Long article about Elon Musk at Aeon. Musk, along with Peter Thiel, is one of the few modern capitalists who resembles the Heinlein hero D.D.Harriman (or one of Ayn Rand’s late-career male lead characters): an innovator who wants to remake the world of possibilities, expand the pie for everyone, and grab a big slice of it for himself. (Jobs at most wanted to do the first and last; Zuckerberg, the last only).
Musk has been pushing this line – Mars colonisation as extinction insurance – for more than a decade now, but not without pushback. ‘It’s funny,’ he told me. ‘Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, “Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.” They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school,’ he said. ‘I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.’
I completely agree with Musk that humankind and civilization are better than their absence. ‘Maintaining the light of consciousness’ is a sentiment we all can agree with. But let’s be honest with ourselves and call it a religious sentiment, and those million Martian colonists a religious community.
Whether the interviewer, Ross Anderson, gets it isn’t clear. It would be a shame if he didn’t, since he recognizes the only question is, which Old Testament prophet does Musk most resemble?
It’s possible to read Musk as a Noah figure, a man obsessed with building a great vessel, one that will safeguard humankind against global catastrophe. But he seems to see himself as a Moses, someone who makes it possible to pass through the wilderness – the ‘empty wastes,’ as Kepler put it to Galileo – but never sets foot in the Promised Land.
Musk also seems to have bought into the whig history view of evolution. Intelligence must be the pinnacle of evolution, so the lack of observed intelligent life must mean the universe destroys advanced civilizations:
Musk has a more sinister theory. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’
Or we could set aside our anthropomorphic bias and realize there are billions of worlds without life; without multicellular life; without intelligent life; without intelligent life capable of building an advanced civilization…