Tuesday 14 August 2018

Tommy Collison: Give Elon Musk a break - at least he's focused on big ideas

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has led four billion-dollar companies
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has led four billion-dollar companies

Another Angle: Tommy Collison

Call it the parable of the cave. Here on the west coast of the US at least, the rescue last month of a football team and their coach from the cave in Thailand revolved around one man. It wasn't the coach, or the cave divers - it was Elon Musk, who offered assistance and a submarine to use as backup if the primary rescue plan didn't work.

Musk's offers of assistance, to put it mildly, weren't well-received. Critics saw him as taking advantage of the crisis to get his name in headlines, distracting from the 'real' rescue efforts, and promoting an unwelcome brand of techno-optimism.

The cave spat is indicative of a wider trend I've noticed recently. Increasingly, the actions and motives of people in Silicon Valley are coming under heavy suspicion from those outside.

People are starting to see tech workers as disconnected from reality, content to work on time-wasting apps rather than focus on real problems.

This criticism is markedly stratified based on where you are. Within Silicon Valley, the tone was strikingly different. Here, Musk was praised for using some of SpaceX's considerable engineering prowess to work with Thai authorities on a backup rescue plan.

I live in Seattle, which in many ways is an extension of Silicon Valley. Think of a big tech company, and it's probably got an office (or its headquarters) here: Apple, Airbnb, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Microsoft, Twitter and Uber all have a significant presence.

Part of the problem is that Silicon Valley is so different. Tech has always sought to do great things, and this part of the world has always been where people come to build the future. Even before the hacker revolution and the early days of Intel and Apple - San Francisco has been a frontier town ever since the time there was gold in them thar hills.

Musk is a lightning rod for the criticism du jour, but when you take a closer look, criticism of him - and the Valley - doesn't always stick. Objectively speaking, what he has achieved is extraordinary. In just shy of two decades, he's created or led four billion-dollar companies in four different industries: payments, aerospace engineering, electric cars, and solar energy. When PayPal was acquired by eBay in 2002, Musk made $180m. With that sort of money, the man could have bought a private island and retired.

Instead, he ploughed more than $100m into SpaceX. In 2006, the company's Falcon 1 was the first privately-developed liquid-fuelled rocket to reach orbit. Today, SpaceX is responsible for over half of all commercial rocket launches.

Another reason the supervillain caricature doesn't stick to Musk: in 2014, he announced that Tesla would not pursue lawsuits against other companies that used Tesla's technology. By open-sourcing Tesla's battery and vehicle patents, he explicitly encouraged more competition in the electric car market.

What doesn't make sense from a business sense starts to make sense in the context of Musk himself. He has long spoken of the dangers of climate change, and reducing the number of gasoline cars on the road is one way society can reverse the deleterious effects of emissions. What's one way he could reduce the number of gas cars on the road? Encourage the production of as many electric cars as possible.

But back to Silicon Valley as a whole.

Most everyone I know here admires Apple's 'Think Big' campaign, and identifies with their slogan, "those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do". It remains to be seen if the current wave of tech-scepticism and criticism will have an effect on attracting talent to Silicon Valley, or how current tech workers feel.

My guess - certainly my hope - is that the move-fast-and-build-things mentality of the Valley will insulate them from much of the criticism.

Tech doesn't get it right 100pc of the time. As an example, I think Musk's petty disputes on Twitter are counterproductive and a waste of time. But it's worth examining exactly what we're criticising when we call out tech companies. Musk was asked directly if there was anything he could do to help out. He stepped up, but was criticised mercilessly for butting in and trying to make it all about him.

Silicon Valley is concerned with big ideas in a way that the rest of the world isn't.

But this wasn't always the case. Last month was the 49th anniversary of man landing on the moon. In many ways, this was one of the last times we banded together and did something truly extraordinary. With the possible exception of Shenzhen in China, Silicon Valley is the only place in the world where people think on this scale today.

In 1969, over half a million people gathered around their television sets to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the lunar surface. It was, at the time, the biggest audience for a live television event. In the decades since, we as a society seem to have moved away from big ideas. Silicon Valley is one of the last holdouts. Is optimism so bad?

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