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What Elon Musk Is Selling: Hope

It doesn’t have to be like this

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. … We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad — worse than bad.”
 — Howard Beale, Network

Since I was a child, I have loved technology. The story of technology is fundamentally redemptive. Technology is often our clearest sign that things can get better. The future can be better than the past. We can solve big problems. Technology is synonymous with hope.

For decades, Steve Jobs was the foremost torchbearer for the hopeful spirit of technology. In an interview in 1986, Jobs described the feeling that motivated him to keep pushing forward in the computer industry:

“I felt it the first time when I visited a school — it was like third and fourth graders — and they had a whole classroom full of Apple II’s. I spent a few hours there and I saw these third and fourth graders growing up completely different than I grew up because of this machine. … That’s an incredible feeling: to know that you had something to do with it, A, and B, to know it can be done. To know that you can plant something in the world and it’ll grow, and change the world ever so slightly.”

With Jobs’ death in 2011, the world lacked a compelling voice to articulate that feeling to a wide audience. At around the same time, Elon Musk’s star was rising. In 2012, Tesla released the Model S, its first mass-produced car. In 2013, SpaceX completed its first mission to the International Space Station.

Today, SpaceX is the company most sought after by tech workers. Tesla is the fourth most sought after. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Tesla is second only to Google. Last March, fans lined up in front of Tesla stores to reserve the Model 3 as if they were waiting for a new iPhone on launch day. For many of us, the torch that Jobs held has passed into Musk’s hands.

The age of personal computing and the Internet is a miracle that is still unfolding. We celebrate Jobs and his contemporaries like Bill Gates as icons of that miracle. That being said, when it feels like there is nothing to see but new phones and apps, the current state of technological innovation can evoke a feeling of listless dissatisfaction. Existing giants and startups are doing important work on thousands of small problems, asking (in the words of Kevin Kelly), “What do you want to optimize?” Making any part of life less frustrating or exhausting is a worthwhile effort. But with big, daunting problems facing the world and no solutions in sight, these small projects are not what the hope-hungry soul craves.

Perhaps more than any other big problem, climate change leaves many of us feeling hopeless. Many climate scientists feel profound grief, fear, and despair over the world’s inaction. Avoiding these disturbing emotions could be part of the reason for climate denial.

This is where Tesla wins the love of its fans. Tesla’s message: we’re not giving up. We can fix this. We don’t have to slide helplessly toward climate catastrophe. A different future is possible.

Tesla’s explicit mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. So far, it has advanced that mission by proving that electric cars can be profitable and popular. It has made electric cars cool to consumers and credible to the rest of the auto industry. Because of Tesla’s success, major car companies like Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Daimler, and Volvo have committed to shifting a significant percentage of their vehicle production from gasoline to electric.

Electric cars are fast approaching a tipping point. The unsubsidized total cost of ownership of an electric car will soon drop below that of a gasoline equivalent. In fact, with Tesla’s Model 3 (soon to be produced at full volume) this has already occurred. Over a 5-year period, a Model 3 is estimated to cost $17,500 less than a BMW 330i — a roughly equivalent gasoline car. Not only that, the Model 3’s 5-year cost is estimated at just $3,400 higher than that of a Honda Civic. A Honda Civic!

With the Model 3, Tesla is offering an electric car with BMW quality for a Honda Civic price. This is why energy analyst Michael Liebreich calls the Model 3 “the miracle of Musk”. Here’s what’s even more exciting. As Tesla has cut production costs on the Model S and Model X, it has either cut prices or included new features or better specs for the same price. In a few years, we could see Tesla cut the price of the Model 3 by over $3,400, putting the 5-year total cost of ownership below that of a Honda Civic. At that point, why would you buy a gasoline car?

Model 3. Photo by Tesla.

Technological miracles can happen when the pieces for a new technological paradigm are there and a company rises to the occasion to put them together. By painstakingly ascending the learning curve and amassing economies of scale, Tesla is finally ready to electric vehicle technology into full force.

Tesla is also working on a second big problem: road deaths. 1.3 million people are killed in car crashes every year, more than are killed by HIV/AIDS. As a society, we have more or less passively accepted this problem. Self-driving cars are beginning to shake us out of our complacency. We could prevent perhaps 90% or more of deadly accidents, giving millions of people a chance at life who would otherwise be senselessly robbed of it.

Tesla is the first company to deploy full self-driving hardware in all of its production cars. This hardware not only allows for advanced safety features, it also allows billions of miles of driving data to be collected. That data can be used to accelerate the development of self-driving software and, crucially, to validate its safety.

While Google deserves credit for popularizing self-driving cars, Tesla has taken that ball and run with it further than any other company. Google and other companies have hundreds of cars with self-driving hardware on the road. Tesla has over 100,000, with plans to add millions more over the next three years.

So, these are the hopes that Tesla presents: prevention of a climate catastrophe and a radical reduction in road deaths. An alternative to grief, fear, despair, and senseless tragedy. Hope for a better future.

Automotive journalist Alex Roy puts it beautifully in a recent article:

“Tesla’s big secret is that they are manufacturing demand for a product the car industry stopped making long ago: real emotion. …Tesla has already delivered everything a hungry public needs to put faith in the mythology. You can see it in peoples’ faces when a Model X or 3 drive by.”

I don’t interpret “mythology” as a negative term. I see mythology and storytelling as both a creative act and an emergent process that is integral to humanity’s progress. Building a better future often begins with telling a compelling story.

Like so many changemakers before him, Elon Musk is a masterful storyteller. He isn’t slick or commanding. He’s simply honest, imaginative, funny, passionate, sensitive, and deeply thoughtful. Musk sees a future he believes in, and he’s so good at articulating it that we believe in it too.

Outer space holds profound symbolic power. Space travel means mastery of physics — the fundamental operating principles of the universe — and transcending natural limits. Elon Musk says, “Engineering is the closest thing to magic that exists in the world.” Space travel is one of our highest forms of magic.

The next frontier for human space travel is Mars. It offers us a chance to learn a new skill: planetcraft.

The ultimate end goal for Mars habitation is not living in sealed-off domes. The dream is that one day Mars will be home to thriving ecosystems and open-air human cities, just like Earth. To achieve that, we can melt the planet’s immense reserves of ice, creating oceans. There is enough ice on Mars to cover the entire surface of the planet with water as deep as a lake. Melting the ice would also release frozen carbon dioxide, giving Mars a thicker, more Earth-like atmosphere.

There are various proposals for how exactly to melt the ice. One idea is to deploy synthetic microorganisms that feed off of Martian soil and release greenhouse gases. Another is to put a giant magnet into orbit, giving Mars an artificial magnetosphere that stops solar wind from stripping away its atmosphere. Elon Musk has proposed detonating a rapid sequence nuclear bombs over the Martian poles. This would effectively create two temporary heat lamps, on a planetary scale.

SpaceX’s mission is to get humans to Mars, build a self-sustaining civilization there, and ultimately to terraform the planet — make it like Earth. There is some practical value in this. Spreading out to multiple planets reduces existential risk to humanity. A rare astronomical event like a powerful gamma-ray burst could conceivably end human life on one planet but not on two or more. Philosopher Nick Bostrom has calculated that reducing the chances of human extinction by just 0.0001% is equivalent to saving 100 million lives.

Beyond its practical value, settling on Mars is also a spiritual journey. It’s a chance to explore the universe, to push human limits, to start a planet from scratch, to exercise engineering magic. It nourishes the human need for searching, striving, awe, and transcendence. This aspect of Mars settlement is harder to describe and quantify. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily less important.

It’s hard to say today what the cultural impact of Mars settlement will be. Perhaps a Mars city will be like the International Space Station. Fascinating to many, but not world-changing. The optimistic scenario is that it will expand our imagination and embolden us to take on more daunting challenges. I don’t know that this will happen. I can only hope that it does.

Beyond what SpaceX and Tesla directly accomplish, I hope they open the world’s eyes to what’s possible. In Steve Jobs’ words, I hope they let us “know it can be done.” I hope that the mythology and methodology of Elon Musk and his companies can teach and inspire the world. To me the bigger story than Musk’s companies — as fascinating as they are—is what makes them work. Can we decode their success and apply at a societal scale the principles Musk has uncovered?

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft docks with the International Space Station. Timelapse by ESA/Alexander Gerst.

We often think of technology as whatever is new to us. But technology is millions of years old, dating back at least to the first stone tools, shaped for the hominin hand just like a computer mouse today. Technology is bigger than just new stuff. Technology is an extension of life itself — Kevin Kelly calls it the the 7th kingdom of life. The platform of biological evolution is the reproductive system of any organism. The platform of technological evolution is the human nervous system. In the human brain, evolution evolved what is in many ways a faster and better evolver. An upgraded evolution platform.

Just as life is sacred and mysterious, technology is sacred and mysterious. Technology is a continuation of the generative force that created all plants and animals, including humans, manifesting itself through our hands and eyes and minds. It’s both an expression of human creative will and an emergent product of endogenous principles we are only beginning to understand. It is at the same time us and bigger than us.

In the mysterious generative power of technology, there is power for redemption. There is power to make things better. There is power to create reason for hope. There is the power to prevent a descent into darkness. It sounds like an electric car zooming down the street.

At the convergence of the transformative power of technology and the transformative power of love, there is the chance to fulfill the cosmic purpose of humanity. To become the realization of our deepest ideals, expressed for millennia in myth and story. Caretakers of the Earth, of humanity, and of the light of consciousness. To make the universe good by filling it with our goodness.

Disclosure: I own shares of Tesla.