The human species needs a Tesla Motors for the soul

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We need cultural shifts and behavioural changes if we are to ensure human survival, not simply technological innovation, argues Matthew Parsons.

Does Elon Musk = Steve Jobs? The similarities aren’t exactly hard to pick out: male, ambitious, the subjects of fandom & adoration, if not deification in some circles. Apple is even leaking — employees that is — in a steady trickle towards Tesla, probably driven by the personality of The Man, rather than by money or the work, even if they might not realise or admit it.

Is there any difference? My eyes used to roll and my lips purse every time I heard Jobs’ name mentioned, lauded, and celebrated — as it invariably was. Had our ideas of greatness really descended to this level? Jobs was arguably more of a real leader than any politician alive today — in the sense that he held in the palm of his hands the desires of millions of people, and directed them at will. But directed them toward what? A more attractive box to hold a computer inside? A phone with no buttons? I’d argue that, wittingly or unwittingly, Jobs was nothing more than the grand stylist of today’s hypermodern, productivist capitalism. Both the substrate for and the cutting edge of a pervasive ethic — one of continuous work.

After all, what are iMacs and iPhones, if not devices with which to enable work, and more of it, and faster? It doesn’t take much to show the truth of this in your job, but at home you might loll, sofa-bound, swiping this way and that and feel like, well, ‘this isn’t work’. But tell that to the corporations that are collecting all the data from your swipes, and your types, and your voice and your face. Right now, they’re stashing, processing, and assimilating that data; feeding it into their weaponised tools of marketing and advertising, ones aimed right at you, all the time. It might not feel like work, but companies like Google make it their business to ensure that you are always producing something for them.

Jobs, and Apple, were nothing but enablers of this dynamic, and if it hadn’t been them, it would have been someone else. So why laud them? Have they done anything to improve society, or have they just made it more technologically sophisticated? If you’re of the mind that those two things are indistinguishable, then you might as well stop reading here.

So are Elon Musk and Tesla any different to Jobs and Apple? Tesla Motors produce a car that’s so powerful it should probably be illegal, and so expensive it’s 100 per cent a toy for the rich. Musk’s SpaceX is spending a lot of money trying to get humans to Mars, and he has publically called for humans to “become a multiplanet species”. Maybe that’s a good idea in the long run, but perhaps his timing isn’t the best, given what’s happening on Earth at present.

Despite this, most of what Elon Musk does seems to be for the right reasons, and that includes his work on electric cars, battery storage, and solar power. He has called for a carbon tax, and often states that he is driven by the goal of ‘ensuring human survival’. We need people like Musk, but on their own they aren’t going to solve humanity’s problems — because they only focus on technological solutions. Our problems are, at their root, social not technological, and they need social change — ‘innovation’, if you like — to address them.

What Tesla is doing with the new Powerwall isn’t actually about technological brilliance — the battery technology isn’t some big leap forward. It’s not going to succeed because it’s revolutionary; instead, it’s going to succeed because of marketing and brand association. Elon Musk is exploiting all of the less healthy ingrained behaviours of capitalist culture — mindless brand-following, deification, tech fetishism — and using it to propel us toward a technologically more healthy and sustainable future.

I say technologically, because he’s not doing anything about the negative and destructive behaviours that got us into this precarious planetary situation in the first place. In fact he’s harnessing them in order to sell things. So he, and Tesla, understand human psychology to the extent that they can manipulate the conscious mind to serve their own goals. Their goals — massive expansion of renewable energy — might be noble, but the method isn’t, and the bad behaviours aren’t going to change if we still appeal to them in order to try and do good.

Elon Musk is a step up from a Steve Jobs, but he’s still mired in an obsession with new technology, when what we need is massive cultural change. Maybe the best way to pitch it is in the language of science: behavioural technology, or cultural innovation — whatever works. Eventually we’ll have to do something about human behaviour, and maybe it’ll need a figure like a Jobs or a Musk — someone with the same level of power & influence, but who is obsessed with positive social change, not technological, and wields that obsession with revolutionary purpose.

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