Once upon a time, the world’s richest person – Elon Musk, the megalomaniacal CEO of rocket company SpaceX and the officially self-branded “Technoking” of Tesla – endeavoured to bribe 19-year-old Florida college freshman Jack Sweeney with $5,000 to cease operation of the Twitter account @ElonJet, which tracks Musk’s private jet using publicly available data.
The offer was no doubt generous coming from an individual with a private aeroplane and a net worth of some $276bn. The Twitter account provides such updates as “Took off from Kahului, Hawaii, US” and “Landed in Austin, Texas, US. Apx. flt. time 2 Hours : 19 Mins”. Sweeney also tracks the private aircraft of other members of the earth’s ruling class, including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.
It does not inspire enormous confidence, of course, that the man who has determined to colonise Mars has to resort to bribing teenagers to sort things out on Twitter. When Musk initially made contact with Sweeney via direct message at the end of November, the student responded: “Any chance to up that to $50k? It would be great support in college and would possibly allow me to get a car maybe even a [Tesla] Model 3”.
Sweeney told the Business Insider that $5,000 was insufficient compensation for the joy he derived from the project, which is about as good as capitalist rejoinders to capitalism can get.
In Musk’s view, apparently, only he is entitled to use technology as he pleases. On Twitter, this means composing “outrageous, and often lewd, tweets”, as The Washington Post has noted, as well as issuing vulgar insults, sending the stock market into a tizzy, and relaying the minutiae of his bowel movements.
According to Musk’s message, the proposed $5,000 was meant to cover not only Sweeney’s suspension of the @ElonJet account but also his assistance in “mak[ing] it harder for crazy people to track me” – a curious choice of adjective, to say the least. Alleging that the account posed a “security risk”, Musk went on in characteristically mature fashion to block Sweeney on Twitter.
Speaking of “security”, this is the same Musk whose not-so-self-driving Tesla cars have been known to come equipped with “Insane Mode” and “Ludicrous Mode” (how is that for crazy?) – and whose Autopilot software has “been involved in an alarming number of crashes with parked emergency vehicles, resulting in injuries and death”, as Time magazine admitted in its mostly obsequious explanation for choosing Musk as Person of the Year for 2021.
Various Tesla employees have claimed that attempts to bring up product safety and other concerns have been met with intimidation and silencing efforts by the company.
In other “security risks”, meanwhile, Musk reopened one of his California factories in the middle of the pandemic, in defiance of local orders, and has fervently pushed vaccine scepticism.
Then there is the slew of sexual harassment lawsuits against Tesla, which can surely also be filed under the “security risk” category. Michala Curran, who began working at the company at the age of 18, says that her supervisor suggested “that with her ‘big butt’ she should … be an exotic dancer, and tried to slap her on the backside as she changed out of the bodysuit she had to wear when painting Tesla’s cars”. Another plaintiff says she was forced to erect a barricade of stacked boxes around her workspace in order to thwart unwanted male advances.
Female employees have alleged, too, that Musk’s lewd online antics directly exacerbate workplace harassment. But who really cares when Musk’s own “security” is of such greater importance than that of his workers?
Ditto for worker privacy. In August 2018, a whistleblowing ex-employee of Tesla filed a tip with the US Securities and Exchange Commission according to which the firm had engaged in spying and hacking of employee devices.
And in June 2019, the United Steel Workers Union filed a charge with the National Labour Relations board stating that Tesla’s alleged employee surveillance operations violated labour laws. Musk has furthermore shamelessly threatened workers wishing to unionise. After all, there is really no place for worker rights in a Technokingdom.
There is no time, either, when – as Musk told Time – the “goal overall has been to make life multi-planetary and enable humanity to become a spacefaring civilisation”, starting by building a “self-sustaining city on Mars and bring[ing] the animals and creature of Earth there”.
In other Musk-related business potentially affecting the realm of privacy, his co-founded company Neuralink is preparing to launch clinical trials to implant microchips in human brains. It is a double standard of rather cosmic proportions: Elon Musk has the right to be inside your head, but you should not have the right to know when his private jet takes off from Kahului.
In the end, the hypocrisy ties into the consensus among elites that privacy, safety, freedom, and all that good stuff are privileges reserved for, well, them. By surveilling, tracking, and generally relentlessly subjugating the lowlier earth-dwelling masses, the ruling class seeks to ensure that no significant structural challenges will ever arise to such ideas as that a single individual should be valued at $276bn.
To be sure, economic insecurity is a pretty big “security risk”, as well, and the majority of the planet’s population is having a tough enough time surviving as it is without even beginning to think about Mars. “But if many never voted or signed up for Musk’s wild zero-gravity ride”, Time notes, “that is of no consequence to him”.
On the other hand, as per the Daily Mail report on Musk’s jet-tracking tantrum, “when Sweeney explained to Musk how his system works, the billionaire seemed surprised that the information was publicly accessible, commenting, ‘Air traffic control is so primitive’”. Here is betting $5,000 that Musk may just undertake to modernise it.
And as we sit back and “self-drive” full speed into multi-planetary oppression and techno-tyranny, it is one hell of a security risk.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.