IT IS INTERESTING to compare the reception a figure like Mark Zuckerberg gets from the left with that received by the other famous tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. Zuckerberg is a universally reviled figure. His business is seen as a threat to individual freedom and democracy; every move of his, for instance giving free internet to the poor, is viewed with suspicion. Musk stands at the other end of the spectrum. The South Africa-born entrepreneur has been hailed as an idol and a visionary. He is a climate superhero for environmentalist liberals. He wants to transform transportation; to take people to space; he single-handedly jumpstarted the electric car market. Just three years ago, when Trump withdrew the US from international accords meant to address climate change, Musk quit from a presidential advisory council.
And yet in the last few days, in the matter of a tweet, it appears, he has eclipsed Zuckerberg.
People on the left have been watching Musk warily over the last month. He downplayed the dangers of the virus when it first emerged, said ‘the coronavirus panic is dumb’, predicted that new cases in the US would fall to close to zero by late April, and, over and over again, called for the rolling back of lockdown measures, eventually defying local lockdown orders and reopening his Tesla assembly plant in California.
And then over the weekend, he confirmed, according to these watchers on the left, his conversion to the other side. He said on Twitter, ‘Take the red pill’.
The term red-pilling, originally a scene in the 1999 movie The Matrix–where the protagonist takes the red pill and learns of the simulated reality they have been tricked into believing instead of the blue pill, which would have allowed him to continue believing in the simulation–has over the years been co-opted by right-wing online forums to mean a right-wing political awakening.
In any case, when Musk said, ‘Take the red pill’, and Ivanka Trump replied, ‘Taken’, all hell broke loose. Musk became a left-wing pariah. Lilly Wachowski, the director and writer of the film, responded with an obscenity. A popular magazine said, ‘The Cult of Elon Is Cracking’. The New York Times reported that Tesla owners are now grappling with the fact that their cars–until recently, the ultimate liberal status symbol–may now carry new connotations. Outlets reported on how Musk’s predictions on the virus have proved wrong.
But the truth is that most positions taken as a response to the coronavirus outbreak has been based on ideological lines. In the US, if Donald Trump has been on the side of freeing up states from the lockdown, liberals expectedly have taken the exact opposite stance. In India, the opposite has happened. The BJP Government has imposed among the harshest lockdowns seen across the world, and the growing chorus among the liberal section has been to consider livelihoods as much as lives.
Everyone, across the political spectrum, has cherry-picked data and offered dodgy science. Professor Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College, for instance, whose elaborate modelling study on what would happen if measures such as lockdowns weren’t imposed by governments, led countries across the world, including probably ours, to issue such orders, was found to be flouting the orders himself. His paramour had been secretly meeting him in his house. Now there are questions over the study too. Experts have discovered that the software programming language on which the model is based is outdated and its results unreliable.
Musk may not necessarily have taken a pill and overnight converted into an Alt-right figure. It is best to view his tweets in the light of how most of us have responded in this outbreak: in self-interest. Those who champion the lockdown do so because it does not harm them. A migrant labourer in India will view this very differently. As the global economy slips further into recession, entrepreneurs like Musk face the toughest challenge of their lifetimes. According to a Financial Times report, Tesla forgoes upwards of $500 m in revenues a week amid the shutdown, money that a company that has never had a profitable year can ill-afford to forgo.