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The Metamorphosis of Silicon Valley C.E.O.s: From Big to Boring

Category: Science & Tech,Technology

Though he has made good on only some of those points — Tesla is now struggling to fulfill orders for the Model 3, the “even more affordable” car in the plan — posting the plan was part of an impish ploy to generate publicity for what looked like an outlandish idea. That ploy worked; ever since, Mr. Musk has leveraged his growing celebrity as if it were a currency.

Every few months, he makes new promises about this or that amazing thing coming soon. Each time, he reaps more attention and financing and, eventually, builds real cars that are sold to real people. In this way, Mr. Musk’s personality became a key element of not just his companies’ brands, but their business models.

But it’s a tricky, high-stakes gamble. For one thing, Mr. Musk has to deliver on his promises. More recently, another problem has eaten at this strategy: The future has been getting less obviously wonderful, so it’s hard to take any tech chief’s assurances that their new thing will indeed be as great for the world as they say.

Back in Mr. Jobs’s day, tech was relatively uncomplicated; when the great man came bearing a new music player, you didn’t have to wonder whether it might help a foreign government steal an election. Now, after everything we have seen recently, you do have to worry about what the future may hold. Even Mr. Musk is worried.

“I tried to convince people to slow down A.I.,” he told Mr. Rogan. “This was futile. I tried for many years. Nobody listened. Nobody listened.”

Thus, the tension: On the one hand, Mr. Musk wants us to believe that everything he’s building is going to turn out wonderfully. On the other hand, he’s telling us to be very scared. This sounds like a contradiction, but in its admission of doubt and complexity, it’s actually a pretty good picture of the future.

No wonder he sounds crazy. No wonder everyone else is going for boring.

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