Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Why Is Elon Musk So Conservative?

At the beginning of a TED Talks interview that took place earlier this year, TED curator Chris Anderson asks Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, "Why are you boring?" It's a joke that plays upon Musk's latest undertaking, The Boring Company, which is working toward a 3-D network of tunnels aimed at alleviating congestion in cities. But I'm more intrigued by the remarks that start just after 22 minutes, ones that sparked me to ask the question of this post's title, posed in the context of architecture and urbanism. (This embed is cued up to those remarks.)

According to Musk, "This illustrates the picture of the future, how I think things will evolve":

This suburban, single-family, "real fake" house has an electric car in the driveway, three Powerwalls sitting next to the house, and a solar-glass roof. I'm sure Musk's investors are happy that his efforts are moving toward affordable, sustainable solutions directed at consumers, but I can't help wonder how a guy who wants to dig tunnels under cities, lay tubes between cities, and build rockets in order to make life interplanetary does not have any apparent vision for dwelling on earth. His vision, if you want to call it that, is really just the status quo with some nearly invisible layers of technology added to it.

But why? Is this conservative view of our built future just a matter of making the solar/battery technology appealing to middle- and upper-class American consumers? Is he focusing so much on life on Mars that he doesn't care how people build on earth? Actually, I think it's because this suburban image – or some version of it – is Musk's reality, as well as that of many people in the United States. And because of that, he's not so willing to change it. He's more than happy to explore something different on Mars, admittedly, a much different place than earth in terms of atmosphere and other aspects of life...

[Rendering of SpaceX's terraforming of Mars]

...But that's due in part to the planet being a clean slate and because he's a stranger to Mars – as we are all. Residents, be they American or elsewhere, have a hard time envisioning things that break drastically from their way of life. Strangers, on the other hand, don't have the same problem since they don't have the same baggage. I'll admit these rudimentary thoughts came from the prologue of Richard Sennett's The Craftsman, which I picked up recently and have just started reading (he in turn grabbed the idea from Georg Simmel). Even though my knowledge of "the stranger" needs more depth, it seems like a good means of understanding how Musk, a technological visionary, could be so conservative, so lacking in vision when it comes to architecture and urbanism.