Sooner or later, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel will go to war. If you know your origin myths—Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, Simon and Garfunkel—you know that when two men create something as monumental as PayPal together, one of them must ultimately attempt to destroy the other. If you know your superhero films, you know that none of our cities are safe.
Until recently, all of us thought we knew which side of this impending duel to support. After all, isn’t Peter Thiel a real-life comic-book supervillain? He spoke at the RNC; he peddles his “Palantir Gotham” software to a sinister surveillance state; he famously believes that being routinely injected with the blood of young people might extend his lifespan. The terrifying culmination of this diabolical trajectory is all too easy to imagine. Peter Thiel clanks menacingly through what used to be your neighborhood, his weaponized suit of armor powered by the suffering of a dozen bawling infants, impaled on their blood-transfusion needles. Death rays blaze forth from his visor, incinerating the offices of every publication that’s ever said a bad word about him, boiling alive hapless whales in the corpse-clogged oceans. Are we finally doomed?
But Elon’s armies are on their way. Decked out in a glossy techno-utopian white, they are zipping to the rescue through a secret network of underground hyperloops. They are streaming in from a thousand thriving offworld colonies in outer space. His self-driving tanks are powered by autumn leaves and gratitude. We can rest easy: Elon Musk will save the world. We know this, because saving the world is all Elon Musk ever talks about.
There’s no escaping the Elon Myth. People who work in Tesla showrooms say his name—his first name, of course—with the kind of quaking reverence usually reserved for despots and porn stars. Have you met Elon? I met Elon once. He shook my hand. Stick with the company, and it might happen to you too.
Everything Elon does is intended to safeguard the human species from peril. His automated cars will save us from being turned into dipping sauce on the freeways, and his gigafactories and home solar panels will pull us back from the brink of a climate change apocalypse. And if that whole plan doesn’t work, he wants to take us to Mars, to spread humanity out across the galaxy so the destruction of one little planet won’t seal our fate. Most people are weak, venal, and stupid; we don’t even think about the future. Not the visionary Elon Musk. It takes great men to change everyone’s life for the better, but Elon Musk might just be that man.
Newspapers and online publications report breathlessly on his latest big concept or little observation. Elon Musk declares that reality is a simulation. Elon Musk declares that humans must merge with machines. Elon Musk declares that AIs are the biggest existential threat to our species. All these groundbreaking ideas aren’t new, exactly—by and large, they tend to be the plots of action-scifi films from the 1990s. His next big announcement will probably be “robots from the future could be walking among us,” or “condemned prisoners will someday be forced to fight to the death on live TV.”
Meanwhile his strange sayings and comments are relentlessly compiled and regurgitated, showing how idiocy can become aphorism when it comes from the mouth of a billionaire. On women: “I need to find a girlfriend. That’s why I need to carve out just a little more time. I think maybe even another five to 10—how much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours? I don’t know.” To an employee who missed a company event to be present for the birth of his child: “That is no excuse. I am extremely disappointed. You need to figure out where your priorities are. We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.” To a perfect stranger: “I think a lot about electric cars. Do you think about electric cars?” On nutrition: “If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there were a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.”
These statements are all a way of—let’s be honest—showing off. They’re the kinds of things a smart kid says to make sure you realize that he is not like other people. As a child, Elon Musk spent ten hours daily reading books. He dropped out of a PhD program after only two days. This world isn’t big enough to contain him. His ways—he is at pains to inform us—are not our ways, nor are his thoughts our thoughts. One part office pedant, one part eternal shaman, one part God.
Musk isn’t the only person playing this game; he’s just the best at it. Silicon Valley thrives on a kind of corporate Stakhanovism: every CEO and every annoying app developer claims to sleep two hours a night, or for twelve ten-minute naps spread evenly throughout the day. Everyone is heroically resistant to sex, culture, and friendship. Everyone treats their employees with the magnificent brutality of a cartoon prison guard. Everyone is trying to be a world-historical superman, and they’re all following the exact same playbook.
Examined more closely, these painstakingly-crafted Silicon Valley personas are little more than salesperson patter. Power always pretends to be something grander than it is. Pharaohs claimed to be the sun-god given human flesh, the bringer of the floods and the architects of every daybreak. In fact, they were petty tyrants, degenerated through successive generations of incest. Feudal lords pretended to be divinely appointed protectors of their loyal but non-consanguineous subjects. In fact, they were just landlords, as miserable and shameless as your own. Armies pretend to spread freedom while spreading death, employers claim to be creating jobs while creaming off surplus value. Elon Musk pretends to be sending humanity to Mars and breaking through the prison of reality itself. What does he actually do?
In a 2016 letter to its partners, the hedge fund Greenlight Capital cast some doubts on Musk’s humanity-saving missions. The Mars stuff, the letter’s authors posited, had an obvious business function: “Elon Musk’s ability to spin a yarn and keep a story going seems to mesmerize his investors, blinding them to the challenges the company is facing.” Musk, of course, claims that he has only sought to become fabulously wealthy for lofty and disinterested reasons. “I really don’t have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets,” he once said, in a characteristically impressive pronouncement, “except to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary.” But this claim is, of course, absurd. After all, Elon Musk doesn’t just want to send a band of loners and lunatics off to die on a barren world—he’s planning to charge them two hundred thousand dollars apiece for the pleasure. Whatever private god-king fantasies he might be entertaining, the main reason Musk is in the game of capitalism is because he’s a capitalist.
When it comes down to it, Elon Musk’s real business isn’t in utopian worldbuilding, but in good old-fashioned government contracting. He might be selling bigger and more complex goods, but the basics of his operation are no different from whoever supplies corn starch to the Congress canteen or tent-pegs for American military bases abroad. SpaceX, Musk’s pioneering private spaceflight company, depends for its profits on NASA contracts. Tesla makes a significant chunk of its income from the sale of green credits to other, more pollution-producing industrial concerns. A solar panel factory in Buffalo, NY was built by the state at the cost of $750m; Musk leases it for a dollar a year. All in all, he’s received nearly $5 billion in subsidies and support from the government. Not only is Musk is draining the public purse, but he’s making use of technologies that already exist: the impetus for their development isn’t coming from the mysterious deeps of his unique and inscrutable intellect. Dozens of other companies, after all, get government contracts for space flight, electric cars, or renewable energy. All Elon Musk has done is seek out the maximum potential market share in a narrow band of state contracts, and then present his profit-seeking as a grand futuristic vision.
This is why Elon Musk was perfectly comfortable greasing himself all over Donald Trump – after all, without Trump onside, he wouldn’t have a company. In December last year, Elon Musk was invited to join President-Elect Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. After years of talking about saving us all from the incoming doom, Musk went to the incoming doom’s castle to act as its unpaid advisor. A few days after the inauguration, he signed up to the new administration’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative. Until eventually breaking from Trump over climate change (not, however, racism or neo-feudal totalitarianism), Musk was staking out a role for himself as the tech world’s envoy to the Trump administration, vigorously defending his role as just another part in his vast scheme to redeem us all.
It’s natural that Trump and Musk would have gotten along so well together. Each maintains the delusion that the world would be better off if they were calling all the shots. Here it’s instructive to look at Musk’s zeal for self-driving cars. In a public response to an incident in May last year, when a Tesla driver was killed watching Harry Potter while his car happily ploughed itself head-first into a truck. Musk urged reporters to “think carefully” about how they framed the incident: “because if, in writing some article that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”
Musk isn’t entirely wrong: self-driving cars really might be safer than what we have now, which is millions of tons of metal piloted at high speeds by people who generally enter a fugue state of psychotic rage as soon as their hands touch the steering wheel. Unlike people, who break down constantly for any number of reasons, the self-driving car just works. It’s the familiar tech-industrial fantasy of an entirely autonomous world in which human frailty is no longer allowed to impede maximum efficiency.
But this world, taken to its logical extreme, is a world in which we are not free. A police state, after all, may be safer and better-organized than a democratic one, but these benefits come at the cost of individuals’ ability to be master of their own choices.
The term “self-driving car” seems to imply a kind of independence; your car makes its own way across cities and deserts while you relax, pleasantly drunk, in the back seat. But self-driving cars also represent a massive centralization of the decision-making process. The software that the cars run on will only ever be proprietary; your car is run from a central server, and you lease its decision-making abilities for a fee. Mercedes announced last year that its own self-driving cars will always prioritize the safety of the driver, even if it means splattering a crowd of pedestrians into the nearest wall. (Thanks to the beneficent powers of the market, all other manufacturers will likely have to follow suit—who’s going to choose to buy the car that might deliberately kill you to save someone you don’t even know?) Google’s self-driving car, meanwhile, will dutifully pull itself over at a signal from the cops. Without any ability to assume manual control of the car at moments of high significance, passengers in self-driving cars will also be passive subjects of a manufacturer’s pre-programmed ethical determinations. In Elon Musk’s vision of a self-driving future, fewer people might die, but the people who do will die because he ordained it.
These days, reactionaries everywhere are promising to give control back to the people, through a government that responds exactly to your own half-conscious prejudices. Likewise, Elon Musk promises a world in which you can do whatever you want, without ever needing to think about how you want to do it. He’ll see to everything. He will build the Mars colonies for us, and the rockets to get there, and the fuel cells to power them. All anyone else needs to is believe in his myth, and buy what he gives us. But it’s a charade. What Elon Musk wants is what every viperous capitalist has wanted since civilizations’ earliest days: money, power, and deference. Musk is only piggybacking on the doom or redemption of the species, swept along into the void that’s opening up in front of us, just like everyone else. Whatever it might look like, Elon Musk does not own the future. It’s ours.
This article appears in our new “Silicon Valley Spectacular.” Get your print copy today in our store or by purchasing a subscription.