The Daily Devil’s Dictionary can always count on Elon Musk to provide it with new material. As a hyperreal celebrity with amazingly deep pockets, Musk has the rare privilege of being in a position to play games with ideas, language and even the law, in an exceptionally creative way. At least to the extent that creativity implies a loose sense of accountability. Musk has realized the rare feat of defining his image as that of a billionaire eccentric (rather than an eccentric billionaire) whose passion isn’t making money, but rather formulating concrete plans with other people’s futuristic dreams and turning them into high-profile business operations and, eventually, commodities.
In January 2018, we highlighted Musk’s existential fear of, and paradoxical commitment to, artificial intelligence (AI), which incited him to launch a company called Neuralink, whose aim is to turn humans who want to survive the coming age of AI into cyborgs. To keep the chatter (and his brand) going, nearly a year and a half later, Musk has returned with news of the progress Neuralink is making. Hollywood-style, of course, as The Independent reports, with a teaser announcing a “coming attraction.” Here is how the media relay it: “Elon Musk has revealed his Neuralink startup is close to announcing the first brain-machine interface to connect humans and computers.”
Though the product is still veiled in mystery, we learn a little more about what to expect: “Speaking last year on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Mr Musk said Neuralink’s technology would allow humans to ‘effectively merge with AI.’”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The action of combining two independent entities — rivers, commercial companies, technology, etc. — into a single entity that both gains in volume, resources, scope and material power and definitively loses the basis of both of the existing identities
The website Futurism gives us a clearer idea of what to think of all this in the subtitle of its article on Musk’s latest announcement: “We might soon get an update from Musk’s mysterious neurotech startup.” Only hyperreal superheroes are capable of grabbing people’s attention with the idea that something “might” happen. What might or might not be announced in an undefined future is neither real news nor fake news. It’s hyperreal news.
It would be true to say that months ago a similar headline proclaiming that we might soon get an update from Robert Mueller on his report would have commanded everyone’s attention in the media. But that’s also because the Mueller report is the ultimate hyperreal fantasy about the single most hyperreal politician democracy has ever produced: Donald Trump. We “might” even ask ourselves whether the only news anyone in the media is willing to report is in some sense hyperreal news. Reality is so passé.
The Guardian’s tech critic, Charles Arthur, offers another insight into Musk’s futuristic hyperreality, which this time is mainly and basely commercial. Lamenting the monumental fiasco of Samsung’s new folding phone, he observes: “If you ever wondered whether the tech business is thrashing around in search of something — anything — to make people Buy More Unneeded Stuff, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is all the proof you need.” Arthur points out that when commercial success begins to falter — as is the case with the smartphone market — we inevitably reach what he calls the “throw-ideas-at-the-wall stage of innovation.” That seems to describe Elon Musk’s raison d’être. Of course, his throwing ability extends all the way to Mars.
Musk always has a good reason for his futuristic vision. For colonizing Mars, he eloquently sums it up: “Becoming a multi-planet species beats the hell out of being a single-planet species.” Justifying the launch of Neuralink to The Wall Street Journal in 2017, Musk claimed that a “direct cortical interface” would enable humans to “reach higher levels of cognition — and give humans a better shot at competing with artificial intelligence.”
These two comments help to define how hyperreal reasoning works, especially in contemporary US culture. When audiences flock to fiction that pits superheroes against supervillains, the idea of the good becomes confused with that not just of competitive advantage and cultivated prowess, but of “beating the hell out of” whatever you’re trying to overcome. Musk uses the cliché “beat the hell out of” to mean simply “to be preferable to,” but the sense of beating the opponent and winning the prize underlies his meaning.
Newsweek sums up Musk’s reasoning about AI, reminding us that he “believes humans need to add a layer of digital intelligence to their brains in order to compete with AI.” Rather than reflect on what human intelligence is and how it works, under the pressure of what he sees as “competition,” Musk has decided that humanity, like the superhero of a science fiction fantasy, needs a magic supplement to win the race. Winning means merging, which sounds like a diplomatic solution, but some might see it as a form of capitulation because if AI is as dangerous as Musk makes out and as capable of becoming more dangerous by the minute, AI will certainly take over the intelligence of those who try to merge it with their own.
The idea of the merger in capitalist culture carries a positive value in most people’s minds. They see it as the achievement of consolidation of resources and a sign of progress since they expect new things to emerge from a merger. In reality, as Business Chief reports, “According to collated research and a recent Harvard Business Review report, the failure rate for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) sits between 70 percent and 90 percent.”
The merging of technology tells a different tale. When in 1990 — a time when some, but not all people had a telephone, a television and a computer — we predicted the convergence of telecommunications, audiovisual and information technology, most people reacted with a blank stare of skepticism.
The Musk brand has established a wider and more interesting range of themes than even Donald Trump’s. With his towers, steaks, vodka, President Trump starts at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the needs of hunger and shelter. Musk prefers to start at the top, not just personal self-actualization, but the collective self-actualization of humanity.
But whether he’s talking about colonizing Mars or equipping humans with augmented intelligence through neural nets, he isn’t targeting humanity but the privileged and rich in the West, those who can pay for the kind of super-luxuries he is specialized in designing and manufacturing. Musk projects a vision that offer solutions to pressing problems of humanity that will be affordable for people like himself, who have millions to spend for their survival, whether they are competing with climate change to take refuge elsewhere in the solar system or with AI to beat the corporations and governments that will subdue humans unable to afford his solutions.
Should we simply call this merger between hyperreal creativity and traditional cynicism?
*[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.]
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