Jennifer Szalai’s review of Walter Isaacson’s new book Elon Musk indirectly raises an interesting question: if human civilization destroyed itself, would people like Elon Musk be the ones most responsible for its destruction?
Yes, I understand the question may at first seem a little unfair– after all, what has Musk done to deserve the blame for the hypothetical end of humanity? Setting his unpredictable antics and his controversial politics aside, hasn’t his work at SpaceX and beyond shown how much good people like him have done for human progress?
In response to these objections, let me be clear: I am not casting doubt on Musk’s accomplishments. What I take issue with is the broader philosophy behind them. It starts with a dangerous savior complex. Musk styles himself as a modern-day Messiah. He has vowed to set us on a path to colonize space “before civilization crumbles.” Apparently, he has taken it upon himself to deliver humanity from our “bondage to decay” and destruction.
First off, if that is his aim, then his project is folly from the very beginning—the biggest “vanity of vanities” imaginable. Does he really believe that a “multiplanetary civilization” will guarantee the survival of the human race? If he does, he knows nothing about human nature. Our stupidity and our trail of death and destruction will follow us like a loyal hound dog, or like the smallpox the explorers carried with them to the New World. If we escape from one ruined planet, be sure that we will create another. Technology will not save us, nor will it help us outrun our problems.
Yet Musk’s project has an even more alarming flaw: it is immoral as well as impractical. To achieve his goals, Musk expects himself and his staff to “abide by ‘the algorithm.’” This “workplace creed” commands that they “‘question every requirement’ from a department, including ‘the legal department’ and ‘the safety department.’” Per the algorithm, “the only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.”
Could HAL 9000 have put it any more coldly? Why should we be so worried about evil super intelligent computers when we already have people so willing to sacrifice everything to the tech god? Truly, our worship of technology and technological progress may prove to be a greater threat to humanity than the technology itself. Our present-day issues with misinformation provide both confirmation of this truth and a sample of what may be to come.
All this raises a much larger question: do we really want to preserve a humanity that subordinates ethical standards to its questionable definitions of progress? Imagine if this unholy remnant of Musk disciples was let loose upon the galaxy without anyone or anything to restrain them. The supposed effects of what Musk calls the “woke-mind virus” (whatever that is) pale in comparison.
If one man could best capture the argument against a technocracy, Elon Musk is that man. His blind worship of the tech god is a cautionary tale for us and for generations to come. Remember: the tech god always requires a sacrifice. And we should be wary of what Musk is willing to lay on his altar.