By Daniel Rigney

The visionary has been defined as one who can see light in the darkness. Ever on the lookout for hopeful signs in a dusky world, I’m putting my background in sociology and future studies to work as a talent scout, scanning the cultural horizon for potential visionaries whose eyesight -- or night vision -- is better than mine, and who have the remarkable ability to foresee or intuit (or even create) possible futures.

I have in mind visionaries on the order of Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs or the priestesses of Delphi.

In a recent op-ed column, David Brooks muses on our need for entrepreneurial visionaries who have "Temerity at the Top." Brooks lauds  the virtue of “boldness of enterprise,” in Alexis de Tocqueville’s bold phrase, and identifies the inventive entrepreneur Elon Musk as a contemporary avatar of this virtue. (More about vices later.)

Musk’s early life took him from his native South Africa (which he left to avoid the apartheid draft) to Canada and then to the United States, where he studied economics and physics at the University of Pennsylvania and later at Stanford. After university, Musk went on to help create an Internet company (Zip2), revolutionize e-commerce by co-founding PayPal, develop the space exploration company SpaceX, build the electric car company Tesla and the solar energy company SolarCity, and help start a software firm, Everdream. In his spare time he served as a trustee of Caltech.

On the seventh day he partied. Musk, 41, has a bit of a reputation as a rich playboy, and his first two marriages have not been sustainable.

I saw Musk on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” recently, and he did not lack self-confidence.  But neither did he lack vision. Brooks recalls that in a recent conversation with Stewart, Musk “concluded that the three areas that would most transform humanity were the Internet, sustainable energy and space exploration.”

I’m not as keen on space colonization as Musk, an avid sci-fi video gamer, seems to be, but I’m warmly heartened to know that such a resourceful, inventive, and potentially visionary mind is at work on progressive technologies like solar energy and smart transit. Among his future projects, my favorite is Hyperloop, a solar-powered high-speed train that might make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes.  I’d pedal a bicycle from Texas to California just to ride that train. (That’s a joke, not a promise.)

In my background reading on Musk (make a note to remember the name), my main trepidation so far is that his legendary grandiosity (narcissism? solipsism?) may be so potentially malignant (the tests aren’t back yet) that he may forget he shares spaceship Earth with seven billion other mind/bodies, and that we’re not just fictional characters in his own private video game. That delusion could be bad news for all of us.

But the projects Musk is choosing to work on – solar energy, efficient mass transit, sustainability and smarter living in general – give me hope that he might help his poor species find a way forward in this environmentally imperiled  century. As the old baseball saying goes, nature bats last -- and its bat is bigger than all of us (and our ideologies) put together.

Musk can help us make friends with nature by showing us ways to harmonize ourselves with it rather than trying vainly (and inevitably failing) to conquer it. We are, after all, a part of it, whether we know so or not. Hubris, thy name is homo sapiens.

The precarious future of our flawed species will depend, I believe, on whether Musk, and others with the night vision to see light in the darkness, can help us materialize the vision of a cleaner, greener, renewable and more sustainable world as we approach the end of the carbon age.



*cross-posted as "Visionary Talent Search: Elon Musk," by Daniel Rigney,  Danagram, October 5, 2012




Views: 103

Comment by JMac1949 Today on November 30, 2012 at 10:47pm

Musk is right about sustainable energy, but the Internet's insatiable thirst for bandwidth runs counter-intuitive to that... imagine the terabytes that will be consumed by the direct neural interfaces that are only about thirty years down the road.  Unless we lease the rights to the sun, wind and tides to Exxon or Con Edison, I don't see much progress between now and then.  There are alternatives such as Bloom Energy but they are risky in the short sited eyes of most folks who remain dependent on the grid.  As far as space exploration goes, I got sucked into that wet dream when I was in middle school back in 1961... I'll bet Musk still plays with his models as well. L&R

Comment by Forest Green Magazine on December 1, 2012 at 9:30pm

Jmac, once again you are sending me running to search -- this time, for Bloom Energy. Thanks for the tip.


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