In many ways, Elon Musk is the perfect hero for our era of reboots and reality TV. Much of the mythos he has built around himself consists of worn-out sci-fi tropes, recycled and sold as reality. And in this way, Musk himself is like an update on L. Ron Hubbard, who did just that with Scientology. Like Hubbard, Musk has amassed a vast fortune, evaded taxes, and attracted a legion of devotees with his personal lore. He is a con man whose tales are as tall as they are dangerous, and as dangerous as they are dumb.
As a storytelling technique, fooling people into believing they are privy to something real is not new; it’s the oldest trick in countless books. The only novelty of reality TV is how cheap it has made producing a hit show: a shitty hodgepodge of improvised theatre and game show will do, with a cast of underpaid, supposedly-not-real actors, requiring little writing and even less research — so long as it feels real. Take the same narrative device and tap into something bigger, like our drive to ponder the ultimate questions through myths, and the line between entertainment and manipulation begins to blur.
A funny inspection of where that line is happened when the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail sued Dan Brown over The Da Vinci Code. One is a wild fabrication posing as historical scholarship; the other, a thriller supposedly based in said historical fact. It’s a hard sell to claim someone is violating your copyright when they pretend to fall for your scam. Although the two books function almost identically, their authors occupy different points on the spectrum between the schlock artist and the con artist. Hubbard, who started out as a two-bit sci-fi writer, is an interesting case of someone devolving from one to the other.
Take any piece of Scientology canon simply as a story, and the flaws are obvious. It would be difficult to get anyone over the age of 14 excited about something as trite as Xenu the Galactic Overlord massacring extraterrestrial slaves with volcanic nuclear explosions in an epic set 75 million years back. But whatever fantastical tales you tell, once you manage to convince people of their reality, you’ve got yourself a captive audience — sometimes literally captive.
It’s easy to laugh at thetans, E-meters, and afterlife portals on Venus. But if you believe we are living in a simulated reality built by a higher intelligence, that we need to remain vigilant against computers as they inevitably reach singularity and become sentient, while pursuing the totally rational and realistic mission of colonizing Mars — well, you are as religious as any Scientologist. If Hubbard managed to sell a poor man’s space opera to his followers as the Divine Truth, Musk is peddling an equally unoriginal pitch. “Mars Trilogy meets The Matrix meets The Terminator!”
Elon Musk’s mythology is full of Promethean tasks for mankind, and as with any religion, they are spearheaded by the Prophet himself. Yes, the chance that everything you know is not just a cosmic computer game is “one in billions” — but this is good news, sayeth Elon, since otherwise the world might be coming to an end. Better safe than sorry, though, which is why Musk is transforming us into an “interplanetary species” by 2024. As for our godlike sentient computers (they’re almost here!), those will eventually spawn endless new virtual realities, in a glorious cycle of recursive creation stories, originating with demiurgic geeks jerking off to their PlayStations. “The singularity for this level of the simulation is coming soon,” Musk has declared. No wonder the doctrine is often described as “the Rapture for geeks” — and not just ironically.
It’s one thing to make metaphysical statements that cannot be tested, but whatever happened to all of Elon Musk’s more immediate predictions and promises? At this point, he was supposed to have been ferrying space tourists on sightseeing trips around the moon for over three years, since 2014. That’s the same year he had “vowed” to have his third-generation electric car available for less than $30,000, with 100,000 of them on the road already since 2009.
As a writer, I’ve never been much into the prediction game, but the following is just stating the fucking obvious: no, we will not be traveling between New York and London by rocket in seven years’ time, either, nor will any of us ever get to see a self-sustaining Martian colony.
As any cult leader worth their salt can tell you, internal contradictions can make a mythological narrative all the more powerful. When prophecy fails, an ever greater commitment is required to keep one’s cognitive dissonance from imploding like a SpaceX rocket and undoing one’s entire world view. So don’t worry, I’m sure the interplanetary species thing is well on schedule nonetheless.
The more laughable and messianic Musk’s claims become, the more he is showered with awe and public funds. It’s unnerving enough that one of the most revered and influential businessmen of our time is literally a cult leader, but Musk is one who promises to save us by flying us off into outer space. Our planet is fucked as it is, and we are investing our hopes and resources into the Marshall Applewhite of oligarchs.
Here’s an actual exchange between Musk and interviewer Chris Anderson at a TED Talk last April:
Anderson: We haven’t even spoken about your newest thing, which we don’t have time to do, but you want to save humanity from bad AI, and so you’re going to create this really cool brain-machine interface to give us all infinite memory and telepathy and so forth. And on Mars, it feels like what you’re saying is, yeah, we need to save humanity and have a backup plan, but also we need to inspire humanity, and this is a way to inspire.
Musk: I think the value of beauty and inspiration is very much underrated, no question. But I want to be clear. I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior. That is not the… I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.
Though it’s an important part of his brand, preaching singularity is not the sole trademark of Elon Musk. A recent development within the popular pseudo-religion’s ranks has another parallel with Scientology: tax avoidance. One reason the Church of Scientology has managed to accumulate so much wealth is the aggressive dirty war it has waged against the IRS for tax-exempt status as a religious organization. Last year, an autonomous vehicle engineer named Anthony Levandowski — caught in an ugly intellectual property battle between Uber and Google — founded a new church called Way of the Future. Its mission: “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.” Could the mission also have something to do with the tax-exempt status IRS granted it in August?
Every story about the Way of the Future mentions Elon Musk as another high-profile singularity adherent, a thought leader on a similar mission to mitigate the coming transition over to our new robot overlords. There can only be one high priest of Silicon Valley mumbo-jumbo, though, and Musk has stated his stern opinion that Levandowski is the last person who should even be allowed to conduct such dangerous research. “You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water?” he asked the audience at an MIT symposium. “And he’s like — yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.” That’s meant as a funny analogy, but there is really no difference: Silicon Valley executives are like kids freaking themselves out with a Ouija board.
Though Levandowski’s spiritual order is competition rather than a sectarian ally, Musk, too, is no stranger to avoiding taxes. In a twist befitting the times, our modern-day prophet’s biblical missions come with market-based solutions. We need to incentivize tech billionaires to save the species, because it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s good business!
Except that it’s not. Musk wants to project the image of a self-made man, even while his business empire is on a steady diet of government subsidies and tax breaks (to the tune of at least $4.9 billion). His latest publicity stunt — shooting his own car into space — was perfectly timed to distract from the announcement of Tesla’s biggest quarterly loss ever. It’s a good use of public resources, of course, if George Clooney can save some money to be “stuck on the side of the fucking road,” pretending to care about the environment. And we’ve also greatly reduced the cost of building rockets that explode before reaching orbit. (Don’t blame Musk for that one time it might have been caused by a UFO, though, as he mused.)
Like most self-described libertarian billionaires, Musk has no problem being the beneficiary of this type of socialism for the rich. Who knows whether his businesses are any more or less deserving than others, but he sure is eager to kick away the ladder now that he’s reached the top.
This persona, of the ultimate go-it-alone man, one whose life quest is tied in with our collective fate, is an important part of his origin story. No wonder that Elon Musk shares a love for L. Ron Hubbard’s favorite book, Twelve Against the Gods, a collection of pseudo-historical accounts of men who broke the rules and changed the world. Published in 1929 by a South African journalist named William Bolitho, it was an obscure title before Musk hyped it at a press conference two summers back.
It’s telling that Musk would look for inspiration in Hubbard’s reading list, and it makes perfect sense. Both men’s reputations are built on just such fables of benevolent megalomania. Last October, Musk got a shoutout on Star Trek as a pioneer of space flight, on par with the Wright brothers and a guy who invented warp drive in 2063. What better PR coup for a futuristic space guru — and not much different from Twelve Against the Gods including Napoleon’s fail-nephew as a historical juggernaut alongside Alexander the Great.
Unlike the Wright brothers, Elon Musk has managed to sell himself as a visionary genius who sits around inventing space ships without actually inventing jack. No doubt he works hard, learns quickly, and has an impressive working knowledge of what his R&D is up to. But in reality, he is a coder who put together a clever website that taps into the idiocies of global capitalism, and became insanely rich. With the money, he built a business empire and made himself a CEO with a hands-on approach to his multiple companies.
Leave aside the fact that electric cars won’t solve the perils of our planet, and that Mars fantasies are a costly distraction. How much does having Elon Musk at the helm of these projects contribute to the production of usable new technologies? Is his leadership extremely helpful, somewhat detrimental, neutral, something else? With all the federal assistance it receives, SpaceX has sometimes been described as a de facto arm of NASA. What would be the difference if NASA built its own rockets? Or if the research was led by an actual rocket scientist, maybe one who didn’t make it about himself?
If you are a mere mortal like me, there are only two things to go by. One is to evaluate his past predictions and promises. It’s not a good look. The other is to inspect the “vision” he expounds in public, which is drivel: a mix of nerd New Age and neoliberalism.
And it’s dangerous. Musk’s idea for urban transportation is a uniquely American nightmare of three-dimensional underground car traffic, which will probably turn out to be another (literal) pipe dream. As for Mars, even if we consume all the fossil fuels we can yet unearth, then have an all-out nuclear war for dessert, Earth will still be a vastly more habitable planet. As a practical plan, terraforming Mars makes about as much sense as trying to colonize the bottom of the ocean.
I can’t think of a more suitable use for the phrase “capturing our imaginations”. There’s such a legion of people around the world, including in business and politics, whose dreams and ambitions are held captive by Elon Musk’s personal mystique that our collective fate may actually end up mirroring his whims.
Cults are notoriously hard to quit. In this case, leaving is not an option, even if you never wanted to join.
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