Don’t panic! – Elon Musk and Douglas Adams

Will reading the classic tales of space adventures with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect reveal what Elon Musk, the richest person in the world, has planned next?

I recently listened to Jill Lepore’s BBC podcast ‘The Evening Rocket’, a 5 part exploration into Musk and his science fiction (SF) influences, as well as the wider role of SF in the ideas Musk represent. I would recommend giving it a listen for some interesting side-stories. I did not know, for example, that Musk’s influential grandfather was a member of the Canadian Technocracy movement, a group that elevates the status of scientific and technological knowledge, that interestingly promoted replacing names with numbers (giving context to the name X Æ A-12).

Moreover, the conclusion that Musk is influenced largely by a specific kind of SF that reinforces hegemonic ideas of privilege, of the kind of world and narrative that places him as a lone hero, destined to save the world and make a lot of money at the same time, is clarifying. It reinforces my sense that Musk himself treats his name and identity as a brand to shape and manoeuvre into that kind of role, and to do that involves picking up the concern of the day (saving the planet from global warming) or engineering PR stunts to keep the narrative alive.

One more surprising influence picked up by Lepore in the podcast was that of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Frederick Pohl and Isaac Asimov make a lot of sense to me as influences, Musk wears them on his sleeve, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide satire and humour seemed more obscure. But Musk does not shy away from the fact he is completely indebted to Adams’s universe, stating in a 2019 CBS interview:

My sort of philosophical foundation is in line with Douglas Adams […] everyone has their sort of favourite philosopher, but my favourite philosopher is Douglas Adams.

Elon Musk, 2019

Now, to have a philosophical foundation in line with Douglas Adams is a bold claim, and one that Musk does not elaborate on. Is it Adams’s particular interest in the absurdity of existence that resonates with Musk, scathing attacks on both bureaucracy and capitalism, or his anti-apartide sentiments?

In her podcast, Lepore astutely highlights the dissonance between Musk’s reliance on Adams as an author to namedrop and his actions. Besides putting the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ on the Tesla he launched into space on 2018 and wanting to name his ship ‘Heart of Gold’ – basically, some fanboy homages – how has his favourite philosopher influenced him? (Answers on a postcard…)

Maybe the manifestation of this influence is all still to come. I think, following the natural course befitting someone so ardently under the influence of Douglas Adams, the most likely thing that Musk is going to do next is to give away his billions to research and conservation of endangered species, a cause that Adams himself dedicated the latter parts of his life to before untimely death in 2001. Here’s hoping!

Don’t panic!

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