More Klingon than Starfleet

A Musk spaceship will be a Musk workplace

a group of smiling mostly-male Twitter employees gathered around their new boss Elon Musk at a late-night code review. Musk and others are doing a thumbs-up.
This lot, only in spacesuits

UPDATE 13 July 2024. I wrote this in January 2023 but actually it all still seems fresh and up-to-date. And the bit about Silicon Valley tightening up and closing the free crêches and sashimi bars actually seems to have happened.

I suppose if you went to Mars on one of Musk’s starships – at least on one of the early missions – you’d probably be an employee of a government agency so the prevailing human resources model would be the faux-nurturing bureaucratic norm of the major Western corporation – mental-health check-ins, work-life balance, standing desks and so on. But I guess, ultimately, someone’s going to wind up on a 100% Musk-owned mission – to Mars or beyond (maybe it’ll be you. It won’t be me).

And what we know about Musk as an employer and as a manager suggests the experience would be a bit more hardcore. Certainly more Darwinian than working for NASA. He’s been very publicly stripping his most recent acquisition, Twitter, of every trace of the cosy superstructure of the advanced late-capitalist corporation. The massages, the vegan food, the unconscious bias training…

We read that he’s turned the place into a kind of bootcamp for eager disciples – what sociologists call a patronage network. A court where a loyal hierarchy competes for preference, like the Soviet Union after Lenin or Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet before they all turned on her. He even brought trusted loyalists from one of his other courts to enforce the tough new culture. Fear and ambition coexist, absolute loyalty is rewarded. And this could be much bigger than Twitter. Some think Musk’s purge might mark the beginning of the end for the liberal-tech utopia of Silicon Valley and its immitators and that hardcore Twitter could become a model for the whole industry. Lay-offs are happening everywhere. The social experiment of cheap-money hyper-meritocratic platform capitalism may be over.

Star Trek Klingon Worf being tormented with pain sticks
An on-board disciplinary

So, once you’re in space on a Musk mission, what’ll it be like? The evidence suggests it’ll be pretty hard yakka – a minimum of 21-months of long shifts, arbitrary policy changes, weird reversions, unexpected side-missions and over-night code rewrites. The crew will dread waking up to a new pronouncement from the boss, non-compliant colleagues will be monstered – on Twitter, natch. In space, loyalty will not be optional, of course: contracts will be unforgiving (a dismissal would likely involve a long spacewalk with no tether, a disciplinary might mean a longer stay on Mars than planned). It’ll definitely be more Klingon than Starfleet.

  • It was Olga Ravn’s The Employees (see previous post) that got me thinking about Musk as space boss.
  • Musk’s interactions with the other organisations in the new space economy – the old-school bureaucracies like Boeing and NASA but also the frat-boy start-ups like Blue Origin and all the unicorns behind them is instructive. The collegiate, exploratory, cooperative phase of humanity’s journey into space is so over.

From the NASA archive

Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are pictured during water egress training in a large indoor pool at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas, in this image from 1965

I love this 1965 image from NASA’s archive. The caption reads:

Gemini Water Egress Training. Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are pictured during water egress training in a large indoor pool at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas. Young is seated on top of the Gemini capsule while Grissom is in the water with a life raft. Waiting in the rear, Frankie “bow-tie” Kornacki, Grissom’s bookmaker, patiently awaits payment for a string of bad college football bets. Grissom prolongs training, suggesting “another go-round”, hoping to avoid the expected unpleasantness

Click the image for a bigger version.