Give Elon Musk a break: at least he’s fo­cused on big ideas

Irish Independent - Business Week - - Technology -

CALL it the para­ble of the cave. Here on the west coast of the US at least, the res­cue last month of a foot­ball team and their coach from the cave in Thai­land re­volved around one man. It wasn’t the coach, or the cave divers – it was Elon Musk, who of­fered as­sis­tance and a sub­ma­rine to use as backup if the pri­mary res­cue plan didn’t work.

Musk’s of­fers of as­sis­tance, to put it mildly, weren’t well-re­ceived. Crit­ics saw him as tak­ing ad­van­tage of the cri­sis to get his name in head­lines, dis­tract­ing from the ‘real’ res­cue ef­forts, and pro­mot­ing an un­wel­come brand of techno-op­ti­mism.

The cave spat is indica­tive of a wider trend I’ve no­ticed re­cently. In­creas­ingly, the ac­tions and mo­tives of peo­ple in Sil­i­con Val­ley are com­ing un­der heavy sus­pi­cion from those out­side.

Peo­ple are start­ing to see tech work­ers as dis­con­nected from re­al­ity, con­tent to work on time-wast­ing apps rather than fo­cus on real prob­lems.

This crit­i­cism is markedly strat­i­fied based on where you are. Within Sil­i­con Val­ley, the tone was strik­ingly dif­fer­ent. Here, Musk was praised for us­ing some of SpaceX’s con­sid­er­able en­gi­neer­ing prow­ess to work with Thai au­thor­i­ties on a backup res­cue plan.

I live in Seat­tle, which in many ways is an ex­ten­sion of Sil­i­con Val­ley. Think of a big tech com­pany, and it’s prob­a­bly got an of­fice (or its head­quar­ters) here: Ap­ple, Airbnb, Amazon, Face­book, Google, Lyft, Mi­crosoft, Twit­ter and Uber all have a sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence.

Part of the prob­lem is that Sil­i­con Val­ley is so dif­fer­ent. Tech has al­ways sought to do great things, and this part of the world has al­ways been where peo­ple come to build the fu­ture. Even be­fore the hacker rev­o­lu­tion and the early days of In­tel and Ap­ple — San Fran­cisco has been a fron­tier town ever since the time there was gold in them thar hills.

Musk is a light­ning rod for the crit­i­cism du jour, but when you take a closer look, crit­i­cism of him – and the Val­ley – doesn’t al­ways stick. Ob­jec­tively speak­ing, what he has achieved is ex­tra­or­di­nary. In just shy of two decades, he’s cre­ated or led four bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­nies in four dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries: pay­ments, aero­space en­gi­neer­ing, elec­tric cars, and so­lar en­ergy. When PayPal was ac­quired by eBay in 2002, Musk made $180m. With that sort of money, the man could have bought a pri­vate is­land and re­tired.

In­stead, he ploughed more than $100m into SpaceX. In 2006, the com­pany’s Fal­con 1 was the first pri­vately-devel­oped liq­uid-fu­elled rocket to reach or­bit. To­day, SpaceX is re­spon­si­ble for over half of all com­mer­cial rocket launches.

An­other rea­son the su­pervil­lain car­i­ca­ture doesn’t stick to Musk: in 2014, he an­nounced that Tesla would not pur­sue law­suits against other com­pa­nies that used Tesla’s tech­nol­ogy. By open-sourc­ing Tesla’s bat­tery and ve­hi­cle patents, he ex­plic­itly en­cour­aged more com­pe­ti­tion in the elec­tric car mar­ket.

What doesn’t make sense from a busi­ness sense starts to make sense in the con­text of Musk him­self. He has long spo­ken of the dan­gers of cli­mate change, and re­duc­ing the num­ber of gaso­line cars on the road is one way so­ci­ety can re­verse the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of emis­sions. What’s one way he could re­duce the num­ber of gas cars on the road? En­cour­age the pro­duc­tion of as many elec­tric cars as pos­si­ble.

But back to Sil­i­con Val­ley as a whole.

Most ev­ery­one I know here ad­mires Ap­ple’s ‘Think Big’ cam­paign, and iden­ti­fies with their slo­gan, “those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usu­ally do”. It re­mains to be seen if the cur­rent wave of tech-scep­ti­cism and crit­i­cism will have an ef­fect on at­tract­ing tal­ent to Sil­i­con Val­ley, or how cur­rent tech work­ers feel.

My guess – cer­tainly my hope – is that the move-fa­s­tand-build-things men­tal­ity of the Val­ley will in­su­late them from much of the crit­i­cism.

Tech doesn’t get it right 100pc of the time. As an ex­am­ple, I think Musk’s petty dis­putes on Twit­ter are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and a waste of time. But it’s worth ex­am­in­ing ex­actly what we’re crit­i­cis­ing when we call out tech com­pa­nies. Musk was asked di­rectly if there was any­thing he could do to help out. He stepped up, but was crit­i­cised mer­ci­lessly for butting in and try­ing to make it all about him.

Sil­i­con Val­ley is con­cerned with big ideas in a way that the rest of the world isn’t.

But this wasn’t al­ways the case. Last month was the 49th an­niver­sary of man land­ing on the moon. In many ways, this was one of the last times we banded to­gether and did some­thing truly ex­tra­or­di­nary. With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Shen­zhen in China, Sil­i­con Val­ley is the only place in the world where peo­ple think on this scale to­day.

In 1969, over half a mil­lion peo­ple gath­ered around their tele­vi­sion sets to watch Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the lu­nar sur­face. It was, at the time, the big­gest au­di­ence for a live tele­vi­sion event. In the decades since, we as a so­ci­ety seem to have moved away from big ideas. Sil­i­con Val­ley is one of the last hold­outs. Is op­ti­mism so bad?

Tech doesn’t get it right 100pc of the time and Musk’s petty dis­putes on Twit­ter are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has led four bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­nies

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.