What Elon Musk should learn from the cave res­cue

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY ZEYNEP TUFEKCI New York Times Zeynep Tufekci is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the School of In­for­ma­tion and Li­brary Science at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina.

Sil­i­con Val­ley moguls seem to be­lieve they can fix most any­thing, and they ap­pear be­fud­dled when their at­tempts to do so aren’t met with un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm.

Tech bil­lion­aire Elon Musk was among the millions of peo­ple cap­ti­vated by the plight of the 12 boys and their soc­cer coach re­cently trapped in a cave in Thai­land. But Musk didn’t just fol­low the story on the news and so­cial me­dia; he has vast re­sources, so he also tried to help.

He di­rected his en­gi­neers to build a minia­ture “sub­ma­rine” (ba­si­cally a so­phis­ti­cated metal cylinder) that he hoped could be used for the res­cue.

Musk’s de­sire to help was com­mend­able. But when the head of the res­cue op­er­a­tion, Narongsak Osot­tanakorn, de­clared that Musk’s con­trap­tion was im­prac­ti­cal for the task at hand – a task that had been com­pleted, at that point, by some of the world’s top cave divers – Musk re­sponded with ir­ri­ta­tion.

In­stead of vent­ing, Musk – in­deed, Sil­i­con Val­ley as a whole – can per­haps see the Thai op­er­a­tion as a les­son. This was a most im­prob­a­ble res­cue against the long­est odds. Safely nav­i­gat­ing 12 kids and one adult, many of whom were not swim­mers, through a dan­ger­ous cave re­lied on a model of in­no­va­tion that Sil­i­con Val­ley can and should learn from.

The Sil­i­con Val­ley mo- del for do­ing things is a mix of can-do op­ti­mism, a faith that ex­per­tise in one do­main can be trans­ferred seam­lessly to another and a pref­er­ence for rapid, flashy, high-pro­file ac­tion. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a dif­fer­ent model: a slower, more me­thod­i­cal, more nar­rowly spe­cial­ized ap­proach to prob­lems, one that has turned many risky en­ter­prises into safe en­deav­ors.

This “safety cul­ture” model is nei­ther stilted nor un­cre­ative. On the con­trary, deep ex­per­tise, lengthy train­ing and the abil­ity to learn from ex­pe­ri­ence (and to in­cor­po­rate the lessons of those ex­pe­ri­ences into fu­ture prac­tices) is a valu­able form of in­ge­nu­ity.

This ap­proach is what al­lowed air­line Capt. Ch­es­ley Sul­len­berger to safely land a com­mer­cial air­plane on the Hud­son River in 2009 af­ter its en­gines were dis­abled.

By con­trast, Sil­i­con Val­ley moguls seem to fa­vor spend­ing money on im­prob­a­ble but im­pres­sivesound­ing long shots. In 2010, Mark Zucker­berg, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Face­book, do­nated $100 mil­lion to New Jer­sey schools as part of a mul­ti­year plan to im­prove them. The cen­ter­piece was teacher eval­u­a­tion and char­ter schools, but it didn’t work well. Some as­pects of the plan even made things worse. Ed­u­ca­tion is a com­plex topic, and mak­ing a lot of money in tech is not a qual­i­fi­ca­tion for solv­ing ed­u­ca­tional prob­lems.

If Sil­i­con Val­ley wants to help the world, there is a lot it can do, start­ing with mak­ing its own prod­ucts safer and its own com­pa­nies more just. Per­haps most im­por­tant, it can de­velop re­spect for hard-earned ex­per­tise in ar­eas other than its own.


Elon Musk’s Space X rocket com­pany tested a sub­ma­rine that could po­ten­tially have helped with the cave res­cue.

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