Elon Musk’s Disastrous Week
For the tech worlds most attention-grabbing man, performance comes before substance. This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here . The tech worlds most attention-grabbing man had a very busy week. Elon Musk launched a rocket, dealt with bad news at Tesla, stoked fear that AI could end humankind, and rolled out another controversial change on Twitter. Through it all, Musk exemplifies the danger of what happens when technology and ego collide. First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic : An Explosive Week Earlier today, a SpaceX rocket exploded in the skies over the Gulf of Mexico, detonating itself after the booster failed to separate from the upper portion of the vehicle after launch. Watching the clip , from start to fiery finish, I was struck above all else by the sound of applauseroutine during such launches, of course, but marked by a different timbre this week. SpaceX is one of Elon Musks many projects, a private transportation company with ambitions to serve Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. As CEO, Musk splits his attention between this lofty mission and his duties as CEO of both Tesla and Twitter, the latter of which he acquired in a frenzy for $44 billion last year. Through these roles he has secured his spot as one of Americas most transfixing subjects, a polarizing man for a polarized age , whose accomplishments are slopped over with failure. The rocket blew up; Teslas profits are down more than 20 percent year over year; Twitter is, well, Twitter. No surprise, then, that Musk has grown to embrace the role of performer, as when he appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Monday for a lengthy freak-out about artificial intelligence. In this environmentat least for a man like Muskvalue and substance are secondary concerns. What matters is that people are paying attention and reacting. No wonder then that he promised yesterday that his electric cars would become fully self-driving as soon as this yearan application of AI technology that has already been implicated in a number of deaths just days after he warned on Tucker that AI is a danger to the public. There is no ideological consistency, just bluster and unyielding demands for attention. My colleague Charlie Warzel has called it the myth of the tech genius : After years of growth and innovation in the tech industry, many people lionize the supposedly great men at the center of it all, without reason. The myth is not harmless. AI, and especially generative AI, that newer strain youve heard about or seen in the likes of ChatGPT and DALL-E, demands scrutiny. Although the technology currently seems more likely to destroy high-school-English assignments than it is to rend our flesh and blood, there are serious risks to contend with: Misinformation is a big one, and so is a flood of gray goo, as the writer Matthew Kirschenbaum evocatively put it endless junk content written and published by AI. There are also deeper effects of existing AI systems that scholars such as Safiya Noble, Joy Buolamwini, and Virginia Eubanks have called attention to for years: racial bias and automated inequality. Rather than address these problems, Musk is focused elsewhere. He announced during his Carlson appearance that he would develop something called TruthGPT, a maximum truth-seeking AI that tries to understand the nature of the universe. (I suspect were a few years out from that, at least.) Musk exemplifies the danger at the intersection of technology and ego: There are serious problems to be dealt with, but distractions always seem to take precedence. This has already played out on Twitter, which has mutated under Musks stewardship into a broken mess of contradictions without any meaningful oversight . Musk has promised transparency into the platforms inner workings, but has made consequential decisions behind closed doors. As my colleague Caroline Mimbs Nyce wrote : Under Musks leadership, Twitter has recklessly pulled down guardrails, such as dramatically downsizing teams dedicated to safety and internal accountability and haphazardly opening up its blue-check verification system to anyone willing to pay a fee (while removing the actual identity-verifying part in the process). Major decisions that affect the user experience are made without clear justification ... the company pulled the blue check off The New York Times Twitter account, and ... labeled NPR state-affiliated media. Donald Moynihan, a policy professor at Georgetown University who frequently writes on tech governance, noted on Twitter that policies once used to safeguard users are now being rewritten in obviously nonsensical ways to fit with the whims of its owner. Today, Musk followed through on an earlier promise to remove the blue checks from users who wont pay a monthly subscription fee to the platform. The little icon was a status marker , sure, but it was also a symbol of some kind of higher order on the social network: Gone with it is the final vestige of the Twitter that once was. Still, there is applause. Musks adoring fans treat the pay-to-play scheme as part of the CEOs supposed free-speech crusade , suggesting that the ability to buy a check mark puts everyone on equal footingbut a privilege that can, must , be bought isnt much of a privilege at all. Perhaps theres no need to eulogize the old Twitter. The platform has always had problems, has always distorted conversations and turned too many people toward their darkest impulses. But it was also, at least, the creation of a community. To the extent that Twitters downfall represents the end of the age of social media , it is because the platform has abandoned users in favor of the whims of one man. Still, the social network has its devotees; so will TruthGPT, if and when it launches. Some clapped when the rocket lifted off. Some clapped when it exploded. And somewhere beyond the smoke was Elon Musk, taking it all in. Related : Todays News Evening Read The End of Recommendation Letters By Ian Bogost Early spring greened outside the picture window in the faculty club. I was lunching with a group of fellow professors, and, as happens these days when we assemble, generative artificial intelligence was discussed. Are your students using it? What are you doing to prevent cheating? Heads were shaken in chagrin as iced teas were sipped for comfort. But then, one of my colleagues wondered: Could he use AI to generate a reference letter for a student? Faculty write loads of these every year, in support of applications for internships, fellowships, industry jobs, graduate school, university posts. They all tend to be more or less the same, yet they also somehow take a lot of time, and saving some of it might be nice. Other, similar ideas spilled out quickly. Maybe ChatGPT could help with grant proposals. Or syllabi, even? The ideas seemed revelatory, but also scandalous. Scandalous because we faculty, like all faculty everywhere, were drawn into an educators panic about AI over the winter ... And now, in the faculty club, we professors were musing over how to automate our own assignments? Read the full article. More From The Atlantic Culture Break Read. Marco Antonio , a new poem by Kyle Carrero Lopez. I first meet Marco Antonio here: / 50-something, distant blood, dark-skinned, gravel-throat speech. Watch. Catch up on the fourth and final season of Barry , which premiered on HBO on Sunday. As Barry has become less of a straightforward comedy, its become an even better show, our writer argued last year. Play our daily crossword. Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.