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In Defense of Elon Musk

• Popular Mechanics

He is under attack. For tweeting the wrong thing, for not making enough cars, for appearing unstable. Some of the criticisms have merit. Much of it is myopic and small-brained, from sideline observers gleefully salivating at the opportunity to take him down a peg. But what have these stock analysts and pontificators done for humanity?

Elon Musk is an engineer at heart, a tinkerer, a problem-solver—the kind of person Popular Mechanics has always championed—and the problems he's trying to solve are hard. Really hard. He could find better ways to spend his money, that's for sure. And yet there he is, trying to build gasless cars and build reusable rockets and build tunnels that make traffic go away. For all his faults and unpredictability, we need him out there doing that. We need people who have ideas. We need people who take risks.

We need people who try.

Because I Want to Go to Mars

by Tom Chiarella

It must have been fun to have been alive when Mark Twain walked the earth. You might have lived in Columbus, and made your own fine living selling barrel hoops. But among your everyday pleasures was included the possibility that when you picked up the newspaper, you might read a serialized report from the sometimes distant travels of Mark Twain, a highly recognizable guy with a contrived-sounding name, who wandered around the country thinking big ideas.

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Not everybody liked Twain. They still don't. He could be scandalous and self-indulgent. He smoked too much. Judgmental. And Twain, a one-time river­boat pilot, made nothing substantial, produced no commodities or goods, except his tales and observations. He took you somewhere. Mark Twain didn't think for you, you barrel-hoop baron you. But he was out there. Thinking. He spoke past his newspaper editor, directly to the people, to his readers, whether they agreed with him or not. And while he certainly produced outsize, often painful, observations about what we had become as a people, he also offered glaring, satiric propositions concerning what we might want to try to be henceforth. And why. In person, he could be wily, cold, and unpleasant, but Twain stood out as a man who reliably saw the truth of human purpose beneath the weighty mess of human foibles. He had ambitions for humanity. At the very least, he believed that humanity ought to have ambitions for itself.

Not everybody liked Twain. They still don't. He could be scandalous and self-indulgent. He smoked too much. Judgmental. And Twain, a one-time river­boat pilot, made nothing substantial, produced no commodities or goods, except his tales and observations. He took you somewhere. Mark Twain didn't think for you, you barrel-hoop baron you. But he was out there. Thinking. He spoke past his newspaper editor, directly to the people, to his readers, whether they agreed with him or not. And while he certainly produced outsize, often painful, observations about what we had become as a people, he also offered glaring, satiric propositions concerning what we might want to try to be henceforth. And why. In person, he could be wily, cold, and unpleasant, but Twain stood out as a man who reliably saw the truth of human purpose beneath the weighty mess of human foibles. He had ambitions for humanity. At the very least, he believed that humanity ought to have ambitions for itself.

And now, Elon Musk walks the earth. The pleasure of his presence on this mantle is similar to Twain's. You might live in Tacoma and make a living working in a consulting firm that helps affordable hotel chains rebrand themselves using urban graphic-design strategies and overlapping pricing platforms. But admit it, among your everyday pleasures is the possibility that you might pick up an item in the news feed on your smartphone concerning Elon Musk's next great idea. Electric cars. The colonization of Mars. Tunnels beneath Los Angeles. Brains linked to computers.

If the last ten years have convinced you of nothing else, you have to admit: Elon Musk is somewhere out there, thinking. Right now. I'm glad for it. He has ambitions, sure. That's easy to assert. But his ambitions relate to something more than monetizing a good idea. They relate to the obligations of possibility, to our larger sense of self. Musk speaks these ideas to us, the people—straight past the analysts, the corporate boards, the stockholders narcoticized by profit statements—because he knows we will respond. Ambition is an element of our humanity.

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