Editor’s Note: David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer and a journalism professor at the University of Tampa. Follow him on Twitter @WheelerWorkshop. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The ancient Greeks had a great story about the dangers of overconfidence. Remember Icarus from eighth-grade Greek mythology? He flew too close to the sun, fell from the sky, and drowned. The moral of the story: Don’t get too cocky.
But truth is stranger than Greek mythology. Indeed, the Icarus myth has an eerie resonance with the real-life story of Elon Musk, whose unbridled arrogance led him to lash out against one of the rescuers of the Thai soccer team that was trapped in a cave for 18 days.
The story of the Thai soccer team had a happy ending: Everyone was rescued.
But the story of Elon Musk – and by extension, society’s unjustified confidence in tech geniuses – is starting to take a dark turn.
Poor Elon wanted to be the hero who saved the boys. He wanted his “kid-size submarine” to come to the rescue. When that didn’t happen, he baselessly accused one of the actual heroes, Vernon Unsworth, of being a “pedo,” or pedophile.
Yes, you read that correctly. When Musk missed out on what he believed was his rightful opportunity to be portrayed as the worldwide protagonist in the cliffhanger drama, he pouted like a preschooler, and searched for the worst accusation he could imagine to call the rescuer: pedophile.
While Unsworth considers whether to sue Musk for libel, this might be a good time for the rest of us to re-examine our tendency to worship guys like Musk (i.e. tech billionaires). True, many of them have given us fantastic gadgets that we can’t live without. But just as Icarus let self-confidence get the best of him, Silicon Valley’s most well-known bros have allowed arrogance to damage their own reputations — and sometimes society as a whole.
But first, let’s acknowledge Musk’s genuinely world-changing contributions to society. For starters, Musk has revolutionized space rockets and batteries. For decades, the public has been frustrated that technology existed to build environmentally friendly electric cars, but no such cars were being made. A 2006 documentary summed up public attitude: “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Two years later, with his Tesla Roadster, Musk made enticing electric vehicles a reality.
That great invention, however, also gives us insight into his dangerous ego. When Tesla drivers have died while using the car’s autopilot function, Musk has reacted with a combination of victim blaming and media blaming. The theme: How dare you question my genius?
Other tech billionaires have similar attitudes. When Uber was new, tech-oriented news outlets breathlessly admired the “rogue” startup willing to break rules to get ahead. But CEO Travis Kalanick’s blind faith in his own brilliance led to such things as a culture of rampant sexism in his workplace and a belief that he could berate his low-earning contractors – the very drivers whose hard work made him a billionaire in the first place. His resignation left behind a mixed legacy against which Uber continues to struggle.
Another tech billionaire whose detrimental ideas might overshadow his contributions to society is Peter Thiel. Back in 1999, Thiel co-founded PayPal with Musk and others. Those of us who use it are all grateful for PayPal. But since then, Thiel has argued that a college education – for many, the most reliable path to a secure job and a middle-class life – is a waste of time. He even pays people to drop out of college. Have you heard his idea about an artificial floating island outside the reach of governments? What could possibly go wrong there? Oh, and when he didn’t like what a media outlet said about him, he secretly funded a lawsuit intended to bankrupt it. Mission accomplished: Gawker went bankrupt in 2016.
The message from Thiel is clear: If you disrespect me, I’ll destroy you.
That same sentiment was evident in Musk’s infantile sniping at analysts who asked him uncomfortable questions during a Tesla earnings call. And it appears again in Musk’s hopes of a website that rates journalists’ credibility. Hmmm, I wonder where the journalists who report admiringly about Musk will land on his journalism rankings? Some writers who have described what it’s like to be a journalist (particularly a female one) covering Musk surely have some thoughts.
Even when they’re not out to destroy people who criticize them, the boy geniuses of the tech world often get far more than their fair share of the benefit of the doubt, even when they are philanthropists who have done good in the world. Tech billionaires from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates have done impressive philanthropic work, but they have both applied their hubris and their cash to failed efforts to try to reform education in America. It turns out that being great at computer software doesn’t necessarily make you great in other areas.
Is there any historical precedent to guide us when wealthy inventors try to reinvent society?
In fact, there is. We can learn from the unbelievably wealthy and powerful magnates of the late 19th and early 20th century, otherwise known as the “robber barons.” Just like the tech billionaires of today, the robber barons’ confidence in their own ingenuity outweighed their ability to solve problems.
Carmaker Henry Ford, for instance, thought he could end war all by himself: As The Economist notes, “Ford led a peace convoy to Europe to put an end to war. When he arrived in Norway and gave the locals a long lecture on tractor production in faltering Norwegian, a local commented that you have to be a very great man to say such foolish things.”
Not all robber barons’ involvement in the public sector was horrific: Andrew Carnegie’s efforts to provide libraries to rural and poor Americans changed many communities across the country. What’s so nefarious here is the particular hubris of thinking that having money and a cult of personality entitles you to the status of heroic world-changer.
Before we give carte blanche to the tech billionaires who want to rewrite the way the world works – including in the areas they know nothing about – it might be worth reading about the undue influence of the robber barons, and the backlash that resulted from their exploitation of both people and markets. Henry Ford famously used his platform to spread anti-Semitism.
John D. Rockefeller’s monopolistic Standard Oil crushed family businesses. It took muckraker Ida Tarbell’s “masterpiece of journalism and an unrelenting indictment,” in the words of the Smithsonian Magazine, to bring down Standard Oil’s monopoly. Anti-regulation conservatives currently in power should keep in mind that the trust-busting politicians and the New Deal itself was largely a result of the excesses of the robber baron era.
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Memo to tech billionaires: Just because you solved one problem with a simple solution doesn’t mean all problems have simple solutions. Let’s continue to register our displeasure with tech titans when they show their arrogance, and let’s be a little more skeptical when they want to reinvent everything from food to space travel.
And speaking of space travel, it’s almost like Elon Musk is ignoring people’s advice on “how to fly.” Let’s see, which Greek myth does that remind me of?