Elon Musk has always seemed to have a bit of a mad scientist in him. Aside from his vision of all-electric vehicles, there’s the Hyperloop concept of underground personal transportation tubes, SpaceX and outer space passenger transportation, and surely plenty more.
Genius and madness, of course, have historically often been confused. Yesterday’s reclusive laboratory, bubbling with elixirs and sizzling with electrical current, has been replaced by negotiations with investors and company boards. Today’s mad scientists are likely individuals who’ve spent long hours studying at competitive universities. And the Tesla CEO is no exception. So, when Elon Musk pokes fun at the Tesla assembly line difficulties and his vision of robotics, we’re a little caught short — did the great man actually incorporate a bit of Rube Goldberg self-deprecating humor into all the talk of a sustainable future via massive capital investment and grid transformation?
Can’t believe someone leaked this schematic of the Tesla production system!! pic.twitter.com/ylAX3uKTI1
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 26, 2018
The tweet is titled, “Self-Operating Napkin.” Below the title is a Rube Goldberg suit-and-tie clad character seated at a formal dining room table. With soup bowl placed center, the diner must be ready for drips. Voila! A cloth napkin appears, having traveled a tortuous mechanical route. A spoon flips a piece of toast to a parrot, which turns and fills a cup that then rises, slides across a rod, and opens a box. The box lid ignites a rocket, lifts a clock pendulum, and swipes the cloth napkin back and forth– with the entire contraption attached to the diner’s head!
Rube Goldberg was known for finding humorous aspects in the details of everyday life. The 1931 cartoon which Musk tweeted is, he smiles, indicative of a “schematic of the Tesla production system!!” As Elon Musk pokes fun at the complicated nature of today’s technology in general and Tesla’s assembly line specifically, he implies a great deal of company symbolism about what’s necessary for today’s systems and processes to be effective and to thrive.
Goldberg’s cartoons typically captured machines intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and overcomplicated fashion. In 2015, Elon Musk claimed that there would be “3–4 times more robots” on the Tesla Model X production line. By 2018, he acknowledged in a tweet that the Model 3 pace was limited by choosing automation over workers, Then, in a May 2 earnings call, Musk conceded, “We went too far in the automation front and automated some pretty silly things.” The company had meant to dampen engine noise with fiberglass insulation on the battery packs inside the cars by utilizing a “fluff bot,” which became an overly complicated endeavor.
It was indicative of Tesla’s reputation of attempting to automate too much, often at a time in which humans could perform the task well and simply.
Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 13, 2018
Humor, Problem Solving, and Dealing with Paradoxes
So, why is it interesting that Elon Musk pokes fun at Tesla automation these days? It’s not like the company is relinquishing an emphasis on the power and promise of robots. In fact, Musk confirmed this week that 6 planeloads of robots from Grohmann in Germany were in route to California. These automated assembly systems will be used at the Gigafactory to solve the latest battery module assembly problems as part of overcoming hurdles to ramp up Model 3 production.
This is the new production line for battery module Zone 4. Will play a key role in getting from 3000/week to 6000/week for Model 3.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 25, 2018
We’ve known for a while that there are deep connections between intelligence and creativity. Creative thinking strategies, executive cognitive processes and abilities, and cognitive neuroscience have revealed that intelligence and creativity are closely linked, with common emphases and similarities between solving problems with right answers and thinking flexibly, critically, and playfully.
When Elon Musk pokes fun at his own decisions, he’s using humor in ways that have attracted some of the world’s greatest minds, from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Bergson and Freud. Hobbes noted that the importance of humor is in its timing — a type of sudden glory based on a new conception or insight. Admitting that he was caught in “manufacturing hell” due to a “crazy, complex network of conveyor belts,” Musk stepped back from a reflexive response to critics and, instead, used the humorous signification within a cartoon to explain how oppositional meaning is sometimes generated in daily life. Yes, the all-electric car firm failed to hit its weekly production target of 2,500 Model 3 vehicles in the first quarter of 2018. “We got complacent about some of the things that we felt were our core technology,” Musk analyzed in mid-April. “We put too much new technology into the Model 3 all at once. This should have been staged.”
Humor has incongruity, which is a difference between expectation and results. In the Rube Goldberg napkin comparison to Tesla, Elon Musk pokes fun at the incongruous ways we try to unpack the changing and contested cultural meanings within society, technology, and nature. The way we group many social processes and objects around technological function causes contested meanings and transformation of meanings to arise. When we see that a simple task like wiping one’s mouth during eating can become overly complicated and arduous, we are able to step back and ask ourselves if other life routines, too, have exceeded their functional necessity.
By extension, are Tesla’s Gigafactory production systems able to improve production efficiency as initially intended? When Elon Musk pokes fun at the Gigafactory processes, he infuses confidence in the company’s vertical integration and also refers to an improvement methodology which works to understand the number of defects in the company’s systems. Because humor has a semiotic nature — in that the signs and icons of a society help us to deal with communication, paradox, play, and the resolution of logical problems — Musk’s nod to Rube Goldberg speaks to a dialectic where technology and nature are always internal to the other.
Final Thoughts about Automation and the Future of Human Work
Material changes in our environment inspire another, and possibly more profound, discussion. As we in the Anthropocene rework the lines we tend to draw around society and nature, we make transparent the ways that human actions have fundamentally shaped earth systems. And they also transform and evolve a “natural” or “normal” human life.
Scott Kirsch, a geographer at the University of North Carolina, considers the relationship between language and environmental and historical change. Elon Musk’s recent tweet seemed to be playing with the same thing to an extent.
Perhaps we should also ask Musk, “What responsibility does Tesla and other high-tech companies today have for human workers?”
Musk’s Gigafactory aims to automate and optimize the production process to new levels, concurrently reducing human involvement and maximizing the speed of output through the economics of artificial intelligence. Whatever the impact that robotics improvements might have on short-term sales and output, Tesla seems positioned to revolutionize the manufacturing industry. If so, the manufacturing industry could see a further exodus of human labor.
Where’s the humor in loss of human jobs? The hope rests in society’s constant obsession with inventing new products and services, such that automation might not make human work obsolete.
Musk has recommended an eventual shift to universal basic income. The responsibility appears to be put on society as a whole, on our ability to evolve into that policy. But what responsibility and leadership could companies like Tesla take to open the doors for us and peacefully facilitate such evolution?