From Elon Musk, by Ashlee Vance, pg 16. I think a sociological analysis of contemporary digital elites needs to treat these ambitions seriously, while nonetheless recognising how these cultural formulations intersect with material interests.
While the “putting man on Mars” talk can strike some people as loopy, it gave Musk a unique rallying cry for his companies. It’s the sweeping goal that forms a unifying principle over everything he does. Employees at all three companies are well aware of this and well aware that they’re trying to achieve the impossible day in and day out. When Musk sets unrealistic goals, verbally abuses employees, and works them to the bone, it’s understood to be— on some level— part of the Mars agenda. Some employees love him for this. Others loathe him but remain oddly loyal out of respect for his drive and mission. What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to … well … save the human race from self- imposed or accidental annihilation.
Given the mimetic proclivities of status conscious digital elites, I find it hard not to wonder how the scale of these ambitions may cycle upwards over time. Musk’s vision is enticing to anyone who grew up on science fiction but it’s easy to conceive of comparable visions that are much less welcome. The rich vein of dystopian fiction about digital capitalism that is beginning to emerge (e.g. The circle, whisky tango foxtrot, super sad true love story) could be read as in large part about the future ambitions of digital elites and the dangers that follow from their possession of a “meaningful worldview”.
Categories: Digital Sociology