So Elon Musk has revealed his great new intercity transit idea, the HyperLoop. It would seem the emphasis should be on the first syllable — to wit, HYPE — but I’ll leave engineering analyses to those far more qualified than I. My impression is that Musk offers vaporware that over-promises and under-delivers, that will never be implemented and would fail if it were. (See here for one take-down.) I’m more interested in how he generated all this buzz and why the media fell all over itself to hype it.
A good starting point is simply that it’s August and the news is slow. There haven’t been any recurrences of the 2010 summer of rage to capture the media’s attention. So a guy who’s always been good at self-promotion and who has a flair for the cool can definitely garner a few minutes air time. But I think there’s more.
First, as a society, we fetishize monetary success and idolatrize those who achieve it. We assume that anyone who’s made a bunch of money must be intrinsically smart, clever, or wise, and that this means he — and it is almost always a “he” — will magically have expertise in areas far removed from the one in which he made his fortune. (Not to double-link, but this point really is made nicely at the article above.) This impulse is particularly virulent in an age when the captains of industry must desperately justify their outsized share of the economy to the plebes whom they stand upon, and since media empires are one of the trappings of those captains, the popular media go along. We must worship success and idolatrize financial achievers, because otherwise the grueling inequality of our system would make us monsters.
Second, and not unrelated, we live in an age that builds up the private enterprise but denigrates the public work. An entrepreneur is to be hailed and held up; a privately-funded superssytem is admirable. But a public/private partnership that slogs through all the legwork of providing a high-speed rail system? That must be torn down. It is considered prima facie susceptible to corruption, of course, but it’s even worse if it succeeds. A successful HSR project would not only pump money into the economy; it would be evidence that government can succeed, and our current political atmosphere cannot sustain that sort of heresy. (There are definite shades of Atlas Shrugged here, which probably also help explain the positive reception of a subset of the media.)
Third, the HyperLoop idea plays into a creeping anti-professionalism in American culture. We are more and more convinced that “expertise” doesn’t exist. Anyone with a big idea can succeed! Details are for wimps! This myth comforts those at the top of the pyramid, of course, because it can post facto justify their position and tells them it’s OK to leave the hard work of, say, designing things to others. (I submit it’s one reason for the idolization of Steve Jobs, whom many have distorted into just an idea guy. I don’t think Jobs himself fell victim to this; he insisted on solid work and good design.) The Big Idea myth, ironically, also comforts those not at the top. They can imagine that, someday, their own Big Idea will come and they will catapult into the stratosphere of the 1%. They don’t have to work, or save, or plan; they just have to wait for inspiration. (A twisted version of this is peddled to our youth, who see their way out of the morass in athletic or musical stardom — and again, the assumption is that talent trumps training.)
Finally, and not unrelatedly at all, the HyperLoop ties into the strain of romanticism that infest American pop culture. We celebrate the dashing hero, the incorruptible outsider, the lone genius. Our central myth is the rugged individualist. Of course, our understanding of how the West was won is little more than myth. Consistent and continual community-building made this country, not loners standing in wastelands. Our films reinforce this, even in our science fiction, with The Professor the common archetype for the “good” scientist (and the evil genius his dark counterpart): A man (and again, it’s almost always a man) who stands outside the scientific consensus, sees things no one else can imagine, and single-handedly fashions exotic new technologies and whole worlds from the fruits of his solitary mind. This is the exact opposite of science, of course, with its community of learners and its painstaking assembly of new knowledge from the pieces contributed by hundreds of peers. But The Hero is sexier than the team, and so we celebrate that. We find irresistible the idea that the one guy — a genius or a billionaire — could sweep past the hundreds of researchers, activists, and experts patiently slogging away. (Any consideration of this fight would be remiss without pointing toward David Brin’s brilliant analysis of Star Wars versus Star Trek and what each says about our values.)
We live in a complex and scary world, with intimidating and complicated problems. It’s a dangerous conceit to believe that there are simple and clear answers that, somehow, no one’s thought of. It happens from time to time, of course, but so do lightning strikes. The human mind amplifies the impact of rare events and accords them a too-great weight in how we plan things. The solution to high-speed intercity transit is unlikely to come out of the blue from a guy who’d hardly thought about the problem before.
Some people have made dark rumblings that Musk — a man who’s trying to sell cars and thus has a motive to sabotage trains — might just be committing an underhanded intellectual fraud in pursuit of profit. I don’t think that’s true. I think he’s deluded by his impression of his own genius, and his delusions neatly plug into our societal ones.