On Elon Musk, Starbase, and “Innovationism”

This picture is a crude photoshop to provide visual analog but is in no way created by or associated with Elon Musk, “Starbase,” Tesla, etc.

A couple weeks ago, I saw in the news that Elon Musk said he wanted to create a city called “Starbase” in Texas. It was reported that SpaceX has approached Boca Chica county officials with the idea of incorporating the city.

Starbase does sound kinda cool and its certainly doable for someone with as much money and influence as Musk has. Although, he is a polarizing figure — a lightning rod of veneration and criticism. His companies have made contributions to our society but have also been found to violate labor laws. Musk has made all sorts of pronouncements with varying levels of follow-through, so his Starbase idea zipped through the news cycle with moderate coverage.

But something about this idea stuck with me. It made me think about how the reason many of us in society laud Musk is because we have accepted a kind of “innovationism” — the idea that all of society’s most pressing problems can be innovated out of. Technology is the all-purpose hammer in a world full of nails.

Some of our problems certainly do and will call for technological solutions, but we shouldn’t be so quick to presuppose that solutions are better simply because they are market-based. However, I do think mainstream society has tacitly accepted a key part of innovationism—you move fast, you break things, and in the process, you learn how to build better.

But this system of ideas ironically accepts the status quo as immutable, while it (to re-appropriate Adrian Daub in “What Tech Calls Thinking”) sublimates the concept of revolution. Innovationism is often a simultaneous rejection of social status quo and a rigid defense of market status quo. It presupposes that the market and those with power will only help society if their investments are protected instead of, for example, tech billionaires paying their fair share of taxes to public goods, services and institutions can be properly funded.

With things like automation and AI, innovation is often taken as a value in and of itself. But to what extent is it merely a more charismatic version of neoliberal optimization and efficiency thinking — figuring out ways to make more money with less workers, and to privatize profits and socialize risk? If I’m not mistaken, Musk’s move to Texas was largely to avoid California’s coronavirus restrictions and avoid taxes. Starbase seems connected to Musk’s worldview and the logical conclusion of innovationism — instead of improving cities through public policy, you just create a new one.

Daub wrote that disruption “plays to our impatience with structures and situations that seem to coast on habit and inertia” and has become a way to “lean in the direction of more capitalism, of cast-off fetters and a more untrammeled expression of market forces.” I like to think of disruption as the expensive electric car that innovationism drives. To put another way, if you want freedom, you don’t share, you just pick up your ball and go play somewhere else. And maybe even more than that, you pick up your ball and go build your own playground.

In some ways, Musk is the quintessence of how we think innovation works — the singular genius within a larger progress narrative that “proves” the power of the individual and the market. Behind this guile is often billions and billions in government subsidies. Innovationism makes us forget that we fund the development of all the cool thingamajigs that goes into our iPhones but then we have to go buy the iPhone, ostensibly paying for it twice. In similar ways, we hear how cool “Starbase” sounds without questioning how the techno-libertarian impulse would clash with the concept of “the public” that cities rest upon and that keeps them running.

If Starbase is to truly a city and not just the grounds for his factory, Musk will face various logistical realities and challenges of cities — the creation and upkeep of infrastructure, garbage collection and sanitation, unions, public investments, hearing the concerns of the residents (who are stakeholders in how the city functions, and therefore, unofficial shareholders in SpaceX), how local governance affects business, how born-raised-locals and gentrifying forces have contrasting concerns and incentives, etc.

Is he ready for this, or does he just want a city?

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