There are many concepts that we are aware of and do not have a word for. Giving the concept a name can change our world. A good example is “sexual harassment”. The phenomenon is as old as humanity but the phrase was only coined in the 1980’s. Giving the behavior a name – though insufficiently as of yet – has changed the world for the better.
We need a name for “a project that ends in failure but spawns many new offshoots”. One such project was the highly ambitious movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” by Alejandro Jodorowski. The 15-hour movie was never filmed, but the team assembled by Jodorowski for the project changed the shape of science fiction movies for decades onwards. The inventor Preston Tucker had an ambitious plan to build a new car company. His company failed – apparently due to political intervention – but his innovations such as shatterproof windshields, seatbelts, and aerodynamic design changed auto design permanently. Application programming interface (API) was a big feature of the so-called “Web 2.0” and data sharing was the wave of the future… until it wasn’t. It didn’t take long for data sharing to turn into data harvesting and things like the Cambridge Analitica scandal broke. But the optimistic and enthusiastic period of the first widespread data sharing experimentation produced a huge array of applications and ideas both good and bad that changed the internet forever. We are going to need a word for this phenomenon because we are going to see a lot more of them. A good candidate for such a word might be “Jodoverse“.
Codex Vagus is the title I gave to essays unrelated to creative writing on this blog.
Codex Vagus: essay 06
All great men are by necessity selectively blind. Great innovators and revolutionaries must lead the charge through a forest fire of doubters and naysayers. You cannot fault them for wearing blinders. Bill Gates once famously sent out a memo warning Microsoft employees of the “reality distortion field” around Steve Jobs. His assessment was that Jobs not only passionately believed in his own vision of an as-yet-unrealized future, but had the ability to convert anyone in his proximity to believe in it as well. Gates said this while making his followers toe the line that the graphic user interface of Windows was not a copy of the Apple computer, and other dogmas of his company. But more tellingly, Bill Gates had as much a part as Steve Jobs in pitching the world, against all odds, the unlikely prospect that personal computers will one day become a vital tool in every home and office. In hindsight, we may think their beliefs were prescient, or even inevitable. But there were many attempts that preceded them. Sperry, Sord, NTT, and Fujitsu all tried to sell this vision and were proved ill timed. Jobs and Gates made their case and grabbed the attention of the brightest minds of a generation. They presented their vision as reality. There was no guarantee that Jobs and Gates were right. Many of their contemporaries fell off the wayside even as their companies were taking off. The personal computer boom could have become a bust, leaving nothing but scattered debris of electronic components in its wake.
Such things happened more than once. One of the more notable examples is electric cars. For a brief period in the early 20th century, electric automobiles outnumbered gasoline powered horseless carriages. Electric was the future. Or so it was said now for over a century. Interest in electric cars have waxed and waned. One of the bigger efforts was the EV1 project by General Motors, which generated a lot of excitement, but ultimately failed. It left the landscape scattered with innovations, ideas, and pipedreams that emanated mists of what might have been. Tesla would have been no different. Except this time, the project was picked up by the biggest reality distortion field of them all: Elon Musk.
The world relies on fossil fuels, in a conservative estimate, for about 60% of its electricity. Therefore, a “zero emission” vehicle is at least 60% running on oil and coal. That is roughly on a par with a 2017 Prius. If consumers realize that they are spending more money on a car that takes several hours to charge and has no smaller carbon footprint, zero emission vehicles might go the way of the Morrison electric carriage. This is not to say that it will be all for nothing. If Tesla stopped producing electric cars, it could still survive as a data supply company. The solid state batteries developed for longer running cars will eventually find application in running everything from cell phones to submarines. The numerous technical achievements that came with the effort to build an electric car will survive even if the vehicle doesn’t.
Elon Musk, armed with his personal fortune, the billions from his investors, and, most important of all, his ability to distort the appearance of reality in his favor, has so far defied all naysayers and steamed ahead with his plan to dominate the world with electric vehicles. His Hyperloop proposal is a concept nearly as old as the electric car. A train that travels through a tube in a vacuum was first proposed by Robert H. Goddard – another notable reality distortion field – back in 1904. Pneumatic tube transportation was proposed in the 19th century. Like the electric car, it is an idea that had been proposed, tried, and abandoned multiple times over the past century. This may also end up an expensive collection of bric-brac in the dustbin of technological history to which some enterprising soul will later reach in and grab something they can use. Or, it could become reality. Who knows? He could be his generation’s Steve Jobs, or he could be Icarus flying too close to the sun. But he is also an intuitive genius in a way that even many of his fans don’t seem to understand.
Many people have tried to bet against Elon Musk to date, and Musk still turned out victorious. But what if his EV revolution failed? What then would be his lasting legacy in this regard? What would be his legacy? The Tucker automobile failed, but it gave the world seatbelts. What would Tesla leave behind if it disappeared today? At it’s essence, Tesla is the world’s first upgradable automobile. You get software upgrades to the car like you would for a PC or a smartphone. This year’s Tesla is an upgrade from last year’s. In fact the “newest” Tesla does not remain “newest” as long as any other car. We used to call cars “durable commodities”. They lasted for years and were still useful. A Toyota can sometimes last for decades. But Musk managed to turn a car into an iPhone while nobody was looking. We see a new Tesla getting an upgrade after six months and we are lead to believe this is progress. At first, people thought an electric car was just a novelty with a limited market. Now, many companies that never even sold cars before are rapidly trying to get in on the market, not because the market for electric cars are growing so fast. The global market for dentures is still growing faster. It is because the turnover rate of EVs is so much faster. It is so much easier to adapt an electric vehicle for planned obsolescence.
Musk is a genius this line of thought. He conceived the idea for his Boring Company while stuck in traffic. He would build a system of tunnels that will bypass traffic jams under the city. This is a preposterously stupid idea at first glance. There are hundreds of cities in the world with tunnels. And every tunnel in every city is log jammed with traffic at one point or another. Tunnels do not guarantee a rapid bypass route, because if it were quicker, more people would use the route. The tunnels will be filled up until it is exactly as slow as the above-ground road to the same destination. This is why people are constantly arguing which route to take. If everyone is right about which route is quicker, that route will no longer be quick. The more correct they are, the less the “quick” route will work.
Except the Boring Company is different. The biggest engineering problem of an underground tunnel is ventilating the toxic exhaust fumes. That problem is instantly solved if you limit the use of the tunnel to zero emission vehicles. As long as zero emission EVs are a small minority of the traffic, the tunnels will not be flooded by everyone seeking a shortcut. The underground shortcut will be a preserve for the elite few who have particular kind of expensive car. And that will also help enhance the sale of Teslas.
We should not be surprised that a billionaire who flies to space as a hobby is instinctively elitist. In his mind, he should never be stuck in traffic alongside the plebs and proles, figuratively or literally. A man in possession of a mind as analytic as Musk’s would instantly know that two routes to the same destination with equal access would be equally flooded. So, within the hour he was caught in traffic, he conceived an elegant solution. Cull the heard and allow only the people who can afford his expensive cars. He has not yet made his intentions public (wisely, I must say) but the descriptions of his proposed tunnel is quite revealing. Non-EV cars must be placed on self driving trays in order to be transported through the tunnel.
Clearly this does not solve the problem of traffic jams. But it does give Musk a select option unavailable to others. This is the same man who wants to run a train through the vacuum of a tube isolated from the outside world. This is the man who flies above the world in a spaceship. This is the man highly critical of universal basic income and liberal taxation policies. This is a man who not only sees the world as being made of winners and losers, but believes that a solution for winners is the solution to the problem. And possesses the inventive mind and monetary prowess to solve the world’s problems in his way. And he runs with it.
This is the way the man’s mind works. And it is inevitable. Every great man is selectively blind. He needs to be in order to be great. We tend to say that such people are focused, which is true but misses the point. Humans being herd animals, we tend to follow men who have achieved greatness. But great men are seldom great for you. Never trust a great man to be your protector.
And as you try to envision your own future, you need to ask yourself, what kind of selective blindness you are willing to adopt. Beware. The blinders you wear for an extended time tend to become a part of you.