I know Elon Musk does good, but he's still a bonehead | Hannah Jane Parkinson

For every extraordinary feat, there’s something else bizarre or shameful, most recently calling a Thailand cave rescuer a ‘pedo’

When I was at school, one of the go-to playground insults, I am afraid, was “paedo”. Mostly the teachers were paedos, but the socially awkward kid in sixth form and the janitor who scuppered your escape at lunchtime were also targets. Of course, I realise now that even jokingly accusing someone of sexually abusing children isn’t witty or clever. You grow out of these baseless, ridiculous epithets, don’t you?

Not Elon Musk, aged 47. The tech CEO has called the British diver Vern Unsworth – one of the first divers on the scene who helped rescue the Thai football team trapped in a cave – a “pedo” on Twitter (he has 22 million followers). This was simply because Unsworth pointed out that Musk’s offer of a submarine wasn’t helpful to the rescue efforts.

Just watch the video in which Unsworth gives his opinion on Musk’s submarine. “He can stick it where it hurts,” Unsworth says, which may have precipitated Musk’s “pedo” remark, but just to reiterate, Musk is 47, and I do not think Unsworth was seriously considering sodomising him with an oxygen cylinder. Perhaps the best part of the video is when the interviewer says: “But [Musk] was in the cave,” and without missing a beat, Unsworth replies: “And was asked to leave very quickly.” The diver is now considering legal action over the tweet.

Last week Musk kicked off because the media referred to him as a billionaire. The billionaire label, Musk argued, was used to “devalue” him ( even though it’s factually correct), and in a staggeringly unintelligent observation he moaned that “they didn’t call me that until my companies got to a certain size”. Well, duh.

It’s wild that Musk can act like such a bonehead. He is clearly highly intelligent and his SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch in February was genuinely awe-inspiring. Sure, he boasted relentlessly and couldn’t resist attaching one of his Tesla cars to the rocket – and his space exploration efforts are based on his strange idea that artificial intelligence is going to go rogue, become evil, take over the Earth and we are all going to have to colonise Mars (I am being serious here) – but there is no doubt the launch was an extraordinary feat of engineering and design. He is dating the singer Grimes and he’s objectively handsome, even if looking a bit like a Madame Tussauds waxwork. The guy is doing well.

But it isn’t all rosy. Tesla, his electric car company, which he has said will be worth a trillion dollars in a decade, actually isn’t doing great. A Tesla driver was killed in March while running on Autopilot, and production on its mass-market Model 3 has stalled. His Boring Company has become a bit of a joke after marketing flamethrowers to bored dads (but did pocket him $3.5m).

The thing is, despite finding the Musk online roasting over his cave exploits pretty hilarious, initially I wasn’t entirely convinced it wasn’t mean-spirited. He was, after all, trying to help. But it can actually be quite burdensome when someone tries to help but doesn’t know what they are doing: too many cooks spoil the broth – especially if they can’t cook. Musk refused to recognise this, insisting he had been asked to help, and then released emails which actually suggested those involved with the rescue were politely trying to humour him with the minimum time it took on their part (never mind the questionable ethics of releasing private correspondence).

But Musk, of course, hopped on a plane with his mini-sub. He left it in the cave, after the boys had been rescued, “in case it is useful” in the future. Last week I couldn’t think of anything worse than being in those boys’ situation, trapped in a wet, dark cave. But I think being trapped in a wet, dark cave and finding an unworkable Elon Musk vanity project was my only hope of getting out would just about top it.

If Musk had quietly beavered away on something that might have helped, that would have been one thing, but that isn’t Musk’s style – he happily admits to his own arrogance.

Musk’s eagerness to insert himself into the narrative, as we put it these days, is typical of Silicon Valley types who thrust themselves forward as the saviours to, well, everything. But it usually unravels. Mark Zuckerberg, widely thought to be keen to run for president (though those ambitions have rather taken a knock given the company’s recent privacy and fake news scandals), received widespread praise when he announced that he would donate 99% of his Facebook shares to “human advancement”. But it later turned out his charity was actually a limited company. His $100m public schools initiative failed when he seemingly didn’t take into account state legislation. His ostensibly altruistic Free Basics scheme, though offering internet access to millions, was banned in India because it created a monopoly and violated net neutrality.

I am a huge fan of innovative technology to solve problems. A big advocate of advances in healthcare, travel, politics and social policy. I am less keen on arrogant middle-aged white men busting into everything and thinking that merely rolling their sleeves up and throwing a lot of money around can solve a problem. The money part is perfect, but only if spent well.

It would make a lot more sense if, instead of dedicating his time and effort to fatalism and Mars, Musk helped out with the planet we currently have. One Twitter user pointed out he could help with things like the Flint water crisis, and Musk has since pledged to fix pipes in contaminated homes. Musk, to his credit, also sent solar Tesla battery packs to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, restoring temporary power to a children’s hospital in a demonstrable example of where his aid can be effective.

But you know what? How about Musk focuses on fixing the awful working conditions in some of his Tesla factories (Amazon’s Jeff Bezos could do the same), instead of offering them free frozen yoghurt? Zuckerberg would get much more praise from me if he simply stopped avoiding paying a fair share of tax instead of writing 5,000-word manifestos on social justice. Ditto Google, ditto Richard Branson, whose company, lest we forget, also launched legal action against the NHS. Bill Gates is the rare tech power player who seems to have made a success of his (and his wife Melinda’s) philanthropic organisation.

The fact is, the heroes of the Thai cave rescue were the divers of many different nationalities, some of whom were amateurs: the Thai navy Seals; the local government; the paramedics and doctors who treated the kids afterwards; and the kids and coach themselves for staying calm. And that is something to remember in the era of the strong man, whether in politics or Silicon Valley: sometimes the little people coming together can achieve bigger and better things.

  • Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist


Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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