Truth To Power

“Those who want power are the ones who least deserve it”.

Elon Musk, paraphrasing Plato

Even his worst detractors, if they’re being honest, are forced to grant that Elon Musk has a certain genius for problem-solving. In truth, he has a brilliant mind, enormous energy, and is possessed of grand visions for the future. Along with this come a host of flaws; who among us is not human?

His statement on power is subtly incorrect. I fully understand he’ll never read it; my signal here is buried in the noise. Who has the time to read 50,000+ replies anyway? But it’s important that the truth about power isn’t misrepresented without explanation.

Besides: YOU are reading, and that’s enough.

It’s true that those who seek power rarely deserve it, but that makes power sound like some sort of reward, or trophy. It’s not.

Power is a tool; rather like a car, it’s a dangerous tool. Used wisely, it is a force for good, or at least for progress; applied improperly, it can cause immeasurable harm, often burning itself up in the process. And one of the greatest truths of power is that it is often best employed by not using it.

Certainly, motivation is a part of it; he’s at least right about that. So too, though, is having a plan. It’s not enough that one’s intentions be good. There is no moral purity test on the path for power — and in fact some of the grandest achievements were accomplished through the power of the venal and corrupt aimed at self-enrichment. The transcontinental railroad comes immediately to mind.

“Back in the middle of the last century, four men went from California to Washington with $40,000; it was all they had. A few weeks later they were broke– but Congress had awarded them a billion dollars of railroad right-of-way.”

D.D. Harriman, “The Man Who Sold The Moon”, by Heinlein

That money was spent on bribes; the Congressmen thus judiciously bought made fortunes; the lands granted were 10% of the entire country — but the rail connection was worth more even than that. Hundreds died in its construction.

Much abused (mainly by the air travel lobby), most of the original line carries freight and passengers to this day.

These were not good men; they were rightly termed “Robber Barons”. The best of them were greedy and ruthless; the worst were little better than con men bent on defrauding the entire nation. But between them, they achieved great things. (Even the con men were men of vision; they dared greatly — and paid the price for their ambition, as often as not. Thomas C. “Doc” Durant of Crédit Mobilier infamy died in poverty, still scheming to the very end.)

Today, we stand at a technological crossroads, one that has somehow gone beyond our codified ethics. The laws that govern intellectual traffic on the internet haven’t been written, largely because we have no unified moral basis for them. It’s hard when the network all at once reaches into every home and crosses most international borders.

So this time, we cannot permit the way forward to be handled by mere businessmen, or even by visionary geniuses, well-intentioned though they may be. First and foremost, we need people at the head who understand ethics — and I’m not talking about lawyers, who as often as not view the law as something to evade and professional ethics as an obstacle to profit. We need great thinkers, masters of the philosophy of morality as well as that of technology; and we require tireless champions of free speech.

That’s because their first job will be to invent a brand new morality, one that can apply to all, and that will scale with technological advancement.

The bottom line: If you don’t understand that lesson, you have no business in this business — so for the sake of all of us, Elon Musk had better learn, and fast.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Uncle Ben Parker

UPDATE: At 6:20 AM EST on 19 December 2022, Musk’s self-generated “Should I step down?” poll ended with a resounding “Yes”. -Editor


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