We are living in one of those rare transitional moments of history in which accelerating trends are redefining many of our major assumptions about the world. During times of paradigm shift, everything is related. Scientific, technological and geopolitical changes both accompany and induce transformative economic and cultural change. And because change always encounters resistance, what formerly appeared stable can rapidly degenerate and even disassemble. Two of the things that appear to be self-destructing before our very eyes are the use our society’s leaders and the media make of language and logic.
This past week, the world’s most prominent hyperreal hero, Elon Musk, provided a perfect demonstration of just how radically language and logic can be turned inside out. Musk has always thrived within an oxymoronic reality of his own invention. This time he literally took his art to dizzying heights when Starship, his newest and heaviest rocket, exploded in the upper atmosphere shortly after takeoff.
In its description of the event, Reuters not only highlighted the oxymoron of “a successful failure” but also drew a direct connection with Musk’s Silicon Valley business philosophy. “The spectacular explosion of SpaceX’s new Starship rocket minutes after it soared off its launch pad on a first flight test is the latest vivid illustration of a ‘successful failure’ business formula that serves Elon Musk’s company well.”
The usually dour The New York Times was impressed. The Gray Lady even allowed itself a moment of tepid irony as it recounted the event. “Casual space watchers were further amused by the company describing the result of the mission on Twitter with cosmic levels of euphemism. SpaceX called it “a rapid unscheduled disassembly” — or, put another way, an explosion.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Rapid unscheduled disassembly (RUD):
A rare non-scatological euphemism invented by Elon Musk to describe a process specific to his aerospace experimentation that could equally, and perhaps more accurately, be applied to the entire drift of geopolitical and cultural reality of the United States in the first half of the 21st century.
Elon Musk has never shied away from formulating utter nonsense. But, when you go beneath the veneer, the nonsense has its own discernible rationality. Who, after all, would name their firm the Boring Company unless there was a connection with the physical act of horizontal digging? Who would christen their newborn X Æ A-12 unless they believed that the future of the entire human race would unfold on Mars? Musk clearly believes that names one gives to things and people should always be a source of laughter.
The explanation SpaceX gave of their successful failure made a lot of sense. “Now this was a development test, this was the first test flight of Starship, and the goal is to gather the data and as we said, clear the pad and get ready to go again. So you never know exactly what’s going to happen, but as we promised, excitement is guaranteed! Starship gave us a rather spectacular end to what was truly an incredible test.”
This follows a basic law of the consumer economy and illustrates the increasingly obvious point that technology and science themselves, at least in Musk’s hands, have now become subordinated to the laws of consumerism. Until recently geopolitical and military strategy followed the more sober rules of industrial communication. Discretion trumped ostentatious boasting. In contrast, the laws of the consumer economy require generating excitement to achieve one’s goal. Because brands are built to be remembered, anything that makes them look exciting is deemed a winner.
Musk and SpaceX have profoundly changed the culture of space exploration. It’s no longer about redefining humanity’s position in the universe. The days of Neil Armstong’s “one small step” are over. That kind of humility is passé. It’s now about the exciting mission of conquering and dominating space.
As a public speaker, Musk, suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, is awkward and unimpressive. But his erratic behavior in public and private, as well as the frequent bizarre statements he makes are uniformly provocative. Eccentricity – which includes producing exciting mishaps – has become the emblem of his genius.
Who doesn’t remember the moment when, after claiming that his Tesla Cybertruck was indestructible, Musk took a sledge hammer and shattered its shatterproof window? That was exciting. Three years later the man who, at the time, was worth only about $20 billion, became the richest person in the world, with his wealth measured in the hundreds of billions. You can’t have one (wealth) without the other (excitement).
The Starship’s explosion last week wasn’t just “exciting.” According to space.com, one resident who lives 10 km away from the launch site called the launch itself “truly terrifying.” The ensuing explosion in mid-air merely completed a well-choreographed display of technological terror. Others have reported on the visible damage the launch did to the environment, with “debris from Starship spread for miles over the Gulf of Mexico.” Only an enterprise eminently strategic can justify, in an exciting way, that kind of mistreatment of our common environment.
As soon as the explosion occurred, the team on the ground began cheering. In contrast, Musk, sitting at an observation post, appeared calm and even sullen, as if his hopes had been dashed. The members of the media team were already gloating at the spectacle. They couldn’t suppress a triumphant laugh when the chief commentator explained with authority that this was “a rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
Had the launch succeeded the excitement would have been prolonged as a total victory. Musk would once again have been celebrated as a genius of both business and technology. But the explosion produced immediate excitement and enabled the media to celebrate Musk for more than simply achieving something. Achieving it through an “unscheduled” spectacular failure may be more impressive and convince more people of the value of his project than a scheduled success.
Now if Musk can find a way of having Twitter explode in the upper atmosphere, he might produce an even more resounding success.
When the history of the first half of the 21st century is written by 22nd century historians, what we now think of as the great names in the world of politics – the Bidens, Putins, Obamas, Clintons, Xis, Kennedys, Zelenskys, Nulands and even Trumps – will be largely forgotten. At best, they will appear in random footnotes. Instead, historians are likely to focus on the most emblematic person of our times: Elon Musk. He alone wrote the narrative of the first phase of a new millennium.
Those future historians, whether living on earth or Mars, will likely identify the five great secrets of hypereal success of our epoch. Musk’s lifework illustrates each of them.
- Unbridled, self-interested technological experimentation,
- Post-imperial, hyper-colonial exploitation of the planet,
- Narcissistic personality disorder linked to celebrity culture as the the means of identifying leadership,
- Systematic subversion of the language,
- The programmed marginalization of logical thinking, deemed irrelevant to the universal quest for success.
Let’s take them one by one.
With SpaceX, the native South African has perfected the art of unbridled, self-interested technological experimentation conducted at the expense of the American taxpayer.
In a famous tweet celebrating the CIA-instigated coup that overturned the election of Bolivian President Evo Morales in 2019, Musk demonstrated his dolidarity with the long term commitment of the US to treat the planet’s resources as its own colonial reserve, destined to serve the needs of the US economy at the expense of the countries who possess those resources.
As America’s most successful hyperreal hero, with one step up on Donald Trump, Musk has created his own brand of narcissistic personality disorder.
Musk has consistently demonstrated his taste for systematic linguistic subversion. Witness his naming of companies and children. RUD is his latest invention. His linguistic humor is often sophomoric, disrespectful and on occasion libelous, but it achieves a kind of legitimacy to the extent that it can appear to be a parody of the far more sinister trend of linguistic perversion used by governmental and corporate propagandists.
Finally, Musk has also demonstrated a penchant for pushing illogical, or at the very least, non-logical thinking to the fore. His uncritical insistence that Mars can become the self-sustaining home for humanity is simply the most spectacular. On paper, it looks as if it’s technically feasible – and of course, exciting – but he seems to be unaware of a very real experiment of people voluntarily living in a glass dome. It took place on earth 30 years ago, where there was no need of terraforming. Despite fewer environmental challenges, it produced a traumatizing failure that ended in what might be described as “rapid unscheduled mental disassembly.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.
Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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