Elon Musk’s X Factor

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story

Elon Musk loves the letter “X.” He named his first company X.com. He named one of his kids X. He renamed Twitter X. Kill the birds! But why?

“X” is geeky. That’s because in 1637 when René Descartes wrote a treatise on geometry, he decided to use x, y, and z for variables, but his printer, setting the type, kept running out of “Y”s and “Z”s but not “X”s, because you don’t use “X” in French very often, so he used, mostly, “X”s. X, the variable, the unknown, the mysterious. In 1895, when the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered a new kind of radiation, and he didn’t know what it was, he called it an X ray.

“X” is mathematical and “X” is scientific. Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, as I recounted in a five-part BBC Radio 4/Pushkin podcast series called “Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket,” Musk’s grandfather became a leader of the Technocracy movement. They called themselves Technocrats and they believed that only engineers and scientists could save the world from a looming catastrophe. As one pamphlet explained, “What Technocracy, Inc., is chiefly engaged in now is the organization of an army of trained men and women in the United States and Canada who, when the present interference controls break down and the intricate machinery of production and distribution is in danger of stopping, will be able to prevent that catastrophe before it is too late.” Technocrats objected to politicians and economists, democracy, and socialism. They wanted an end to all banks. In the future that Technocrats including Musk’s grandfather were planning for, “There will be no place for Politics or Politicians, Finance or Financiers, Rackets or Racketeers.” There would also be no place for personal names. One technocrat, for instance, renamed himself 1x1809x56. Musk named one of his sons X Æ A-12—X, for short. (In 1950, two years after South Africa announced its policy of apartheid, Musk’s Technocrat grandfather, who had been briefly jailed for his political views, left Canada for Pretoria, where Musk grew up.)

“X” is also sci-fi. It got that way in the nineteen-fifties, in radio plays such as “Dimension X,” and movies such as “The Strange World of Planet X”—whose trailer warned, “Be prepared for a fantastic adventure into the future, a monstrous world of terror and chaos!” “X” meant extraterrestrial, and “X” meant extreme, and “X” meant X-rated, a rating invented by the British Board of Film Classification in 1951.

You’ve got your X-Men, your X-Files, your Xbox, “X” marking the beginning of the reign inaugurated by “Revenge of the Nerds.” By the nineteen-nineties, the man-boys of Silicon Valley were all very into the letter “X.” Musk co-founded X.com and SpaceX. Google opened an R. & D. division whose aim was “to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.” It was called . . . X.

Those X-men liked the idea that they were solving what they came to call “X-risks”: existential risks, risks of human extinction. This is how Musk came to see himself, too. As I argued in “The Evening Rocket,” they got this idea from science fiction, from some very old science fiction. They would save the planet from existential risks, found extraterrestrial civilizations, by way of extreme capitalism. X, x, x, x. Musk’s X.com, an early online bank, merged with Peter Thiel’s Confinity, which owned PayPal, but Musk bought back the domain name in 2017. When you clicked on it, you got a white screen with a tiny letter “x.” A promise. He used that money to start SpaceX—“X,” for exploration.

But why name a baby X? “Once upon a time, a Baby named X was born.” So begins a piece of feminist science fiction published in Ms. magazine in 1972, in its first regular issue. “This Baby was named X so that nobody could tell whether it was a boy or a girl. Its parents could tell, of course, but they couldn’t tell anybody else. They couldn’t even tell Baby X—at least not until much, much later. You see, it was all part of a very important Secret Scientific Xperiment known officially as Project Baby X.”

The story was written by Lois Gould, a novelist and mother of two sons, who was also an executive editor of Ladies’ Home Journal and a columnist for the Times, where she wrote the “Hers” column. In the story, the parents abide by the terms of the experiment. “ ‘It’s an X,’ was absolutely all they would say. And that made the friends and relatives very angry.”

But it wasn’t just a story. Three years later, in 1975, the feminist thought experiment led to an actual scientific experiment, whose results were published in a journal article that was also called “Baby X.” The baby’s gender was withheld from the subjects of the experiment. “Although the story was science fiction fantasy, the question of how adults would actually respond to a child in the absence of such information appeared to merit investigation,” the investigators explained. They brought in forty-two volunteers and put them in a lab with a baby. “Those in the Male and Female conditions were told that there was a three-month-old baby boy or baby girl . . . to play with, while those in the Neutral condition were told there was a three-month-old baby with no mention of its sex or name.”

What can this story possibly have to do with Elon Musk? Musk met Claire Boucher, the musician known as Grimes, in 2018. She’d studied neuroscience at McGill. She’s a feminist and, like Musk, she’s an avid science-fiction fan. (The New Yorker once called her a “mad pop scientist.”) She’s the kind of person who pretty plausibly would have read the story of X in college, either the feminist fable, or the actual experiment, or both. Also, in 2011, when Grimes was at McGill, there’d been a lot of coverage of a family in Canada practicing gender-neutral parenting. “There’s a couple in Toronto that is creating quite a stir right now,” one television news station reported,”because they’re raising their baby what they’re calling gender-free.”

Announcing their baby’s birth, Musk said it was a boy, but Grimes told fans, “I don’t want to gender them in case that’s not how they feel in their life.” They named that baby X, and their second baby Y.

X, Musk promises, will be the “everything app.” X is the Technocrats’ dream deferred, a way to engineer society, the economy, and politics. Extreme capitalism—Muskism—as the answer to existential risk. With any luck, it will be a disaster. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *