The Perils of ‘Innovator’ Mindset

Five people are dead because Stockton Rush believed in a toxic ideology that sees ‘regulation’ as the enemy of ‘innovation.’

The late CEO of OceanGate, Stockton Rush, made it very clear that he didn’t care for rules and regulations. “I think it was General MacArthur who said: ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break,’” Rush smilingly told an interviewer. Indeed, Rush will definitely be remembered for the rules he broke, specifically basic safety rules. After the catastrophic implosion of Rush’s “Titan” submersible, which caused the deaths of Rush and his four passengers, it emerged that Rush had been as reckless and hubristic as the designers and operators of the original RMS Titanic

He had been warned over and over. In 2018, OceanGate’s director of marine operations produced a “scathing” document warning unambiguously of “the potential dangers to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths.” A few months later, dozens of experts in the industry sent Rush a letter telling him that his “experimental” approach could lead to “catastrophic” problems.

Rush waved them all away. Interviews with him are full of quotations displaying absurd levels of self-confidence:

Rush heard “you are going to kill someone” as just blah blah blah, probably from “industry players” trying to stop “new entrants from entering their small existing market.” Smithsonian magazine reported in 2019 that Rush felt regulations “needlessly prioritized passenger safety over commercial innovation.” His own submersible had not been inspected or approved by any regulatory body. Rules are for fools.

Some rules are bureaucratic red tape that can be ignored with few consequences. Others, like the laws of physics, carry pretty strict penalties for attempts to defy them. As James Cameron explained after Rush’s death, experts in the industry had warned that the carbon fiber composite Rush was building submersibles out of was a terrible idea from an engineering perspective, because it was likely to accumulate undetectable weaknesses and then fail catastrophically after a few apparent successes. Rush didn’t care. He admired the buccaneering spirit of Elon Musk—internally, the company called itself “SpaceX for the ocean”—and followed the Silicon Valley maxim that progress comes from moving fast and breaking things. Rush’s submersible was bodged together with everything from a video game controller to bits from Camping World, and he was proud of it.

Will Kohnen, the head of the Marine Technology Society’s committee on manned underwater vehicles, recalls having told Rush, “Look, you’re going too fast, and the idea of bypassing the existing classification process can lead to serious consequences.” The aptly-named Rush probably just heard this as confirmation that everyone else unreasonably preferred to be “slow.” He was just too advanced and innovative, they could not appreciate his genius. Rush admitted that he fancied himself as the Captain Kirk of the ocean, and Captain Kirk doesn’t let the carping of naysayers slow him down, does he?

We can see in Rush a very particular type of guy, one all too common. He is supremely certain that he must be right, and that if other people whine that he is “taking risks that will kill somebody,” they are just old-fashioned and backward-looking. In industry standards and regulations, he does not see the accumulated wisdom of many generations of engineers, but a lot of pointless paperwork. He refuses to entertain the possibility that other people’s criticism of him could have validity. They must be insulting him personally. They must be giving voice to “submersible orthodoxy,” part of an industrial cartel of big players trying to squash the little guy. (Paid agents in the pocket of Big Submersible?) 

I’ve heard variations on this story over and over, because I’m a constant consumer of right-wing books and essays, and it’s a core part of the libertarian story of the world. The government is bad, regulation is bad, “crony capitalists” stifle innovation, and the Heroic Entrepreneur, a manly individualist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold, must ignore the haters and forge his own path, hacking through red tape like machete-ing one’s way through a thick forest. People who subscribe to this self-aggrandizing story can make those around them miserable, but sometimes the results are just amusing. (See Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.) The sea, however, is unforgiving, and bringing this ethos to deep sea exploration was pretty much destined to result in a calamity sooner or later. Rush wasn’t “innovating,” he was simply defying basic principles of sound submersible design by using an inappropriate construction material, which is why people were trying to get him to stop. 

As Cameron pointed out, the parallels between Rush’s disaster and the Titanic story itself are eerie. There, too, arrogant men thought nothing could hurt them. From the uber-wealthy passengers to the disregard of safety protocols, the Titan disaster calls to mind Karl Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.” When I wrote about the Titanic a while back, I talked about some of the lessons it offers us today, and one of them is that Men In Authority are often delusional about the extent of their own reasonableness and rationality: 

[It is] easy to assume that confident authority figures must know what they are doing, and that if they seem to have overlooked something extremely obvious, it must be that they have good reasons. Captain Smith of the Titanic was highly experienced and respected…He looked like a reliable and sound-minded sea captain. And yet he was stupid: he not only whacked his ship right into one of the icebergs he had been repeatedly warned about, but he was incapable of organizing an orderly evacuation, meaning that a bunch of lifeboats were left half-empty and far more people drowned than needed to. The aesthetics of competence were all present, but actual competence is a process rather than a set of brass buttons and a white hat…We are not necessarily much better at distinguishing the theater of logic and reasonableness from the real thing. The Titanic is indeed a valuable cautionary tale…It is a sad and absurd event worth reflecting on, because it is a reminder not only that the class system is an abomination, but that rich elites can be utterly delusional about their own reasonableness, and that which seems most secure and permanent can actually be extremely vulnerable. 

Rush was certainly a “rich elite.” He was an heir to an oil fortune, a Princeton graduate who said that he made his money “the old-fashioned way”—“I was born into it and then grew it.” It’s easy to see why, having been conditioned from birth into thinking that tragedy was something that happened to other people, he could feel totally invulnerable. 

The right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial board says of the Titan disaster that it is “at once a reminder of man’s vulnerability before the awesome vastness of the ocean—and a tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit,” placing the accident within the history of Noble Accidents across the history of exploration, with Rush a latter-day Amundsen. It’s not surprising the WSJ is disinclined to entertain the real lesson of the story: that confident idiots who think regulation is for cowards can end up getting themselves killed, and taking innocent people with them. 

In the wake of the Titan disaster, let’s not just reconsider the story about how Big Bad Regulation is to be ignored by The Innovator, but let’s also reflect a bit on true competence, which is humble, thoughtful, and wise. For a glimpse of that competence, and a contrast with Rush’s misadventure, see the delightful documentary James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, which follows Cameron’s own adventure in a submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Contrast Cameron’s caution and humility with Rush’s arrogant Silicon Valley mindset. Cameron respects engineers, and he thinks carefully about everything that could go wrong. Because he tests and re-tests, he is able to navigate safely to a point in the ocean several times deeper and more inhospitable than the resting place of the Titanic.

The wreck of the Titan, like the Titanic over a century before, offers important warnings to all of us: Don’t act like an arrogant rich guy who scoffs at criticism and expertise. Carefully distinguish between necessary innovation and totally pointless risk-taking. Safety regulations are made by safety experts, not just by petty self-interested bureaucrats. Don’t assume that the heroic individual is entitled to ignore everyone else. And definitely don’t name your experimental watercraft after the Titanic. That’s really just tempting fate.

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