Emmitt Wilson ’22
Elon Musk is in a unique position in the public sphere. He is wealthy on an unimaginable scale, seen as one of the primary innovators in fields as far ranging as space, solar, and online payment, while wielding huge influence over markets just from his Twitter account. What makes this all the more impressive is that it is all based on nothing of substance. Musk did not start his most famous ventures, namely SpaceX and Tesla, but bought them. Yet many seem convinced that it is by his genius alone that electric cars and private space enterprise were invented. This is fundamentally different from how other multibillionaire financiers are regarded by the public.
I believe that this comes down to how Elon Musk has branded himself towards the public, and how he has effectively utilized people’s unease to his own benefit. Musk’s companies are valued far beyond any realistic value considering their actual products. Tesla sells cars at a loss and SpaceX relies on investment capital to stay afloat. This is because the tangible product is only half of what Musk sells, and far more important is what they represent; a technological salvation from the existential dread of climate change. People who feel that existential dread are seeing the tangible products, whether an electric car or a colony on Mars as an easy fix to all the world’s problems. A quick glance at Musk’s most ardent defenders proves this hypothesis easily, with phrases like “He is trying to save us,” and “you don’t understand, he’s a visionary” becoming increasingly common.
Does Musk really care about the environment? He probably does to some degree, but there isn’t any way to really know. What we do know, however, is that his companies are far from the climate saviors. But, for the people who have ruled out large scale societal change, a technological salvation from our problems is the only one viable and Musk embodies that idea.
On the back of this, Musk has built a following that rivals massive celebrities and which is seemingly far more loyal and willing to spend their time defending him. This can have real world downsides, as his sporadic tweets about the stock market and cryptocurrency have been known to cause massive upheaval. This can certainly be considered market manipulation, and while he has been punished by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) for his tweets regarding stocks, there is no such regulator for cryptocurrencies.
His focus on cryptocurrency is especially ironic considering the incredible amount of energy consumed by the technology, much of which is produced by fossil fuels. Musk’s behavior will likely continue to cause harm while he is completely insulated by a massive cult of personality, unless the issues that have driven people to support him are dealt with in a more tangible way.
Photo Credit: NDTV/Agence France Presse