Put on your spectacles to live the excitement.
Elon Musk wants us to know that his ambition is by no means limited to technological innovation. As we saw very recently, he can be the ultimate master of the infomercial. He successfully sold 20,000 overpriced flamethrowers in less than a week. Earlier this week, Musk’s initiative provided The Daily Devil’s Dictionary with the opportunity of defining “hyperreality.” Hyperreality turns out to be a promotional strategy that Musk shares with Donald Trump, the other prominent specialist of “outrageous off-brand products” whose own off-brand strategy led him into politics. Some suspect that Musk may be targeting politics as well, except that, born in South Africa, he is ineligible to become president of the United States. He has nevertheless expressed his pride at being an adviser to President Trump.
A week after his flamethrower triumph, Musk presided over the launch of Falcon Heavy, a revolutionary high-powered rocket. Here is how he described it: “It’s either going to be an exciting success or an exciting failure — I’d say tune in. It’s going to be worth your time.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An adjective designating the compelling virtue of a well-prepared commercial event organized according to the rules of the society of the spectacle. Such events include monumental expense and the appearance of high risk.
The former generation of purveyors of spectacular excitement has seen its best days. Based on staged (or filmed) events, it was led by anonymous producers such as Harvey Weinstein in the world of entertainment. It rarely involved visible risk, other than financial. Not even artistic risk, as studios preferred remakes of former successes to innovation. The National Football League is also fading. As the most spectacularly violent sport not branded “extreme,” in which brain damage is nevertheless a constant risk, it not only became predictable, it was thrown into confusion by the controversy surrounding the national anthem. At the same time, new forms of competition are emerging, such as the ongoing contest between human and artificial brains. First it was chess, then Go, as humans failed to beat better talent. Then it was reading comprehension and soon it will be most human jobs.
Musk, who made a point of investing in artificial intelligence while warning against it, has thus positioned himself as a purveyor of excitement. With a personal fortune of over $20 billion, he has the means of creating and managing the excitement of risk. Recreational flamethrowers are visibly risky to use, even if they are nothing more than rebranded roof torches. When it comes to his serious technology ventures, Musk deliberately exaggerates the level of risk to throw his eventual competition off balance. He nearly managed to derail California’s state-funded high-speed train project, which is floundering on its own. And although he lost out, Musk could notch up California’s current rail fiasco as a moral victory in his permanent competition with public services.
Musk projects himself as the ultimate 21st-century hyperreal celebrity, the master of new forms of competition that leave all other mortals behind. He even claims to be dictating the future of humanity, whereas Trump, the most powerful political decision-maker, remains powerlessly focused on the past.
Here is what Musk says about the launch: “If we are successful in this, it is game over for all the other heavy lift rockets.” Musk presents his technologies as the means of solving society’s problems of transport, energy, social organization and even survival of the human race (the ultimate justification of SpaceX). But rather than envisioning it as a collective human adventure, he sees it as a gigantic competitive zero-sum game for individuals like himself (except, of course, there is no one like Musk). “Game over.” On to the next victory!
The French situationist philosopher Guy Debord launched the idea of the Société du Spectacle in 1967. John Harris, in The Guardian, points to its salient features: “[C]elebrity culture and its portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us actually live it.” It could be Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift. It could be Pat Brady or Kobe Bryant. Or it could be Elon Musk, who — more than those who have earned their fame through entertainment or sports — has the financial means to play out all his hyperreal dreams.
As he says, it will be “an exciting success or an exciting failure… tune in. It’s going to be worth your time.” We are his spectators. All we have to do is “tune in.” And then spend our time, unless we also happen to have $500 to spend on a flamethrower. After all, as a celebrity he isn’t going to dig into his $20 billion to entertain or “to bore,” when he knows there are spectators out there eager to provide the $2 million he needs for his Boring Company.
N.B. In case you didn’t “tune in,” the launch of Falcon Heavy was successful. And exciting to watch! It even went further than planned, past Mars, which at least proves Robert Burns right: “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley” (often translated, the best laid plans of mice and men).
*[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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