Snyder on Musk

It’s troubled me for a long time how much people I respect put faith into Elon Musk.

Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands and On Tyranny articulates that and far more in this newsletter from earlier this month:

How can we be alone in the universe?:

Musk himself exemplifies the anti-scientific method. On X, he limits himself to a few inputs, those that confirm the impulses of his worst self. His outputs are cliched conspiracy theories. These are not just erroneous opinions; they constitute an anti-scientific worldview, replete with insistent monocausal implausibility, hostile to data, experiment, and theory.

Were we to think as Musk now tweets, we would never get to space. Indeed, we would never have invented the wheel. The man has achieved some remarkable things. But now the mind exhibits magical thinking.

There is a fatal charisma in this. Magical thinking works within a pre-modern politics, in which facts and law do not matter, only a cycle of real and symbolic gifts from the chieftain to his followers — which in the current era means likes and grifts. Summoned by the chieftain’s digital drumbeat to belief in unseen forces, we are capable of disorganized faith and mutual exploitation, but not of self-mastery or self-government.

And on such things, of course, depend not only space travel but climate policy and indeed any sane response to the challenges at our doorstep. Musk’s response to war in Ukraine and Israel has been utterly disastrous, not only spreading lies but confidence in those lies, training minds to mold emotional impressions to prejudice rather than to consider and reflect.

Tech is part of the problem, but only we can bear responsibility. As science fiction writers and scholars have argued, the digital can magnify prior human injustice. Were hydrocarbon oligarchs not so powerful, Musk’s platform would not be full of their propaganda. Were X not controlled a single wealthy person, it would be less of a bespoke endorphin whirlpool.

It all reminds me of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, a terrific book written decades ago about how the modern age somehow makes it easier to devolve into superstition and misunderstanding. In thinking so fast, and in such partisan ways, we make ourselves dumber.

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