Is Elon Musk Criticism Unfair? What to Make of the Thai Submarine Backlash

Musk proves he was asked to help, but that hasn't stopped criticism.

by James Dennin

The frequent, much-hyped tweets from Elon Musk about a team of engineers testing a rescue submarine quickly made him the target accusations this week. He was just grandstanding and acting as a distraction from the very real plight of an entire youth soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave in Thailand.

“I’ve seen like a hundred tweets thanking Elon Musk for helping save the Thai kids and not a single one thanking me even though we contributed the exact same amount to the rescue effort,” mocked one Twitter user, racking up more than 14,000 faves.

The criticism reached a fever pitch Tuesday morning when one rescue official described Musk’s submarine made from leftover SpaceX parts as impractical for the mission.

But it later came out Tuesday that Musk got involved at the urging from his massive social media following (a not uncommon occurrence for celebrities in the wake of any number of news events). More importantly, he also tweeted proof he was asked to help, sharing an email correspondence he had with rescue diver Dick Stanton, who was to enlisted to help with the effort.

The email thread appears to show Stanton urging Musk to continue his development of the device as late as July 8:

"The former Thai provincial governor (described inaccurately as “rescue chief”) is not the subject matter expert. That would be Dick Stanton, who co-led the dive rescue team. This is our direct correspondence," Musk commented on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Please keep working on the capsule details,” Stanton’s email reads. Not a lot to unpack there.

And yet, it’s difficult not to see at least a tinge of self-aggrandizement in Musk’s messaging. For example, did he have to describe them as the world’s best engineering team while corresponding about a rescue effort? Even Musk was at some point forced to concede he was possibly being a bit of a narcissist, if a useful one. A New York Times report that the device appears to have been abandoned in the caves hardly helped matters.

Does it Matter if the Device Wasn’t Used?

While few of us are positioned to deploy engineers to attend to the world’s most pressing problems, Musk’s strange involvement in the story raises a lot of interesting questions.

For one, shouldn’t powerful CEOs feel some pressure to halt business as usual when the occasion calls for it? What’s the harm in a humanitarian side-project? Finally, it’s also worth noting that just because the device wasn’t really useful this time around, it’s not out of the question the device or its components might yet prove useful in the future.

It’s entirely possible to support institutions and relief efforts anonymously, and Musk’s involvement in the relief effort clearly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Part of the problem might have to do with Musk’s deliberate blurring of lines between what industry can accomplish and what his critics think might be better accomplished by a properly empowered government.

Engineering might indeed be magic in some ways, for example, but the idea that we can engineer our way to a solution to climate change fast enough seems wishful, even harmfully so, in an era when coal lobbyists run the EPA. On a similar note, Musk’s touting himself as a job creator, however accurate, plays less well when the labor protections for workers like those who assemble Musk’s cars are under constant assault.

When narcissist businessmen run the country, the so-called useful ones should be more vigilant about staying in their lane.

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