corporations and their billionaire stewards feel only as much civic duty as is necessary to placate the public and to keep receiving hundreds of millions in government subsidies — a common (and fair) criticism of Elon Musk that rarely seems to land at the feet of Google ($766 million since 2000), Meta ($333 million since 2010), Apple ($693 million since 2009), or Amazon, which has raked in over $6 billion in subsidies to date.
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By creating civic reliance on the whims of billionaires, we commit to the idea that somebody will suffer so that somebody else will get rich. Twitter (I will never call it “X”) became a hub of disinformation and chaos over the weekend as the unverified hellscape combined useful emergency preparedness for Hurricane Hillary with disinformation and conspiracy theories. While this was a problem that existed before Musk’s takeover (and existed on other networks), Twitter’s current lack of a real trust and safety team means that insane conspiracy theories about the devastating Maui Wildfires have had millions of impressions, with many of them featuring a “verified” checkmark that could confuse a reasonable person into believing they are real.
This, to Elon Musk, is what something “great for humanity” looks like — a murky soup of real and questionable information that indirectly or otherwise makes the world a stupider and nastier place to be. He does not see the harm of diluting Twitter’s information (or breaking every image and link before 2014) because it really, truly doesn’t matter — he has aides that will provide him information, people that exist to learn things for him, accountants to manage his funds, and handlers like former banking executive Jared Birchall to make sure that the things that could hurt him are isolated and, if possible, eradicated. When you are rich, powerful and insulated, you do not perceive problems, and thus you do not think they exist. They want the ability to write and amend the social contract in perpetuity.
And none of them are more flagrant than Musk, as Ronan Farrow wrote in a massive piece for the New Yorker that pulled together many distinct threads from the last few years of his life. Musk has always equated “better for humanity” with “what’s good for Elon Musk,” turning off the Ukrainian Army’s access to Starlink internet to convince the US government to pay him (which, depressingly, worked) and having an approach that a former OSHA inspector called “ideologically opposed to the idea of government enforcement of public-health regulations.” Musk is the ultimate proof of what we get when we put our public trust in a private entity — an ugly, greedy, growth-hungry monster that endangers people so that a 52-year-old man can regard the results and say “interesting.”
Musk’s trajectory on Ukraine is a strange one. It’s not so much that it’s a “hero-to-villain” progression (though it is), but rather it illustrates an abject lack of any moral consistency, or rather, a worldview that’s seemingly uninfluenced by any new information or an immutable sense of “right” and “wrong”.
At the outset of the invasion, Musk stepped up. Credit where credit is due, his donation of thousands of Starlink units was an important humanitarian gesture that made a real difference to Ukrainian soldiers and noncombatants alike. When Russia besieged roughly 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers (and a similar number of civilians) in the crumbling ruins of the Azovstal Steel Works, blocking shipments of food and essential medicines, their only link to the outside world was through a Starlink terminal. Musk was lauded as a hero, even speaking to Zelensky, where they agreed to collaborate on space projects after the war’s eventual end.
His subsequent actions have only served to eliminate any goodwill he earned during the earliest months of the war. Musk has proposed a Chamberlain-esque “peace plan” that would see Ukraine surrender certain disputed territories, and require referendums in others. Those referendums — which would take place in areas under the control of the Russian military, and that have been re-populated with Russian nationals, itself a war crime — would be neither free nor fair. Ukraine would also be forced into a position of neutrality, unable to join NATO despite the wishes of its people, and with none of the collective security guarantees that protect the other nations that border Russia, like Poland and the Baltic states.
Despite well-documented atrocities perpetrated by the Russian military — which include the Bucha and Izium massacres, the indiscriminate bombings of civilians, and the torture and mutilation of POWs — Musk has seen fit to hold audiences with Vladimir Putin himself (and lied about doing so). Under his stewardship, Twitter has amplified anti-Ukraine conspiracy theorists and propagandists, and even removed the labels that identified Russian state-affiliated mouthpieces. Moreover, he has imposed limits on where and how Starlink can be used, forcing the Ukraine government to request access for each new kilometer of territory its military liberates.
Any intelligent person can see this, and see why it’s so damaging. And they can understand — on a basic moral level — that it’s wrong. But Musk’s notion of civic duty and civic virtue is inherently flexible and can bend to meet whatever he feels at that time, to align with those who like him (or he likes), or to oppose those he dislikes.
Is this the man that we want to control our taxi networks, our power grid, or America’s path to the rest of the galaxy? Or is it far too late to remove Musk’s tick-like grasp on America (and the world’s) economy?
The comfortable lie that society tells itself about America’s technological kleptocrats is that they earned their wealth by seeing the world differently and can, as a result, “do more.” They exploit this magical thinking to manipulate the government and the public into believing that their kind of innovation — “disruption” that requires the destruction of current institutions — is what the future needs.
Nowhere is this more obvious than Uber, whose plan has always been to compete with and destroy public transportation, and is having some degree of success while replacing it in some local municipalities, retaining a cozy relationship with the federal government and receiving an $810 million federal contract to provide ride-hail services to public agencies. And rideshare companies aren’t even stable job creators, turning workers into app-based serfs that make less than the minimum wage.
As I have written previously, these corporations have no obligation (or necessity) to operate in a way that is sustainable, even if their mistakes may cause real harm. By becoming something resembling a utility, they are able to use societal dependency to continue their rotten growth trajectories, because their chief executives have escaped real human concern and consequence and now can only be satiated by power and scale. As former Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon Colin Kahl told Ronan Farrow, the only thing worse than a government monopoly is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on.
What do you get for the man who has everything? Power, status, and something resembling statesmanship, along with the ability to dictate society’s future without ever facing its consequences.
And you’ll get very little in return.