The Falcon Heavy backlash and the public trust

I watched the Falcon Heavy launch this week. Not as an accredited journalist, from an observation tower, but as one of the masses on Alan Shepard Beach twelve miles south. Watched it arc across the sky; watched the two boosters return safely to the landing pads like a video game; heard the sonic booms. And then, over the next few days, I watched the opprobrium rain down:

Some of it, to be clear, came from people I admire and respect. They do not appreciate Elon Musk’s Charmingly Whimsical Titan schtick, or his nascent bromance with Jeff Bezos. They look at reports of Tesla’s shitty treatment of its factory workers, and reports of Amazon’s shitty treatment of its warehouse workers, and conclude that Musk and Bezos — and, by extension, other tech titans too, guilty of surveillance capitalism, attention fragmentation, and truth decay — represent the apogee of a shitty exploitative system, rather than a new frontier in human achievement.

(It’s worth noting that Tesla says its factory achieved industry-average safety in 2017.)

Whether or not Musk’s critics are right, they are not especially politically effective. Most people do not share the belief that a process must be morally pure before its results can be celebrated; they can be jubilant about the Falcon Heavy and question Tesla’s treatment of its workers at the same time, without the one invalidating the other. When people celebrate the Falcon Heavy they are celebrating human achievement in general; undercutting this says, semiotically, “as a human being, your good achievements are irrelevant, only your mistakes matter,” which is not exactly a popular approach.

Perhaps this is why, while both the left and the right are aiming brickbats aplenty at Silicon Valley, they don’t (yet) seem to be hitting their target. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer study, the tech industry has in fact become the single most trusted institution in America, holding steady at 75% for five years now, which is pretty remarkable given that the title of the study is “America In Crisis” and it begins:

In a year marked by turbulence at home and abroad, trust in institutions in the United States crashed, posting the steepest, most dramatic general population decline the Trust Barometer has ever measured. It is no exaggeration to state that the U.S. has reached a point of crisis that should provoke every leader, in government, business, or civil sector, into urgent action. Inertia is not an option, and neither is silence. The public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment.

The semiotics of the Falcon Heavy launch, and its criticism, are awkward in a different way, though. The launch itself (more precisely, its relative shoestring budget, courtesy of reusable boosters, and resulting drastic cost reduction for space launches) may result in, or at least trigger, a genuine new era in space — what my friend Casey Handmer calls “the era of post-scarcity heavy lift launch.” This is spectacular and wonderful if you have even a passing interest in space exploration and travel.

But semiotically, those struggling back on Earth look at the tech industry, the only part of our society that actually seems to work effectively in this era of kleptocratic governments, slowly withering media, loss of faith in religion, and failing dinosaur businesses; and they see its leaders’ eyes fixed firmly on space exploration, or artificial intelligence, or life extension, while all but ignoring the day-to-day struggles of anyone not part of the 20% of the population that is slowly separating itself — economically, culturally, and geographically — from the massed 80% of the precariat.

It’s not that tech’s critics hate us. On the contrary. It’s that they want us to think about, and work on, today’s real-world problems as well as tomorrow’s faraway ones. They may overstate our ability to change things; tomorrow’s problems still have technical solutions, while today’s tend to require political change. But even so, they think we’re currently doing too little, and I think they may have a point.