Elon Musk’s Tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Does Not Suggest He Has Actually Read ItReading Time: 6 minutes
Elon Musk Loves The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Um, Has He Read It?, Not a lot of Deep Thought went into the new chatbot Grok., Elon Musk’s Grok chatbot from xAI is a tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m not sure he’s read it!
Over the weekend, Elon Musk announced the first major product from his artificial-intelligence outfit xAI: Grok, a ChatGPT-like bot available in beta mode for users who are subscribed to the $16-a-month Premium+ plan on his social network X. This newest entrant in the chatbot arms race takes as its name a term from the libertarian science-fiction classic that’s long been one of Musk’s favorites, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. But its actual output, Musk says, takes inspiration from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another foundational novel for the Tesla and SpaceX boss.
Musk’s many, many companies often reference terms he is attached to on either a personal level (the letter X) or just finds funny (his frequent callbacks to old-school memes). But this one is kind of confounding, and not just because Stranger and Hitchhiker’s are only comparable works insofar as they are both influential sci-fi novels. Here’s what xAI says:
So, with the caveat that I am not a Premium+ subscriber (come on) and have not yet tried Grok for myself, let me just ask, as someone who happens to adore Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide books: What are these people on about?
For one thing, Musk’s sense of ‘humor,’ colored in recent years by far-right ideologies, meme formats that were popular in like 2011 (and that he often steals anyway), tryhard puns, and jokes that appeal to 12-year-old boys, is hardly in alignment with Adams’. The late British author was a sophisticate with an eye for irony, influenced in large part by Monty Python’s random absurdities, P.G. Wodehouse’s dry whimsy, Kurt Vonnegut’s bleak evaluations of the human condition, and Pink Floyd’s intergalactic lyrics. At his best, Adams wrote nigh-musical prose that complemented his wild imagination; both his phrases and descriptive imagery have resonated for decades for this reason, from that monologuing, doomed sperm whale to that memorable signoff, ‘So long, and thanks for all the fish.’ Moreover, he often exercised his jokes in service of rather serious topics—ask any reader who was miffed by the dark and tragic nature of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series’ penultimate installment, Mostly Harmless. Keeping all that in mind, and going by Musk’s own advertorials for his Grok bot, I’m skeptical a tool that you can prompt to be ‘more vulgar’ in describing how to check if you have pubic lice, spitting out ‘humor’ like ‘your dick and your balls itch like a motherfucker,’ is exactly an ideal tribute to Adams—and no, you cannot say it’s ‘almost, but not quite, entirely unlike him,’ either.
Look, it does make sense that Musk would try to ape Adams’ creations, and not just because he’s previously referred to the author as ‘my favorite philosopher,’ a point I’ll get back to in a bit. Out of all the (white, male) 20th-century sci-fi legends who’ve been cited by today’s (white, male) tech plutocrats as major influences on their worldviews—Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Neal Stephenson—Adams may have had the most impact, or at least, lots of stuff has been named after his books. Countless terms, characters, symbols, and outer-space perceptions from Hitchhiker’s Guide have wiggled into the global tech sphere that ballooned in the decades since its debut as a radio play in 1978 (the first novel was published a year later): the pioneering Deep Thought chess-playing computer, Yahoo’s Babel Fish language translator, Windows’ Trillian chat software, and the search engines that answer ’42’ when you ask them about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything—among many, many, many other examples.
It hardly takes 7.5 million seconds, much less years, to understand why: All these decades later, the first Hitchhiker’s Guide novel remains an accessible work, an easy-to-read, engaging, and hilarious saga with an intergalactic scope and a snide outlook on the disheveled state of humanity. Any of the millions of folks who’ve read and enjoyed it can well understand why it would resonate with, say, a precocious, science-minded young’un: They get the simultaneous benefits of endless jokes, fictional maps of the cosmos, reflections on what it means to be a living being in a vast universe, and a convenient means through which to laugh at the idiots who’ve not so much run our world as they have ruined it. Plus, it’s absolutely brutal toward bureaucrats.
It absolutely, and especially, meant a lot to Musk. As Rolling Stone’s Miles Klee pointed out in a keen overview of the tech figure’s unfunny ways, Musk was maybe predisposed from the jump to a certain kind of sneering British humor, as a child of colonial South Africa with a propensity for antagonizing both adults and children. Plus, as Klee writes, ‘Musk clearly adores anything that can be placed in the category of ‘nerd’ comedy: if a meme is in some way esoteric, requiring specialized knowledge to understand, he seems to regard it as a proof of intelligence. Because only a smart person would find it funny, right?’ Sprinkle in a fascination with the galaxies far beyond our own—also manifested in his love for the Mars-residing protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land—and one can see how this book was such a cultural touchstone for the eventual electric-car and space-rocket tycoon. You can also see how others who came upon this work now find themselves in awe of Musk’s empire: As my colleague Laura Miller has pinpointed, one core reason Musk’s workers are willing to put up with his verbal abuse and inflexible managerial style is because he’s ‘giving them a chance to work on the kinds of projects that they dreamed about being a part of as kids.’ They undoubtedly were also starstruck by Adams’ wide-ranging mind.
Of course, like too many other CEOs who appear to miss the point of their most treasured books—think of the contrast between Asimov’s technocratic progressivism and Foundation‘s most right-wing devotees, ranging from Newt Gingrich to the Winklevoss twins—Musk has naturally come to reconceive the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe in his image. (He also, as was made clear in a recent X post about Tesla’s Cybertruck, appears to believe the Blade Runner protagonist’s name was literally ‘Bladerunner.’ But I digress!) Musk is obviously entitled and welcome to his own interpretation—but it’s extra confusing, and a telltale sign of a clear theme going over a reader’s head, when Musk invokes Adams in service of his own grand ambitions. To turn to a CBS interview Musk held in 2019:
OK, look: Douglas Adams was a fan of technological progress and promise, as demonstrated in his embrace of the personal-computer age from the 1980s up through his death in 2001. He was the first-ever European buyer of an Apple Macintosh, he helped conceive of and design various digital games, and was a presence in both the virtual forums of Usenet and the physical conferences held by tech engineers. But to take this aspect of Adams and twist it into Musk’s ‘longtermist’ quest for interplanetary biohumanity is … frankly, a wild stretch. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books explicitly poke fun at power-hungry outer-space species who arbitrarily colonize others’ planets, ultimately to their own detriment. Such destructive, megalomaniacal leaders with delusional goals and narcissistic traits seen as virtues by Musk (and, increasingly, by other CEOs) are lampooned in the iconic, literal-world-destroying character of Zaphod Beeblebrox. Not to mention, Adams was far more concerned with saving endangered animals here on Earth than he ever was with ensuring humans could ably set up shop on Mars.
Musk looking to Adams as guiding philosopher makes even less sense in the context of xAI’s Grok chatbot. Its very existence is certainly meant as a reference to the Deep Thought supercomputer in Hitchhiker’s Guide, which is asked by galactic beings to proffer an answer to the ‘universal question’ of ‘life, the universe, and everything,’ only to come up with a baffling numerical answer after millions of years. But that seems to be pretty much where the comparison ends with regard to Grok’s purpose, which, per the xAI site, will gain ‘real-time knowledge of the world via the ???? platform’ and ‘answer spicy questions that are rejected by most other AI systems.’ In other words, Musk, who imbibes and regurgitates bad memes, has built a machine that is also designed to imbibe and regurgitate bad memes. Adams certainly capitalized on the works of writers like Asimov, but come on, he wasn’t a lazy hack. We can do so much better in paying tribute to the man than to copy another Torment Nexus.
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