The Future That Never Was
The other day I came across an article titled "Elon Musk Is Convinced He's the Future. We Need to Look Beyond Him." I didn't think much of it at the time. It's just another article about Elon Musk.
However, with the fabled entrepreneur endlessly occupying the spotlight as of late due to his acquisition of Twitter, my mind returned to the post.
Isn't it ironic that Musk, the pre-eminent American innovator in our global culture, successfully protects the status quo?
It was first back in 2013 that Musk laid out the concept for the Hyperloop in a white paper. I couldn't help but notice the following at the very beginning:
"When the California "high speed" rail was approved, I was quite disappointed, as I know many others were too. How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL – doing incredible things like indexing all the world's knowledge and putting rovers on Mars – would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?"
Already, Musk's bias against the California High Speed Rail (CHSR) project, but more is needed to say there's a motive. What's his beef with high-speed rail and public transportation in general?
WIRED Magazine has our answer in a December 2017 article:
""There is this premise that good things must be somehow painful," [Musk] said onstage at a Tesla event on the sidelines of the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference in Long Beach, California, in response to an audience question about his take on public transit and urban sprawl. "I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn't leave where you want it to leave, doesn't start where you want it to start, doesn't end where you want it to end? And it doesn't go all the time."
"It's a pain in the ass," he continued. "That's why everyone doesn't like it. And there's like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that's why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want."
When the audience member responded that public transportation seemed to work in Japan, Musk shot back, "What, where they cram people in the subway? That doesn't sound great." The CEO reiterated his preference for individual transportation, i.e., private cars. Preferably, a private Tesla."
Bias was an understatement; Musk detests mass transit! Surely, his negative opinions on public transportation would fuel him to build and deploy the Hyperloop system at scale, so Americans don't have to with "random strangers" when going from point A to point B! Right?
A little over a month ago, The Verge reported, "Elon Musk's first Hyperloop tunnel in California is gone."
The digital publication went into more detail, stating, "Elon Musk's first prototype Hyperloop tunnel is no more. Bloomberg reports that the roughly one-mile-long white steel tunnel running along Jack Northrop Avenue near SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, has been removed and will be replaced with parking spaces for employees," and "…in the last few years, Musk's Hyperloop ambitions have been severely scaled back. His original proposal for an underground transit system, with magnetically levitating shuttles traveling through nearly airless tubes at speeds of up to hundreds of miles an hour, has been replaced with tunnels that can only accommodate Tesla vehicles. Other Hyperloop startups have shut down or pivoted to cargo shipments.
Meanwhile, Musk's Boring Company has been working to build out a system of tunnels underneath Las Vegas for a few years now, while the company's efforts to dig in other cities, like Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Northeast Corridor, have fizzled."
The Hyperloop ends with not a bang but a whimper.
What happened to the future of public transportation? Why did the hype about the loop break down suddenly?
Or – a better question – was it ever meant to succeed?
Going back to Paris Marx's article in Time, there's the answer buried in one of his tweets (read the bottom Tweet only):
"He didn't actually intend to build the thing," states Ashlee Vance, the well-known biographer of Musk, adding, "With any luck, the high-speed rail would be canceled."
Musk got his wish. A recent Cal Matters article by Dan Walters reveals, "It could be a decade, or more, before trains actually begin carrying passengers between the two cities, but without connecting Bakersfield to Los Angeles and Merced to San Francisco, the segment would be little more than an amusement park ride.
As it stands — and as Newsom said in that 2019 speech — there are no plans to finance multi-billion-dollar extensions to make the bullet train a real transportation alternative. He seems to be content to provide enough money to maintain construction for the remainder of his governorship and leave it to his successor — or successors — to decide what to do after that."
It's hard to say how much Musk's efforts generating attention for the Hyperloop negatively impacted the development of the CHSR over the past nine years. It's clear from Walter's article that there's already enough dysfunction within the California state government that meaningful progress on the CHSR wouldn't have been made even without Musk's Hyperloop experiment.
Which makes what he did even more egregious. His Hyperloop was nothing more than a cynical, unnecessary weaponization of the future to defend the status quo.
The Hyperloop was nothing more than an empty marketing stunt.
That leaves us with a rather dreary vision for the future – the public sector is too dysfunctional to make a real impact on individuals' lives, and the private sector serves as a cynical foil to suggest an alternative, promising a future it has no intent (or competency) to produce.
Any vision we have of the future now from the private sector is a defense of the status quo; the public sector abdicates its role in shaping the future entirely.
Welcome to the Future! (Don't mind the fact that it's nearly identical to the present.)
Marc Andreessen said that software is eating the world.
He's right. Humans and the world have been boiled down to ones and zeros, making it easier for software to digest at greater and greater volumes.
Peter Thiel said there's been "innovation in the world of bits, but not in the world of atoms."
He's wrong. The one true innovation from the world of bits is how thoroughly it has atomized human life has become in the world of atoms. (Look at the graph in the Tweet!)
Some people may think I'm picking on Musk or critiquing the tech industry as a whole. I'm merely judging their claims of progress by their fruit.
There's not much fruit to weigh.
The truth is that there has been a dearth of significant innovation in general since 2008. Yes, you have a ton of companies going public for billions of dollars, but there are better measures of innovation than market capitalization.
I always used to wonder: why was Tesla valued so highly compared to its peers in the industry? A friend of mine made the point that Musk has been the only one to truly push the industry forward, despite companies like Ford and GM having decades of lead time and billions of dollars at their disposal. He's totally right, and Musk deserves massive credit for reviving interest and making progress.
It's the same with aerospace – everyone is under the impression that SpaceX (and Blue Origin) were the first to demonstrate a reusable rocket booster.
On the contrary, McDonnell Douglas built and successfully tested the first reusable single-stage rocket, named DC-X, in 1993. NASA improved on that design with the DC-XA in 1996.
McDonnell Douglas was eventually acquired by Boeing in 1997. Boeing would later team up with Lockheed Martin in a joint venture called United Launch Alliance in 2006, virtually guaranteeing them a monopoly in the launch services market.
Why didn't ULA develop reusable boosters first before, or why didn't NASA continue developing the DC-XA? The former at least had the technical know-how through Boeing's acquisition of McDonnell Douglas!
Why didn't the Big Auto companies produce a popular, mass-market electric vehicle years before Tesla even existed? They have the supply chain and operational scale to do so!
Musk correctly recognized that the aerospace and automotive industries had stopped innovating and took his chance. Hats off to him for doing that. I genuinely applaud him for his ability to market the future better than anyone else as a celebrity CEO.
But when you look at the reality of the status quo – has he moved the needle that much compared to what has been done in the past?
Even with transportation – there hasn't been just a lack of progress but actual regression!
My mind was boggled when I first read that tweet. It's still boggled!
When I say the future lies in the past, I truly mean it. But yet again, we have another industry where Musk can play the hero innovator without delivering on that innovation.
Musk is the greatest entrepreneur (read: marketer) in the history of American industry. He has surpassed Steve Jobs, in my opinion. Jobs could only do it in tech; Musk has done it in aerospace (SpaceX), automotive (Tesla), transportation (The Boring Company), and now social media (Twitter). His ability to properly position himself rhetorically as an innovator in the public consciousness and private sector is second to none.
However, the greatest irony is that Musk posits himself as fighting against the status quo when he is the status quo.
The future is the status quo, or as I like to put it, the Endless Present. The future can only be marketed but not actually built.
When I look back on the past decade and a half, there was ample opportunity for America through both the public and private sectors to build a tangible, compelling future. We had record-low interest rates/Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) and quantitative easing (aka digitally printing money by adding zeros to the bank accounts of 24 primary dealers or banking institutions that are considered to be Too Big To Fail), flooding the financial markets with cheap cash for well over a decade.
America could have financed virtually anything for pennies on the dollar in both the public and private sectors to generate massive social and economic returns for all Americans. Think of all the social goods we could have had, like nationwide high-speed rail or countrywide high-speed internet!
That didn't happen. Instead, we got nothing but endless stock buybacks, excessive stock compensation for already well-heeled executives, and minimal investment into real capital infrastructure or R&D.
If I had to sum up the future in three words, it would be this (not my RuneScape account! Lol!):
Why should I, or anyone else, believe that a real future will arise in the next decade of high interest rates, low growth, and a severe recession (read: depression)?
Surprisingly, I haven't lost hope. I've spent five years writing about people my age becoming founders and striving to make an impact in their respective industries. They give me hope that things can and will be better. That there's still a future worth believing in.
The real future exists within me.
The real future will look much like the past but in a higher form. I want my life to embody that future in every possible dimension.